Forensic Challenge: How Investigators Found The Yugoslav Wars’ Disappeared – Analysis


Criminal investigators, forensic scientists, ballistics experts and DNA specialists worked together on the colossal task of finding 40,000 people who went missing during the Yugoslav wars and establishing how they were killed.

By Medina Delalic*

In May 1999, in the midst of the Kosovo war, Serbia’s assistant interior minister Obrad Stevanovic made a grim note in his diary while he was having a meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Under the capital-letter heading “PRESIDENT”, Stevanovic wrote: “No body, no crime.”

“The clean-up of the terrain is most important,” Obradovic also noted in his diary, which was used as evidence at Milosevic’s trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY as evidence of a cover-up to hide the bodies of murdered Kosovo Albanians.

Locating and identifying the remains of some 40,000 people who disappeared and were often buried in secret mass graves during the Kosovo war and the other Yugoslav wars of the 1990s initially appeared to be an enormous task.

But although several thousand still remain missing to this day, the majority of the bodies have now been found by investigators using all the scientific techniques at their disposal.

Bodies hidden from investigators

“At the conclusion of the armed conflicts on the territory of the former Yugoslavia – in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in 1995, and in Kosovo in 1999 – the prospects for a sustained and effective effort to account for the tens of thousands of missing persons seemed remote,” Sasa Kulukcija, communication officer at the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, told BIRN.

Fears of possible prosecution also sparked new cover-up efforts. In September and October 1995, after Western countries asked the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity for access to the crime scenes, the perpetrators launched a large-scale concealment operation.

Testifying at the ICTY, Jean-Rene Ruez, who led the tribunal’s investigative team for Srebrenica, the town in eastern Bosnia where genocide was committed against Bosniaks, described it as a “massive effort to hide the bodies”.

Bodies were moved from primary mass graves to secondary and sometimes to tertiary graves, or thrown into caves and rivers. The use of excavators and trucks to move decomposing corpses meant that some were broken up and the remains of a single person could sometimes be found in as many as four locations, kilometres apart.

When the ICMP started its operations in the Western Balkans in 1996, there was little willingness from the authorities to deal with the issue in a professional way.

“There were multiple separate and uncoordinated efforts underway in different parts of the region, applying different methodologies and professional standards. In these circumstances, the number of identifications was small, and progress was slow,” Kulukcija said.

Investigator Ruez told the ICTY that using satellite photographs obtained from the US government, and information provided by witnesses, the first mass grave was exhumed in July 1996, in Cerska, west of Srebrenica.

Archaeologist Richard Wright was shown aerial images by the investigator which indicated where there might be graves in Cerska.

“I then decided which ones we could excavate because of logistical reasons of transport,” Wright testified at ICTY during the trial of the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army’s main staff, Ratko Mladic, for the Srebrenica genocide and other crimes.

After the site was checked for mines and booby traps, a mechanical digger was used to scrape off the surface of the soil until the outline of the grave was uncovered.

Wright explained how the process of finding a grave works: “Archaeologists are looking for a change in texture or colour and then tracking that to see if it makes sense in terms of the outline of a grave,” he testified.

He explained that blueish-green soil is an indicator that bodies have been placed in it. The soil changes colour because of the loss of oxygen atoms from the ferric oxide that is taken by the bacteria that putrefy the bodies.

Crucial evidence from graves

After an excavation, the investigators’ observations are recorded on ‘body sheet’ forms that include significant anatomical features, a description of body posture and the degree of decay and damage to the organism.

Also recorded is the presence of any items such as blindfolds or ligatures can prove that a victim was not a soldier who was killed in battle, or someone who killed themselves.

Testifying at the Hague Tribunal in the case against former Serbian assistant interior minister Vlastimir Djordjevic, forensic anthropologist Jose-Pablo Bayrabar pointed out: “A person found in a grave blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back is not a case of suicide.”

Stopped watches could also indicate the time of the execution, particularly if several of them are seen to have stopped at the same time.

“There was some particular event that caused these watches [found in one mass grave] to stop, not randomly, but in a pattern,” Wright explained in the courtroom at the Mladic trial. He added however that because electronic watches keep going until their battery dies, they have no forensic use.

In the ICTY’s cases, ballistics evidence found in victims’ graves was analysed by experts at the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and ligatures and blindfolds by the Netherlands Forensic Institute.

“We made a description of all the textiles that we received, and we did it on a special set of features. We put those features in the database and then use the auto-filter to filter out the similarities,” Suzanna Maljaars from the Netherlands Forensic Institute, told the ICTY during the Mladic trial.

During the Srebrenica investigation, thousands of pieces of broken green glass were found at one of the secondary mass grave sites, dubbed Cancari Road 3.

“They were all of the same types of glass, from bottles, many of which had still got their crown seals on them even though they were broken, and we found a pile of labels, maybe 300 or 400 labels, which mentioned the Vitinka bottling factory at Kozluk,” testified Wright.

Following this lead, the forensics team went to the bottling factory at Kozluk in 1999, and behind it they found the partially-exhumed primary grave where the bodies had initially been buried before being moved during the attempted cover-up.

In 2000, at the Glogova 1 grave site, broken parts were found from which it was possible to assemble a complete door. The door was found to be from a warehouse in the village of Kravica where Bosmiaks were executed – evidence that established a “direct physical connection” between the grave site and the execution site, according to the ICTY’s judgment in the case against Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic.

Victims’ DNA profiles obtained

Thomas Parsons, who was director of forensic sciences at the ICMP when he testified at the ICTY, told the Hague court that blood samples were “sought and obtained from thousands of family members who are reporting missing persons”.

These were used for DNA matching – checking DNA profiles obtained from human remains is with the DNA profiles of the family members’ reference samples.

“ICMP confirms a DNA match only when there is 99.95 per cent certainty or higher that the remains are related to the family who provided the reference samples,” said ICMP communication officer Kulukcija.

Using the DNA method, the remains of entire families were identified from the Tomasica and Jakarina Kosa mass graves in the municipality of Prijedor in western Bosnia.

“Identification of a person should always rely on scientifically valid methods for identification rather than personal recognition or circumstantial evidence,” Kulukcija stressed. “This is also of vital importance for judicial processes where DNA-based identifications may be used as evidence in criminal cases.”

Failed cover-up in Serbia

Unlike in Croatia and Bosnia, it was possible to investigate crimes in Kosovo directly after the war ended and Yugoslav troops and Serbian police forces withdrew in June 1999.

Between June 1999 and December 2016, some 1,513 excavations were carried out in Kosovo, which resulted in the collection of 6,097 sets of human remains.

Sixty-five percent of them were recovered by ICTY forensic teams in 1999-2000, in which period approximately 2,000 identifications were made using traditional methods of visual identification. In 2001, the ICTY completed the exhumations, which had continued to be carried out by local institutions.

By this time, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had been deposed and a reformist government had come to power in Serbia. In 2001, the ICMP signed an agreement with Serbia, which included assistance in recovering war victims’ remains and using DNA-led identification, which relies on the computer matches between DNA profiles generated from remains and the relatives of the victims.

Professor of forensic medicine Dusan Dunjic was invited in 2001 by the District Court in Belgrade to organise exhumations at a police training centre in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica. The remains of 744 Kosovo Albanians, whose bodies had been transferred from Kosovo in an attempted cover-up, were found in five mass graves and three related locations. Dunjic testified that in the first grave, “at least 36 human corpses were found, people of different genders and ages”.

Some of the remains had been burned, and additional damage to the bodies had been caused by construction machinery that dug the mass graves.

“The combination of these factors led to the exhumation of many remains of missing body parts,” stated the 2002 ICMP report on forensic monitoring activities at Batajnica.

The reconnection of the body parts was left for DNA analysis and the work of forensic anthropologists to resolve. “Then we compared all the data in order to confirm that the corpse that had a certain number really belongs, by name and surname, to a specific person,” testified Dunjic.

The remains of ethnic Albanians killed in the Kosovo war were found in Petrovo Selo in eastern Serbia and in Lake Perucac on the River Drina at the border between Bosnia and Serbia as well as at the police training centre in Batajnica.

After a preliminary identification, which involved families looking at photographs of clothing in an attempt to identify it as belonging to their relatives, the first batch of human remains was sent home to Kosovo in November 2002.

A forensic inspection was carried out at a mortuary in the town of Orahovac in western Kosovo as sort of a second autopsy on the bodies found at the Batajnica, Petrovo Selo and Lake Perucac mass grave sites in Serbia.

Examining skeletal remains requires the attention of forensic anthropologists, who are focused on obtaining information from bones and teeth, while the focus of forensic pathologists is on gathering information useful in determining the identity of the victim.

“On some occasions, you could find multiple body parts that belonged to more than one individual in the bag, although the report stated that there was only one person with a name. Obviously, in that situation you could not just simply give the remains back to the alleged family, knowing that they were more than one person and you did not know who the other person was,” forensic anthropologist Jose-Pablo Baraybar, who at that time was head of the missing persons and forensics office at the United Nations mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, testified at the ICTY.

In the 744 cases from Batajnica, the cause of death was not determined at the first autopsy. However, “after forensic inspection, 506 of those cases showed a cause of death”, explained Baraybar. The ICTY’s trial chamber in the Djordjevic case accepted the explanation of Baraybar that in many cases “the most probable cause of death could have been established by distinguishing blunt force trauma from gunshot wounds, having regard to the effect of the impact of each of these on the bones”.

In 2022, the ICMP and the Missing Persons Group, a body that brings together institutions in charge of missing persons issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia, launched a regional database of active missing persons cases from conflicts on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

The database contains 11,383 records of missing persons and is intended to make it easier for war victims’ families to locate the remains of their loved ones.

More than 70 per cent of the missing persons cases from the 1990s wars have now been resolved. But as several thousand bodies still remain unaccounted for, the search for the grave sites and the work of forensic investigators continues.

Medina Delalic is a former journalist, investigator with the ICTY defence team, and author.

For detailed information about mass grave sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia, see BIRN’s database, Bitter Land.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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