DNA technique allows identification of Bosnian victims in mass graves
Stars and Stripes May 11, 2003
SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Hajra Catic’s greatest fear is that her son’s remains will never be found.
The last time she saw Nihad, then 26, was in Srebrenica just before that United Nations-protected area fell into the hands of the Bosnian Serb military on July 11, 1995.
Most of the Muslim men and boys either ran into the woods and tried to make their way to a safe area like her son did, or were rounded up, put in trucks and driven to execution sites.
Catic is one of tens of thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — still looking for family members missing and presumed dead as a result of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
She has been spending her days at the Mothers of Srebrenica association with other women who have the common goal of finding the truth about their loved ones, and giving them a proper burial.
For years, the association would not allow the burial of unidentified victims exhumed from mass graves until their first and last names are known. A plot of land large enough to hold each of the more than 7,500 people killed after the fall of the U.N. safe haven has been set aside by Bosnian authorities.
The first 600 identified victims, all but one men and boys, were buried according to the Muslim tradition at a ceremony on March 31 attended by some 10,000 people, including family members and friends, those still looking for loved ones and international and local officials.
They gathered in Potocari, outside Srebrenica, where the men were rounded up and where a cemetery and a memorial site have been set up.
The first real breakthrough in the process of identifying the remains uncovered from mass graves scattered across the country came when DNA labs opened in Bosnia two years ago.
Until then, in five years, only 73 bodies had been identified using the traditional methods, such as clothing and personal identification recovered on bodies in mass graves.
“Obviously 73 is a little bit slow in five years if you’re going to try to identify 7,000,” said Ed Huffine, director of the Forensic Science Program with the International Commission for Missing Persons, the organization leading the DNA identification program.
DNA identification is about the only hope surviving family members of 31,000 victims in Bosnia and an additional 10,000 in Kosovo have of finding their loved ones.
One reason is that in most cases the bodies were moved from their original mass graves into many smaller secondary ones, separating body parts.
“It’s really gruesome,” Gordon Bacon, the ICMP chief of staff, said as he described how those who committed the crimes often used industrial excavating equipment to take the decomposing bodies out of the mass graves and load them onto trucks so they could be dumped in smaller, harder-to-find graves. Parts of bodies ended up in different locations.
“It’s then very difficult,” Bacon said. “We have to try to identify every single person, try not to miss any individual. Potentially we might be testing 13 bone samples instead of just one.
“Almost all of them are not identifiable without DNA.”
So far, the organization has collected more than 41,000 blood samples, but Huffine expects it will take between 80,000 and 100,000 to have a database large enough to be able to match DNA from all the uncovered remains with that of surviving family members and make positive identifications.
Four labs — in Tuzla, Sarajevo and Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Belgrade in Serbia-Montenegro — are working on assembling the DNA puzzle.
The Tuzla lab takes DNA from the blood of relatives, which is used as a reference to match that taken from the dead. The Sarajevo lab takes DNA from the bones of the remains. The Banja Luka lab works on extracting DNA from bone samples with low levels of DNA, as in cases where bodies were burned or laid in acidic soil for a long time. The Belgrade lab works to confirm with even greater certainty the identity of the identified victim using pre-death evidence, such as old fractures and teeth.
The organization’s budget in 1999, when Huffine joined as its seventh employee, was $1.5 million. Today, there is a lot more work for the current staff of 80 local and international forensics experts. Two-thirds of them work on extracting DNA from bones of the uncovered remains and blood of the survivors, and the remaining third works on exhuming more bodies.
Previously, DNA analysis has been used to identify remains in airplane crashes or large accidents with several hundred victims, but never to identify tens of thousands who have been dead for years.
“Very few people believed it could be done,” Huffine said.
But the results from the past couple of years, resulting in the identification of 2,000 bodies, including the 600 recently buried ones in Srebrenica, have proved it possible.
In one case, with the help of a mother’s DNA, three sons were identified. Their references were then used to determine the father’s identity.
That was not unusual. An identified body that becomes a reference helps identify another 20 to 30 cases per month, Huffine said.
“I believe in the DNA analysis,” said Sehida Abdurahmanovic, whose nephew was buried in March.
She is not alone. After the March burial, the blood collection center saw a big upsurge in visits.
However, there are still no blood samples to compare for some 4,000 exhumed bodies. The organization has been trying to locate families for blood samples for its database. But many have emigrated since the war or are hard to locate.
Whenever Bacon travels abroad, he tries to contact displaced families, educating them on how important it is that they give blood.
The ICMP has a long way to go. It believes it currently has about 2,000 bodies divided into parts in 7,000 body bags from the Srebrenica area. Parts of one person could be in more than two bags.
Bacon believes that at best he and his co-workers have recovered half the missing and are still looking for 25,000, maybe more.
The ICMP expects to work on 10 potential mass graves this season, but Huffine believes there are probably many more.
He expects a decreasing rate of uncovered bodies over time, but could not forecast when the exhumations will end.
“I don’t really know if there will ever come a time when finding bodies will stop,” he said.
The cooperation of the local governments that could tell where other graves are is paramount.
So far, the regional governments have been helpful in both parts in Bosnia: the Federation, with a Muslim-Croat majority, and Serb-dominated Republika Srpska each has a part of its budget allocated for the exhumation and identification process. But more is needed.
The current morgue, damp tunnels under the Tuzla hospital, is not of sufficient quality to handle the bodies that are being recovered.
ICMP workers could use a large space like an aircraft hangar or a warehouse facility to lay out bones and re-associate bodies, thus cutting the number of the expensive DNA tests.
Bacon, an Australian who first came to Bosnia as an aid worker 11 years ago, has lived in the country for 9½ years since. He knows that families of the missing are going through a great deal of trauma and anguish, and wants to give them at least partial peace.
“It’s much better to give them answers,” he said.
More families are getting that. The second large group of remains from Srebrenica will be buried at the memorial site on the eighth anniversary of the massacre on July 11.
“If only this were the end,” said Abdurahmanovic, who believes some 400 will be identified by then and expects the burials will continue at least twice a year for many years to come.
“This is just the beginning of the burials.”
Despite the progress, many family members might never know for sure what happened to their loved ones. “We’re aware that many will never be found,” Catic said.
All she wants is a place to lay flowers and pray, but she fears the remains of her son who tried to make it to Tuzla through the woods have been scattered by animals and damaged by the weather over time.
“If I could only come to even a little finger of my son and husband …” she said.
Asked if identification will bring closure or an end to the healing process, Abdurahmanovic replied: “The end? There is no end. Only when we die.”
Huffine has mixed feelings of sadness for the families and pride in being able to help them get some kind of closure so their future can become more livable.
“It’s still never easy for families to hear officially that their family members are gone,” he said.
Many have told him that the day they officially found out their loved one had been identified was one of the saddest days, but it’s a day they’re grateful they’ve had, Huffine said.
Up until the moment Esefa Alic found out her husband, father and brother-in-law had been identified, she thought that would be a relief.
But then she experienced such sadness — as if they had died that moment.
She still wanted to know what happened to them.
“It’s important we find out the truth, no matter what it is,” said Alic, a mother of two sons and a daughter. “Sometimes I think, at least the children will know where their father’s grave is.”