Report from Sarajevo: Identifying the Missing

Report from Sarajevo: Identifying the Missing

Two UCLA students in Bosnia-Herzegovina visit the morgue in Tuzla where missing person specialists seek to unravel the truth about the Serb massacres of Muslim Bosnians in Srebrenica in 1995.

[The following article comes from two UCLA students doing research in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in part to gather lessons for the current resonstruction in postwar Iraq. While there they are working for the Office of the High Representative, the international civilian authority implementing the peace agreements signed in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 ending the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Their trip has been partially funded by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.]

By Alicia Stevenson and Jonathan Dotan

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina --May 29. Zlotan Sabanjovic of the International Commission for Missing Persons greeted Jonathan and I with a friendly smile. "Let's start here." He opened a thick yellow vault door. We entered a refrigerated morgue the size of a small airport hanger, with white bags stacked to the ceiling. "This is where we store the bodies exhumed from the mass graves outside Srebrenica. Over 4,000 body bags are here, most with remains of more than one person."

As a history major at UCLA, I have read books, attended lectures, and watched movies about genocide. But nothing could prepare me for the smell of a "crime against humanity"-- decayed bones, canvas bags, and dirty laundry. The stench was oppressive, it lingered on our clothes for hours.

Jonathan and I set out this spring to learn about nation building in Bosnia and understand what the lessons here could mean for Iraq. As with any postwar conflict, past massacres and human-rights abuses need to be reconciled alongside the push for reconstruction.

In visiting ICMP's operation we got a chance to see some of the world's leading scientists pursue truths long-obscured by the vagueness of mass graves. Thus far, they have achieved tremendous results in dealing with Bosnia's worst atrocities. Surely, they will be the model to follow in Iraq.

*    *    *

We left for Tuzla early in the morning and traveled quickly to avoid the summer storms moving eastward. Our long drive ended unexpectedly as we pulled into a parking lot in front of what appeared to be a giant mall in the center of town. Adnir, our driver, walked us inside and then turned around, saying that he would wait for us in the car. Standing in the foyer we deduced that the building was really an abandoned sports stadium. Lifeless and hollow, it was a strange place to house the Tuzla office of the ICMP.

Eight years before, the sports center was a shelter to thousands of Bosnian women and children who managed to flee a brutal Serb attack on the village of Srebrenica. Men were noticeably absent from the crowd. When the war ended, 8,000 husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers from Srebrenica remained missing.

Mapping their fate to the remains found in postwar exhumations has become the flagship operation of the ICMP, whose mandate covers all of the Balkans.

Jonathan and I met with Adnan Rizvic, Head of ICMP's Identification Coordination Program. Adnan is a warm and optimistic man, but seems physically worn from confronting the aftermath of genocide on a daily basis. "The mission of the ICMP" he began, "is to help find the truth. The truth gives families closure and restores dignity to the deceased."

For the past two years, Adnan has led five labs in compiling a comprehensive database of DNA profiles from remains exhumed in the former Yugoslavia. Simultaneously, field officers traveled through the region to collect some 40,000 blood samples from families with missing relatives.

"ICMP's forensic revolution" Adnan explained, "is that we begin the identification process with the DNA. With computers we compare the DNA profiles of the remains against the DNA profiles of the families to generate cold matches."

Cold matches alone can't close a case, but they put investigators way ahead of the game. With a match, teams of anthropologists and criminologists can focus their efforts to specific remains. Carefully, they begin to piece together skeletal remains, clothing, and personal items to confirm the identity of a missing person.

The co-operation of the entire Balkans is pivotal to completing identifications. All the labs are run by nationals and are supported by their respective governments. Given the sensitivity of ethnicity, the DNA matching process is labeled and tracked by bar codes. Scientists have no idea of the background of the samples and profiles they are handling and can complete their work without bias. Once a match is made, region specific teams of forensic scientists and caseworkers actually use ethnicity and the background of the victim to aid their work to close the case.

Since their operations began in 2001, the ICMP has been instrumental in closing over 1000 missing person cases. In comparison, the traditional forensic methods used in the six years prior to ICMP yielded only 150 identifications. The numbers speak for themselves -- DNA matching has drastically expedited the identification process.

Beyond the Balkans, ICMP achievements have been widely recognized abroad. After September 11, 2001, an FBI database technician from New York flew across the world to speak with Adnan about the ICMP database and the process of identification.

Adnan leaned back in his old swivel chair, "The world isn't perfect. Unfortunately the DNA matching will have to be used in many situations." The conversation became uncomfortable as thoughts of the future utility of ICMP's technology hung in the air.

*    *    *

Day by day in Iraq, coalition forces are finding hard evidence of the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. Iraqis' pent up anguish has often led them to ransack graves in an attempt to bring their relatives' remains home. After years of decay the remains they find are hardly identifiable.

Similar to the recently found mass gravesites in Basra, Kirkuk, and Muhammad Sakran, the Srebrenica gravesites were not secured until after the war. There was of course some looting, but a more sinister effort was made to conceal the sites and exclude them from history. As representatives met in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 to work out a peace agreement, the Serb army employed bulldozers to transfer hundreds of bodies from Srebrenica to other locations.

Katherine Bomberger, government relations director for ICMP, spoke very candidly about the Serbs' attempts to cover up what happened in Bosnia. "To this day some Serbs maintain that only 200 died and that most of them were SDS [Serbian Democratic Party] soldiers." In the past, this kind of political rhetoric was hard to combat: the fog of peace goes hand in hand with the manipulation of history.

However, with DNA technology, ICMP has been the first organization to reassociate remains between mass gravesites. This breakthrough analysis has provided a far clearer picture of what happened in Bosnia. As Bomberger told us, one of the "shining moments" of ICMP was their ability to associate Srebrenica remains from all over the region, including a mass gravesite found in Serbia proper.

The hard figures of ICMP are a beacon of truth. They turn the old adage upside down: dead men do tell tales.

*    *    *

The ICMP's Podrinje Identification Project (PIP) was smaller than I imagined. An agile staff of 10 people staff the operation. The project's facility, which houses the Srebrenica morgue, is in a small unassuming building with a pale yellow aluminum fa├žade. There is no waiting room. As we walked through the front door we saw a skeleton lying on a medical examination table.

After meeting PIP project manager Zlotan Sabanjovic and walking through the morgue, Jonathan and I approached a team of anthropologists working with the skeletal remains. A young Canadian doctor was eager to explain the layout of the bones on the table. "You are looking at at least two different identities here, all these bones were found in the same grave. We know the identity of one, but we are trying to find out how many people are represented here." Meanwhile another doctor was working on connecting a clavicle to its neighboring bones. I began to visualize my own arm, and the movement of my clavicle. The raw mechanics of the human body made me feel weak and vulnerable.

In the next room we watched a criminologist prepare the clothing for photo documentation. Carefully he laid down the sweaters, pants, and shoes neatly on the floor. Jonathan and I exchanged glances. The limp garments had clearly belonged to a young boy. Unlike the morgue or the anthropologist's work, there was nothing clinical about the clothes. Jonathan looked uncomfortable. All of a sudden the massacre became very real.

*    *    *

Cold, nauseous, and speechless we waited for Zlatan to soften the blow. As project officer, Zlatan was accustomed to the morgue, but as a former case manager, he was able to sense that we were suffering. He invited us into the front office to have a hot cup of coffee.

We sat with Zlatan and two case managers, Enver and Asta, at PIP's front office a block away from the morgue. I could sense that both Enver and Asta had been through hundreds of hours of consoling families - their calm tone and comforting gestures gave a warm resonance to our conversation.

Jonathan and I asked them to give us a picture of what it's like to break the news to a family, that their relative has been identified.

Enver, who has been a case manager for many years, responded, "We don't use the phone to tell them the truth, we come to their house. We start by saying something like 'I like your curtains, yard, etc.' Then we tell them the news. Sometimes it takes many visits, sometimes it takes one."

Asta explained to us that once the case managers receive the DNA match, it can take as little as two weeks to close a case. After 8 years, case managers give the families the final answer, destroying any remaining hopes of their loved one returning.

"Many families request a piece of clothing, or the remains of their loved one so they can have some evidence - something more than a death certificate." Asta said as he opened a sealed envelope, and removed a watch that a family had requested. Looking at the watch's rusty band and scratched glass face, I imagined the journey it had taken to finally reach this office.

Last March there was a mass burial for 600 identified victims of Srebrenica. This year there are plans to have another mass burial in July, marking the eight-year anniversary of the massacre.

These events restore the dignity of the deceased, and finally give families closure. Both are necessary processes of reconstruction in any post-conflict area, including Iraq.

As we concluded our conversation with Zlatan, Asta, and Enver, a family, presumably a mother and two sons, walked in. Enver bid us a polite farewell, excused himself from the conference table, and solemnly escorted the guests into his office, closing the door behind them. Minutes later, he returned briefly to pick up the watch and its envelope off of the table.

Published: Thursday, June 12, 2003