HMDT Blog: Srebrenica Memorial Day: Identifying Bosnia’s missing thousands

Adam Boys, Director of International Programs at the International Commission on Missing Persons, has worked in Bosnia since 1994 and to mark Srebrenica Memorial Day discusses his organisation’s difficult work to identify the remains of the Bosnian War’s missing dead and their surviving families.

HMDT Blog: Srebrenica Memorial Day: Identifying Bosnia’s missing thousands

Warning: this blog contains graphic descriptions of the process of identifying mass graves.

 In 1996 the US President Bill Clinton established the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) following the end of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in the light of reports of up to 12,000 people missing. His concern was that the unresolved fate of the missing could present a barrier to efforts to secure the post-conflict security situation especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina where thousands of NATO troops had been deployed to ensure the separation of formerly warring parties.

ICMP started as a high level political organisation whose chairmen (former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and then Senator Bob Dole) invited a group of Commissioners including the UK’s Lord Carrington and later Michael Portillo to intervene directly with the leaders of the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Their task was to support the international community’s post-conflict efforts to establish peace in the region by demanding the release of information on the location of the missing.

These efforts and the work of the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) started to bear fruit. Official records, witness statements and aerial imagery were all used to try to determine the location of mass and other clandestine graves throughout Bosnia. Expert teams of archaeologists were deployed to hundreds of sites and the remains of those who had been killed and hidden mainly as a result of a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ were gradually brought to light.

Initial efforts to identify the recovered remains ranged from the reasonable but under-resourced, to the barbaric. At one extreme a small group of overwhelmed Bosnian pathologists tried to cope with the thousands of cases being recovered each year by using traditional methods of identification. At the other extreme, well-meaning organisations invited already traumatised family members to view the remains of recovered bodies to see if they could recognise anything that might identify them as relatives.

Srebrenica’s 8,000 missing

Initial efforts were met with some success. But, it was the caseload from the fall of Srebrenica that caused these initial efforts to fail. And it was because of Srebrenica that ICMP developed the largest DNA identification project ever undertaken.

The reason was the extensive efforts that were employed to hide or relocate the bodies of those killed in order to cover up the genocide. Taken from sites of execution, the bodies were buried in large primary graves in July 1995. Three months later, these primary graves were robbed with heavy earthmoving machinery and the contents reburied in multiple secondary mass graves. Sometimes these secondary graves were again disturbed and the contents buried in tertiary graves as the perpetrators attempted to cover their tracks.

The bodies underwent a process that is rather euphemistically termed ‘commingling’. The diggers and bulldozers tore the skeletal remains apart, breaking bones and destroying evidence that might have been used to make identifications or determine cause and manner of death.

Faced with this carnage, the pathologists in charge managed to identify only a tiny proportion of the thousands of bodies that were being recovered. In the first five years after the war, less than 100 of Srebrenica’s missing could be identified. Mortuaries became overwhelmed with the remains of the dead and hospital staff went on strike as working conditions became intolerable. Eventually, the Bosnian authorities started to store the unidentified remains in disused salt mines, which then became overrun with rats and other vermin.

The impact of DNA identification

It was because of the initial difficulties that the ICMP developed a DNA-led identification process. We began to gather blood reference samples from thousands of relatives, most of whom were living as refugees in their own or in other countries. Over 90,000 family members (over 22,000 for Srebrenica alone) registered their determination to find the truth by providing a blood sample to ICMP.

Against a growing database of genetic profiles from family members, ICMP then compared the genetic profiles of bones recovered from mass graves and in November 2001 we made the first match: a 15-year-old boy from Srebrenica. After that, the process started to really take off and tens and even hundreds of identifications were being made each month.

Having pieced together almost 7,000 of the 8,000 men who disappeared in July 1995, it is possible to accurately tell the tale of what happened to the men and boys. Indeed, Srebrenica has become the best-documented war crime in history and the forensic evidence of the burial and reburial of evidence is irrefutable. Indeed, the Chief Prosecutor of ICTY recently said: “ICMP is the international community’s best weapon against denial that the genocide happened.”

Despite representing one-fifth of the total missing from the former Yugoslavia, ICMP’s laboratories have consistently devoted nearly 70% of their capacity to the Srebrenica caseload. This is precisely because of the efforts to re-exhume and re-conceal. In many cases, the still incomplete remains of a single man have been put together from parts found in four and even five different mass graves.

The list of the missing is still incomplete but now stands at over 32,000 for Bosnia with another 10,000 missing from related conflicts in Croatia and Kosovo. In total, over 27,000 people have been located and identified, with over 17,000 identified using ICMP’s DNA system. Included in this number are 6,924 of Srebrenica’s 8,000 missing men and boys. This accuracy has left the deniers of genocide with very little room for manoeuvre and their arguments are increasingly seen as discredited and politically motivated.

Where does the ICMP go from here?

Much remains to be done. A thousand men are still missing from the Genocide in Srebrenica and some 14,000 from the rest of Bosnia and from the other conflicts. New techniques are now being employed to search for previously undiscovered graves and we are confident that many, if not most, of the remaining missing can be found, identified and then buried with dignity. While it is impossible to expect families to ever fully recover from what happened, at least we can bring to an end the terrible uncertainty of not knowing where their loved ones lie, bringing them a sense of closure.

ICMP has proved that the missing from conflicts can be found and identified using modern techniques and operating within a rule of law system. By including families and helping them to assert their right to proper investigation, by developing rule of law institutions in post-conflict countries, and by ensuring that governments take responsibility for what has happened, ICMP’s work has forever banished the notion that large numbers of unidentified missing persons are the inevitable consequence of conflict.

The UK has given extraordinary support to ICMP with visits to our offices by numerous British politicians all of who have followed up their visits by writing or speaking about ICMP. In particular, Brooks Newmark MP, Lord Jack McConnell and Stephen Williams MP have brought ICMP’s work to a wide audience within Parliament, Government and beyond.

Rt Hon William Hague recently appointed Alistair Burt MP as ICMP Commissioner as part of his strong support for the organisation as it becomes a resource that can be used more widely across the globe and in any situation – war, disaster, migration, human trafficking – where there has been large scale loss of life.

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The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in the field of Holocaust and genocide awareness and commemoration. It explores contemporary issues surrounding hatred and discrimination, and how we can address these by reflecting on the past and applying lessons to the present day. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who will provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced what it is like to live under state-sponsored persecution. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.

Photo credit: ICMP