Dead, lost and found



19, Dec 2016

Families of the people lost in the Third Balkan War or Yugoslav Wars still wait and make supreme effort to search for their loved ones and give their family members a burial or perform some ritual which gives them their last tangible connect. This urge and the conviction in bringing the perpetrators to justice keeps this purpose intact for scientists and human rights activists involved in the search.

What do thousands of survivors of this War wait for?

The Third Balkan War was a series of wars and rebellions fought from 1991 to 2001 within what was then known as Yugoslavia.130,000 people died in the War according to The Humanitarian Law Center while the International Center for Justice placed the death toll at 140,000.

  • Tens of thousands of people went missing when the tide of violence devastated Bosnia in 1992.
  • The families who survived execution searched, despaired and lived in fear of the worst with each passing day as they waited.

The lost dead are being found after 24 years thanks to the quest for human rights and justice fuelled by science.

  • The dead are being discovered and pieced together and one place where this happens is in Sanski Most, a town in Bosnia.The Krajina Identification Project, a forensic facility of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), spearheads the efforts to unearth and integrate remains in Sanski Most and Prijedor.
  • This facility among others seeks to locate and unearth the 40,000 people who went missing after the western Balkan wars and assemble the remains uncovered, identify them and return them to their families for burial.

Why are the family members of the missing dead unable to move on?

Since primeval times the practice of interring or cremating or ritualizing the dead has been characteristic of humankind.It is the last tangible connect people have with their loved ones. But the families of those still missing are denied this last connect.

  • People who fled from the dread and devastation returned and rebuilt their lives. Among them are the families of the missing who unflinchingly take on the quest of finding their loved ones.
  • One such survivor is Zijad Bacic. He was fifteen when the perpetrators struck his hamlet Carakovo and one of the three survivors in that round of mass execution. He was fifteen on 25 July 1992 when the massacre happened.
  • His father and most men had been driven into concentration camps and the Serbian death squads had returned to eliminate the women and children. He remembers the horror that followed in detail: the soldiers shouted for the families to come out and once they were assembled outside began to fire on them with machine guns; Zijad saw his mother, brother and sister fall down to their deaths in front of him and ran to hide behind a bush.
  • When the firing finally ceased and the perpetrators left and Zijad came out, he realized only a boy of 10 and a girl of 13 had also survived the massacre. He was deported with several others and went to a refugee camp in Germany. He says, “And I never thought I’d come back here, but I couldn’t sleep without knowing… what happened Where were they I had to find my missing father, all my uncles, and to find where they had buried my mother, younger brother and sister.”

When was the ICMP founded?

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was founded in 1996 at the G7 Summit as the result of an initiative by Bill Clinton. The purpose was to handle the issue of persons who went missing during the different conflicts associated with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

  • Over two decades its purpose to locate the graves of the missing and identify the 30,000 persons buried in them in Bosnia and 10,000 more across the region has been largely accomplished.But 8,000 in Bosnia remain missing.
  • ICMP was established as an “International Organisation in its own right” in December 2014. “For decades the problem of missing persons has been treated as a humanitarian issue, or as a disaster-relief issue, or as a war-emergency issue – but it is now recognized as a systemic global challenge that demands a coherent and effective global response”, said ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger.
  • The ICMP has three forensic facilities; two of them work to piece together and ultimately bury the remains of victims of the fall of Srebrenica.As of 2015, ICMP had been successful in determining the identities of 7,000 victims killed in Srebrenica.
  • In addition to identifying bodies and returning them to their families the ICMP has also been instrumental in criminal prosecutions. As of 2015, 46 people had been put on trial for their involvement in the Srebrenica massacre; among these were 38 people charged with genocide.

Where has science played a crucial role?

Forensic anthropology involves the application of skeletal analysis and techniques in archaeology to solve criminal cases. Forensic anthropologists analyze human remains – especially bones – to identify the dead person, the cause of death and when it took place.

  • This sub-field of physical anthropology had made tremendous advances by the time Bosnia’s war ended in 1995. The Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team formed in 1986 to track down and identify the thousands disappeared under the seven-year junta rule. Renowned anthropologist Clyde Snow wrote: “For the first time in the history of human rights investigations, we began to use a scientific method to investigate violations. Although we started out small, it led to a genuine revolution in how human rights violations are investigated.
  • The magnitude of disaster in Bosnia mandated the same revolution be applied to the search. The ICMP also incorporated the technique of DNA matching.
  • Ian Hanson, one of the leads of the first teams tasked with finding the evidence – 8,100 men and boys murdered and buried – said how forensic investigation disproved the USSR’s claim that more than 20,000 Polish officers massacred at Katyn in 1940 were had been targets of the Germans.Forensic tests in Srebrenica revealed another gruesome truth: parts of the dead had been shifted from where they were originally buried to other graves; sometimes another round of shifting had taken place to conceal evidence!
  • This meant two things – bones and body parts of 8,100 males lay scattered across several sites and while it was impossible to not notice the transport of these remains no one had breathed a word. Hanson said this grave robbing happened to transport remains to places of armed conflict. This would add credence to the Serbs claim that the victims were killed in war, not deliberately executed.
  • ICMP toughened the approach and said this was not only a humanitarian aim but also a fight for justice. Survivors gave near-unanimous support – 90 percent of those who gave blood samples to check for a DNA match consented to permit any results to be used at trial as evidence.
  • From 2000 onward forensic search shifted from traditional methods to DNA matching of samples obtained from the blood of relatives and samples extricated from excavated bones were compared. This second revolution in forensic anthropology led to 52 positive identifications in 2001 from 7 in 1997 and then 522 positive identifications in 2004.
  • ICMP prefers the nuclear short tandem repeat method of identification. A short term repeat consists of units of two to thirteen nucleotides repeated hundreds of times on a DNA strand. Unrelated people almost always have different numbers of repeat units. Ana Bilic, deputy head of ICMP’s laboratories division says the method possesses “higher discriminatory power” than other methods, “and a certainty threshold of 99.95%, sometimes higher, often 99.999 recurring. As close to certain as it is possible to get.
  • Bar codes from the bone and from blood samples are fed into a computer which runs a special “blind” programme to sort them. Bilic points out the indispensability of DNA to establish a match.
  • While the almost always accurate system finds several matches, it also highlights the errors in identification using earlier methods. This means there is a possibility that a family which has buried their loved one many years ago may receive news that the buried is not one of their own. To address the agony of unearthing and replacing the body the Muslim -Croat Federation Missing Persons Commission has a policy: “We will not disturb people in the ground – because it only disturbs the families – unless we have found another body to replace it. We can correct a mistake, but we can’t take a body from a family if there is none to replace it.

Who were the victims of the Third Balkan War?

Yugoslavia, as it was known before this War, was a coalition of six Republics and home to Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Slovenes and others.

  • The demand for independence gained fervor first in Slovenia and Croatia. The largely Serbian Yugoslavian army struck back first in Slovenia and then in Croatia. Thousands died in the latter conflict.
  • The goal of Slobodan Milosevic’s government in Belgrade was to establish a “Greater Serbia” that encroached upon Croatia and Bosnia.Every non-Serb was either killed or deported. Ethnic cleansing drove a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats from their homeland.
  • Slavic Muslims in the east and Bosniak Muslims and Catholic Croats in the north-west Krajina were the first victims of slaughter. Serbs suffered too and Sarajevo, the capital was blown apart by violence.
  • NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs and by that time Croat and Muslim armies had begun to gain dominance. In August 1995 Croatian army attacked areas in Croatia that were controlled by Serbs and several fled.
  • Officials ordered war rape as a part of ethnic cleansing. The policies demanded that Serbian soldiers rape Bosnian women till they impregnated them. The trauma along with poor access to reproductive health care might have also caused serious health risks to the women. Estimates vary from 20,000 to 50,000 women victims, mostly Muslim.

How has the collective search for the missing dead been hampered?

Refusal to cooperate, denial out of fear or indifference and the dark side of fragmentation – each group cared about the loss of its own members and not members of other groups made it initially very difficult for the investigators. ICMP’s arrival was instrumental in turning the scattered search into a systematic, centralized investigation.

  • This rule of silence when body parts were being transported between graves remains the most serious and effective obstacle.Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats could make a big difference by sharing what they know but this does not happen.They’re reluctant to come forward, or scared of intimidation”, says Hanson. He adds,What is the incentive for people to help us when the risk is so high
  • US government cables from 2008 made known by Wikileaks highlight the resistance of the Serb administration, Republika Srpska to the centralized search efforts. According to one cable, a separate Serb-only missing persons’ agency has taken drastic steps such as seizing of material from the central, non-sectarian Missing Persons Institute.

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Tags | Bulkan War ICMP Third Balkan War Yugoslav War Yugoslav Wars