Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Nameless No Longer

How DNA is identifying the missing in former Yugoslavia
By Jenny Ranson

Six hundred victims of the worst massacre since the second world war will be laid to rest on March 31, at a new memorial cemetery at Potocari in eastern Bosnia.

From this former United Nations base outside Srebrenica, more than 7,500 men and boys were taken to certain death in July 1995.

For the relatives of victims that been found and identified, the burial will be a chance to finally say goodbye and to know that their loved ones have been given the dignity of a marked grave.

Around 40,000 people in the former Yugoslavia disappeared between 1991 and the end of the Kosovo conflict in 2000.

This issue continues to dominate the news agendas across the region. Politicians make capital out of accusations and denials, but what everyone agrees on is that until there is significant progress on finding the missing, there can be no real reconciliation and society cannot move forward.

The International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, was set up in 1996 to work with regional governments and the families of the missing to locate mortal remains and give them back their identities.

Remains have been found in mass and individual graves, or scattered across hillsides and forests. In the ICMP main storage facility in Tuzla, there are 4,500 body bags, although forensic scientists are wary of confirming the actual number of missing people this represents.

The bags in Tuzla contain complete and partial remains. Combining traditional forensic techniques with state of the art DNA analysis, the ICMP scientists try to identify victims by matching bone samples with blood donated by close relatives of the missing.

Once an identity has been established by DNA and confirmed by other evidence - such as age, gender, physical characteristics and clothing - ICMP can apply to the local authorities for a death certificate and the remains can be given back to the family.

Because every individual has a unique DNA profile - with the obvious exception of identical twins - this process is as certain as it is possible to be in establishing identity. ICMP is even getting results from bodies which had been burned or partially destroyed by chemicals.

This is a massive step forward from relying on traditional forensic techniques alone, which can often give false results as clothing may have been exchanged, documents lost or stolen, and victims disfigured.

Combining personal information with the DNA profiles of close relatives - ideally parents, siblings or children - makes for more accurate identification.

But not everyone is coming forward to be profiled. In some cases this is because whole families have gone missing and there is no one left to contact, while others will not take part because they are wary of officialdom and feel that to do so is to admit that a loved one is dead.

ICMP and the local government commissions on the missing work with victims associations to quell fears and encourage people to take part in the programme.

So far there are 70 of these groups throughout the region, including well-known ones such as the Mothers of Srebrenica. In addition to providing support for relatives of the dead and missing, they lobby the authorities for more information regarding the fate of the disappeared. ICMP also encourages their work on human rights issues, aimed at achieving truth and justice. Only then, can full reconciliation be possible.

Each DNA test, whether of bone or blood sample, takes around one week to complete. In a simple case, two samples - a tooth and a long bone - are tested, and the profiles are run against the blood sample database.

If there are two close relatives, such as parents or children, who have already given samples, then the whole process can be completed in two to three weeks at a cost of around 300 US dollars. Then the relatives are notified and a death certificate applied for.

However, not all cases are that simple. To date the scientists and technicians have been working mainly on remains that have been pronounced complete - there are many more bodies which have disintegrated and therefore require more than one set of DNA tests before being identified and returned to their families.

And despite having taken 40,000 blood samples so far, ICMP estimates that at least another 60,000 will be needed before there is a good chance of identifying all the remains which will be analysed over the coming months and years.

Already there are around 3,000 bone samples for which there are as yet no blood matches, and ICMP is running a campaign to trace more families, whether still in the region or in other parts of the world such as the United States, the European Union and Australia.

A recent visit by an ICMP team to the American cities of Chicago and St Louis resulted in 163 new blood samples, and positive matches are already being announced.

The ICMP is funded by 13 countries, of whom the US and the Netherlands are the biggest donors, and also receives some support from private corporations. Funding is assured for 2003, but the work could proceed much faster with more money. The laboratories have capacity for greater throughput, and are limited by the amount of chemical reagents they can buy.

The programme has been hugely successful. There are now three laboratories in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one in Serbia and a joint project in Croatia. ICMP also has offices in Kosovo and Macedonia, and mobile blood collection teams tour the towns and villages.

The first DNA assisted identification in Bosnia-Herzegovina was achieved in November 2001, that of a 15-year-old boy from Srebrenica. Since then the ICMP has announced 2,000 DNA matches and the rate is now running at around 200 per month.

ICMP is continuing to refine the DNA programme. Identifications are now being achieved based not just on immediate relatives but using blood from nephews, cousins and uncles.

In January this year, 600 identified profiles from Srebrenica were fed back into the database, in the hope that these would help achieve more matches. Almost immediately, three brothers were identified, on the basis of the DNA of their dead father combined with blood samples from their mother and sister.

Since each person receives half of their DNA from each of their parents, the process cannot distinguish between siblings, and here conventional forensics may be able to help by comparing their different physical characteristics.

The implications of this project are immense and will affect conflict resolution worldwide.

The consequences of genocide can no longer be hidden. The truth can and will be told, and although the human rights of the dead cannot be restored, at least they can be recognised through the dignity of a marked grave.

Jenny Ranson is the chief of ICMP's press department