Michael Dobbs

Solving a Forensic Puzzle

Solving a Forensic Puzzle


Sixteen years after the end of the Bosnia war, a huge amount of work remains to be done in reconciling the opposing ethnic factions.  If anything, hatreds are growing — but at least in one respect, huge progress has been made.  Investigators have succeeded in finding the remains of approximately two thirds of the 40,000 people who went missing during the fratricidal wars in the former Yugoslavia.

To put that figure into perspective, a decade after 9/11, more than forty per cent of the people killed at the World Trade Center remain unaccounted for.  Primarily using DNA evidence, the New York medical examiner has identified the remains of  around 1,630 of the 2,800 people murdered at Ground Zero.  That in turn is much higher than the number of missing persons identified in other cases of mass murder or genocide, including Latin America or Rwanda.

Much of the credit for this success in the former Yugoslavia should go to the International Commission of Missing Persons, which pioneered the use of DNA evidence for tracking the victims of war crimes.  The organization was founded at the initiative of President Clinton in 1996, as part of the international community’s response to massacres at Srebrenica and elsewhere in the Balkans.  After focusing initially on simply bringing closure to the relatives of the victims, the ICMP has transformed itself into a kind of forensic truth commission.  Its findings have been used to prosecute war criminals in The Hague and establish a basic set of objective facts about events that remain shrouded in mythology.

In the video interview above, ICMP director-general Kathryne Bomberger explains that it would have been impossible to achieve such results without the cooperation of governments of the region, including the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska.  ICMP needed the cooperation of all sides in order to build its database of DNA samples and excavate the remains of the victims, which were scattered in mass graves all over the former Yugoslavia.  In the case of Srebrenica, body parts of the same individual were found in as many as sixteen different locations, after the initial graves were bulldozed and human remains transferred to secondary sites.

"Srebrenica was a huge forensic puzzle," said Bomberger.  "It is amazing that we have got as far as we have in establishing what happened."

The ICMP database includes matches for some 6,600 Bosnian Moslem men killed near Srebrenica, out of a total of 8,000 suspected victims.   It forms a key part of the prosecution case against Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and other Bosnian Serb leaders accused of organizing genocide at Srebrenica. It is scarcely surprising then that Mladic and Karadzic have both sought to discredit the work of the ICMP, arguing that it is biased against the Serbs.  Karadzic has brushed aside an offer from ICMP to select a sample of 300 Srebrenica victims for detailed study, examining how the bone remains were matched up with DNA profiles. 

In fact, the ICMP has been meticulous in collecting bone samples and DNA profiles from all sides in the Bosnian conflict.  While it does not compile statistics on missing people by ethnicity, collection patterns suggest that around 10 per cent are Serb and five per cent Croat.  The remaining 85 per cent are Muslim. Overall, the ICMP data provides an accurate picture of the course of the 4 ½ year war. 

Asked to explain how people could commit such terrible atrocities, Bomberger says that the killing spree in Bosnia got to the point where it became "part of everyday life."  Even today, however, it is impossible to fully explain what took place.  "It is inexplicable, irrational. Propaganda brainwashed people, creating absolute hatred of the other."