A visit to the Srebrenica morgue

The shelves of the missing person "identification facility" in Tuzla are stacked with plastic body bags containing the remains of victims of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. On the shelves above are brown paper bags packed with whatever they had on them at the time of their execution — a bloodstained t-shirt, a pair of ...

The shelves of the missing person "identification facility" in Tuzla are stacked with plastic body bags containing the remains of victims of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. On the shelves above are brown paper bags packed with whatever they had on them at the time of their execution -- a bloodstained t-shirt, a pair of sneakers, handcuffs made out of rough white string, a wallet, perhaps a crumpled identification card. Assembling the bones, the belongings, and linking them to named individuals has been a protracted, painful process that has already taken fifteen years, involving a small army of forensic anthropologists, genetics experts, and international investigators.

Defense lawyers representing the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, General Ratko Mladic, have announced their intention to challenge the prosecution claim that "over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys" were killed at Srebrenica during the final, gruesome stage to the four-year war in Bosnia. They argue that the indictment against Mladic lacks specifics on individual cases, and have requested complete DNA evidence on the victims. The defense argument is based on the assumption, "no body, no crime," but it is a line of reasoning that is very unlikely to hold up in court.

The fact is that the Srebrenica massacre -- or "genocide," as it is described in the indictment -- is probably the best-documented war crime in history. Thanks to the efforts of the International Commission on Missing Persons, founded in 1996 as part of the international response to Srebrenica, we now know a vast amount about the logistics of the mass execution. By tracing the bones of individual victims to secondary gravesites all over eastern Bosnia, ICMP has shown how Mladic's men attempted to cover up the crime after the original burial sites were discovered by American spy satellites. The original sites were bulldozed. In some cases, the remains of a single individual ended up scattered across as many of three or four secondary sites, all over eastern Bosnia.

The shelves of the missing person "identification facility" in Tuzla are stacked with plastic body bags containing the remains of victims of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. On the shelves above are brown paper bags packed with whatever they had on them at the time of their execution — a bloodstained t-shirt, a pair of sneakers, handcuffs made out of rough white string, a wallet, perhaps a crumpled identification card. Assembling the bones, the belongings, and linking them to named individuals has been a protracted, painful process that has already taken fifteen years, involving a small army of forensic anthropologists, genetics experts, and international investigators.

Defense lawyers representing the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, General Ratko Mladic, have announced their intention to challenge the prosecution claim that "over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys" were killed at Srebrenica during the final, gruesome stage to the four-year war in Bosnia. They argue that the indictment against Mladic lacks specifics on individual cases, and have requested complete DNA evidence on the victims. The defense argument is based on the assumption, "no body, no crime," but it is a line of reasoning that is very unlikely to hold up in court.

The fact is that the Srebrenica massacre — or "genocide," as it is described in the indictment — is probably the best-documented war crime in history. Thanks to the efforts of the International Commission on Missing Persons, founded in 1996 as part of the international response to Srebrenica, we now know a vast amount about the logistics of the mass execution. By tracing the bones of individual victims to secondary gravesites all over eastern Bosnia, ICMP has shown how Mladic’s men attempted to cover up the crime after the original burial sites were discovered by American spy satellites. The original sites were bulldozed. In some cases, the remains of a single individual ended up scattered across as many of three or four secondary sites, all over eastern Bosnia.

According to ICMP project manager Emina Kurtalic (see video above), investigators have now confirmed with families the identities of more 5,600 victims through their DNA samples. (The mass burial site at Srebrenica contains 5,137 graves so far.) The identities of another 1,000 or so "missing persons" from Srebrenica have been confirmed through DNA, but the cases remain open, pending the discovery of further remains. (Families will often wait until most of the remains have been recovered before making a formal "identification" as they do not want to have to go through the anguish of burying their loved ones multiple times.)

Interviews with relatives suggest that the total number of Srebrenica victims is in the region of 8,100. In addition to the 6,600 already identified through DNA, this figure includes others identified through traditional means (recognition of the body, clothes etc), and other individuals reported missing but not yet found.

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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