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Real-life CSI techniques go global

A Bosnia-based organization is a global leader in the science of identifying human remains using DNA.

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The carefully tagged bags fill shelves that reach from floor to ceiling, lined up row after row in a chilly room the size of a small warehouse. Each of the nearly 4,000 bags holds human remains from a victim of the massacres at Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed when the city fell to Bosnian Serb forces in 1995.

The bones at the Podrinje Identification Project mortuary are incontrovertible evidence of the terrible crimes committed at Srebrenica, for which the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic awaits trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. But they also testify to the painstaking work still being done to help families identify and finally put to rest their loved ones.

The identification project in the former Yugoslavia is the largest such attempt ever undertaken and has made this small, still-fragile nation a global leader in the macabre science of identification using human DNA. Now, other countries from Iraq to America are turning to Bosnia for help identifying the victims of conflict and natural disasters.

Fourteen years after the end of the Bosnian war, efforts to find and identify the around 40,000 missing from conflicts related to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia are still underway. Nearly 30,000 of those people were from Bosnia.

Leading the effort is the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), a non-profit founded at the request of U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1996. The organization began by using traditional forensic methods, such as matching clothing and physical characteristics, to identify bodies found in mass graves. But it was a slow and frustratingly imprecise process.

An ICMP forensic anthropologist analyzes bones at their Lukavac Reassociation Center.
(Jasmin Agovic/Courtesy ICMP)

“There were a lot of similar clothes, some of them handmade from tents, for example,” said Emina Kurtalic, project manager for the ICMP at Podrinje, as she flipped through books containing photographs of personal effects found on the bodies. “Very quickly, we realized that three or four families were identifying the same body.”

In Srebrenica, identification efforts were also complicated by the fact that many bodies were spread across multiple gravesites. In an attempt to hide the existence of mass graves, Bosnian Serbs had dug up some of the original burial sites and moved them to secondary sites, often with bulldozers.

Modern DNA techniques offered new hope to the thousands of families who were still waiting to bury their missing relatives. By the late 1990s, it was possible to extract human DNA from bones and teeth and to match that against blood from living relatives.

But this technology had usually been used in crime cases where the scope of potential matches was small. In order to put it to use identifying the thousands of missing in the former Yugoslavia, the ICMP had to develop a complex computer database that could store and compare tens of thousands of DNA samples.

“This is the only place in the world where something like this has been tried,” said Edin Jasaragic, who heads the unit which coordinates the samples and data, and which oversees the final DNA matching using ICMP’s software. “Identification has never been done on such a large scale.”