Real-life CSI techniques go global

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.”

The organization is now being asked to assist in identifications from conflict and natural disasters elsewhere in the world. They have helped identify bodies from Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Asian tsunami, and are working with the governments of Iraq and Columbia to help them develop the capacity and systems to identify missing people.

In Iraq, where estimates of the missing range from 250,000 to nearly 1 million — from the crimes committed during Saddam Hussein's rule through the current conflict — the ICMP has been assisting the government since 2004. In 2008, they opened an office in Baghdad to provide training on the exhumation of mass graves and have been asked by the country's Ministry for Human Rights to adapt their identification database for use there. Iraqi officials say the experience of Bosnia proves that identifying the missing on a large scale is possible.

From exhumation to identification, the process is a long and expensive one. In Bosnia, the government conducts the exhumations with technical assistance from ICMP experts.

But the remains are processed by forensic anthropologists at ICMP mortuary facilities like the one at Podrinje. There the bones are cleaned and catalogued, clothing and personal effects washed and tagged. A small piece of bone or a tooth is extracted for DNA analysis.

At the coordination unit, housed in an old socialist-era sporting facility in Tuzla, the samples are cleaned and processed before being sent to the DNA lab in Sarajevo, where the DNA is extracted and 15 different DNA markers are mapped. That information is then sent back to Tuzla, where it is processed by the database to see if there are any matches.

But even with all the best technology, some families will never have complete closure.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that we will find every single missing individual,” said Jasaragic.

Some bones yield no DNA. Nor does DNA always lead to conclusive matches. For example, it cannot always distinguish between siblings, so families that are missing more than one child many never know which of them they have buried.

And because so many bodies were dismembered and scattered, many families face the agonizing choice of burying incomplete remains or waiting in hopes that more will be found later.

Since 2001, the organization has collected DNA profiles from the blood samples of more than 87,000 living relatives of the missing and have tested those against more than 30,000 bone samples from nearly 19,000 bodies in what is by far the world’s largest DNA-assisted identification project.

Altogether, the ICMP has identified the remains of nearly 16,500 missing people from around the world, about 15,000 of them from the former Yugoslavia. Of those, 6,260 disappeared during the fall of Srebrenica.