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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.

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.