The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) announced Wednesday it had passed a major milestone in identifying persons missing from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. ICMP has generated DNA profiles from bone samples for over 10,000 individuals, representing about one third of all the war missing across the region.”This is a major achievement, and unique in the history of identification of missing persons and of forensic science,” explained Adnan Rizvić, Deputy Director of ICMP's Forensic Sciences Department. ” When we started working with DNA – just two years ago – to identify missing persons from the war, people told us it would never be feasible to use DNA on such a large scale, or that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to do what we have now done – for a fraction of that cost,” he said.
The ICMP has obtained DNA profiles on some 12,000 bone samples, but the organization found that often more than one bone sample had come from the same individual. “This is a major problem in trying to identify remains from mass graves, especially from secondary mass graves, where bodies were buried and then reburied as the perpetrators tried to hide evidence of massacres,” said Mark Skinner, Director of the Forensic Sciences Department. “Unfortunately, as a result, the remains have become commingled,” he added.
Identifying the DNA profiles of bone samples is only half of the equation. ICMP has collected nearly 64,000 blood samples from family members, whose DNA profiles are matched against those from the bone samples. Because only identical twins have identical DNA profiles, blood samples from several family members make it easier to find positive DNA matches. The 64,000 blood samples that ICMP has collected so far represent nearly 25,000 missing persons, and ICMP encourages more family members to give blood samples so more individuals can be identified.
ICMP has so far issued DNA “matching reports” for almost 6,000 missing individuals. A DNA matching report means the probability of a bone sample belonging to a missing family member is at least 99.95 per cent. ICMP forwards these matching reports to pathologists who make final, official, identifications. Court pathologists combine the DNA matches with ante-mortem information, such as dental records, medical history and clothing to make their final identifications.
“DNA matching reports make it so much easier for the pathologists to identify remains,” said Mark Skinner. “For Srebrenica cases, for example,” he added, “during the first five years of investigations using traditional pathology identification techniques, just 151 final identifications were made. Now, for the Srebrenica cases alone, there are 500 DNA-led identifications every year.”
ICMP is the only organization in the world that uses DNA profiles on a mass scale to help identify missing persons.