In hotel conference rooms in Dallas, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia, late Wednesday evening, blood collection teams from the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) completed their North American drive to collect samples from family members of persons missing from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.The blood samples – just four small drops of blood collected on absorbent cards – will be analyzed to find the DNA profiles of the relatives for comparison with DNA profiles of remains found in mass graves across the former Yugoslavia in order to identify the missing. A DNA match within the ICMP system indicates identity with a certainty of at least 99.95 per cent.
During their two-week blood collection drive, ICMP teams visited 12 states in the eastern United States and the mid-west, states selected because the highest concentrations of families of persons missing from the former Yugoslavia are currently living there. Many family members traveled for hours to reach the collection points, and family members living in Canada also traveled south to donate blood samples. A total of 1,345 family members donated blood samples during the campaign. The first results are expected by early in the New Year.
“For a variety of reasons, there are many family members of the missing who are not able to travel back to the former Yugoslavia, where we would normally collect blood samples from them,” said Edin Jasaragic, Head of ICMP’s Identification Coordination Division and blood collection team-leader, speaking from Dallas. “We had an extremely positive response to this drive. Although family members living here have in many cases started new lives, it is still very important for them to know what happened to their missing loved-ones,” he said.
ICMP was established in 1996 to help to address the missing persons issue in the former Yugoslavia following the recent conflicts there. In the late 1990s, faced with the task of identifying thousands of remains, ICMP scientists developed a system to identify large numbers of persons using DNA as the first tool in the identification process, rather than to confirm or exclude a “presumptive” identification that had been made using more traditional means. This revolutionary step has led to DNA matches for 8,723 individuals in the former Yugoslavia, to date, with new DNA matches being found daily. Approximately 20,000 persons are still unaccounted for in the region. Some of those have already been exhumed from grave sites and await DNA matches with family members and many more remain in mass graves, which are still being discovered and exhumed.
The ICMP blood collection teams visited Syracuse, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; Erie, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Jacksonville, Florida; Des Moines, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Bowling Green, Kentucky; and St. Louis, Missouri, as well as Dallas and Atlanta.
ICMP’s unique expertise in extracting DNA profiles from bones and teeth, many of which have been buried for more than ten years, and in matching those profiles to reference DNA samples from family members, has also led to its participation in the identification of victims of last December’s Asian tsunami.