DNA Matches for Missing from Conflicts in the Former Yugoslavia

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has achieved the first results from a campaign in the United States to help identify missing victims of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. The first 33 DNA matches between bone samples of missing individuals found in grave sites in the former Yugoslavia and blood samples taken from relatives of the missing who are now living in North America have been made by ICMP in Bosnia-Herzegovina.Blood collection teams from ICMP spent two weeks in November and December last year collecting blood samples from family members of the missing who are currently living in North America. 19 of the first individuals to have been matched as a result of this campaign were victims of the 1995 fall of Srebrenica.

In twelve eastern and mid-western states, where there is the highest concentration of persons from the former Yugoslavia, the ICMP teams collected a total of 1,362 blood samples from family members, relating to 1,124 missing persons cases. In order for a DNA match to identify mortal remains, DNA profiles of more than one family member must be obtained; the most conclusive combination of family members for a DNA match is the mother and father of a missing person, but blood samples from other family members, including children, can be used. A DNA match within the ICMP system indicates identity with at least 99.95 per cent certainty.

Most of the blood donors – 1,335, relating to 1,110 cases – were from Bosnia-Herzegovina; 15 donors, relating to 4 cases were from Kosovo; 10 donors, relating to 8 cases were from Croatia; and 2 donors, relating to 2 cases were from Macedonia / the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In most of the missing persons cases, at least one family member still living in the former Yugoslavia had already provided a blood sample and had given addresses of relatives in the Unted States or Canada who were needed in order to give an accurate DNA match. However, 37 completely new cases were opened, where no relative had previously opened a missing persons case with ICMP or given a blood sample. While most of the new cases were from Bosnia-Herzegovina, four were from Kosovo.

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. This has led to DNA matches for 9,028 individuals in the former Yugoslavia, to date, with new DNA matches being made 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.

ICMP’s unique expertise in extracting DNA profiles from bones and teeth, many of which have been buried for more than ten years, has also led to its participation in the identification of victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami and last year’s Hurricane Katrina.