Review of Unidentified Remains in BiH Mortuaries

At the end of May, a team of experts working under the jurisdiction of the Central Bosnia Canton Prosecutor’s Office began the process of case review and anthropological analysis of unidentified remains associated with Travnik mortuary. Relevant authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina at every level are conducting a thorough review of all 12 mortuaries[1] in the country to establish why a large number of bone samples sent for testing do not match the genetic profiles of nearly 9,000 complete sets of reference samples provided by more than 27,000 family members with missing relatives.

At the end of 2012 the Missing Persons Institute determined that there were 3,279 cases of human remains in mortuaries across Bosnia and Herzegovina that had the status of NN, that is, they were unidentified.[2] Since June 2013 the NN Working Group has reviewed nearly 1,300 NN cases in the mortuaries at Sutina, Nevesinje, and Gorazde, with ongoing reviews in Visoko and the Commemorative Centre Tuzla. The countrywide initial review (Phase 1) is scheduled to be completed by the middle of 2016. As of the end of January 2015, there had been 33 new identifications and 166 re-associations undertaken concerning cases in Sutina, Nevesinje and Gorazde.

A Final Report will be published when the review process is completed, detailing the findings. This will be made available publicly to allow prosecutors, families of the missing, the relevant authorities and others to decide on next steps.

The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is similar to other countries in the Western Balkans affected by conflict.  In the Pristina mortuary for example there are approximately 400 mortal remains relevant to the Kosovo conflict for which ICMP has genetic profiles, but which we cannot match to approximately 1,800 full sets of blood samples that were provided by close to 6,000 family members.   This information is detailed in ICMP’s Stocktaking Report (link) on the Kosovo conflict, which was published in 2010.  ICMP intends to publish an update to that report in the near future.  In addition, Croatia has a similar problem regarding the conflicts of the 1990’s relevant to Croatia.

There are several reasons why remains stored in mortuaries in Bosnia and Herzegovina may not match blood reference samples provided by families of the missing. One simple reason is that no reference samples have been offered – some individuals who were killed in the conflict may not have had living relatives; in other cases, relatives may have decided for reasons of their own not to pursue the process of accounting for a missing family member by submitting a blood sample. And, of course, some sets of remains may date from a time period other than the 1990s, the Second World War, for example.

A more common reason is likely to concern families who have accepted early identification by non-DNA means. Since an identification was made, there would have appeared to be no need to submit blood samples. However, if this early (non-DNA) identification was actually a misidentification, then the body that is genuinely associated with that family might now be resting in a mortuary. At the same time, blood samples provided by the family that is actually associated with the misidentified body will not match mortuary remains, since the body that would match these samples has already been buried.

There are also cases where not enough blood samples have been submitted. Some cases of missing persons require a blood sample from only one family member to make a conclusive match, while other cases may require blood samples from more than three family members. However, on average, ICMP has found that having blood samples from three close family members will usually result in a conclusive DNA match, assuming the DNA profile of the missing has been typed.

Additionally, in a small number of cases, remains have been so badly damaged that it is not possible to extract a sufficient amount of DNA to compare with the DNA in blood reference samples.

The careful review of all of remains currently kept in BiH mortuaries that is now underway involves prosecutors, pathologists, the MPI, and police and crime technicians making an inventory of body bags and comparing database information with the case file documentation, as well as conducting an anthropological examination of the remains. DNA samples will be extracted if this has not already been done, or if there appears to be good reason for taking new samples. The aim is to determine a status for each case and make recommendations to the Prosecutor regarding steps that need to be taken in order to complete the case. Recommendations for facility organization, case management and standards of work are also made.

One complicating factor that has been revealed through the review process is that body bags that have been stored for years in mortuaries routinely contain multiple sets of remains, often from more than one individual. On average ICMP forensic experts have found 2.2 sets of skeletal remains per body bag reviewed. A total of 43 percent of cases required an immediate change of case status due to the inventory review, and 10 percent had not apparently been sampled before.

There are many cases that already have DNA profiles, or that received a new DNA profile after new DNA testing, but do not match reference DNA samples. It is estimated from the work already undertaken that approximately 40-50 percent of the cases in facilities may fall into this category. Some 10 percent of all cases examined appear to be historical; that is there is evidence that they date to the Second World War or are from cemeteries and pre-date the conflict of the 1990s. However many unmatched cases do relate to conflict-era graves. Therefore, more cases could be closed, upon further investigation and determination if additional family reference samples may be available and of use in particular cases.

The review of the BiH mortuaries, which is being carried out under the jurisdiction of the relevant Prosecutors Offices with the full cooperation of the police and civil authorities, the Missing Persons Institute and ICMP, is important because it can bring closure to a substantial number of families who still, twenty years after the conflict, do not know the fate of a loved one.

It is also important because it will help to resolve anomalies in the overall search for the missing, especially if it can result in misidentifications being corrected. And there is a practical issue: this involves the management and maintenance of cases and mortuary facilities, which of course entails a budget allocation. It is crucial, at a time when BiH public finances are stretched, that funds allocated to mortuary facilities are used in the best possible way, and this means eliminating the cost of housing remains that can be identified and buried with dignity and respect so many years after the conflict.

[1] 1.Memorial Ossuary Banja Luka 2. Memorial Ossuary for Odžak, Orašje 3. City Cemetery “Prahulje,” Nova Bila, Travnik 4.JKP Visoko Mortuary 5.Memorial Ossuary “St. Mark,” Miljevici, Sarajevo 6.Identification Centre, Goražde

7.Sutina Mortuary, Mostar 8.Memorial Ossuary, Nevesinje 9.Đurđevak Mortuary, Modriča

10.Tuzla Commemorative Centre, Tuzla 11.Podrinje Identification Centre – PIP Tuzla 12.Krajina Identification Centre – KIP “Sejkovaca,” Sanski Most

[2] NN, in Latin Nomen Nominandum, meaning: Name Hitherto Unknown