Missing Persons from the Conflict in Croatia


Ahead of the publication of ICMP’s Stocktaking Report on Croatia, Matthew Holliday offers a brief overview of technical efforts undertaken by the authorities in Croatia and ICMP to account for more than 6,000 persons missing at the end of the early 1990s conflict.

In December 2016, ICMP provided the latest set of DNA identification reports to the Croatian Government Commission on Detained and Missing Persons, bringing the number of missing from the Croatian conflict that have been identified through the exchange of anonymized DNA profiles between ICMP and the Commission to more than 600. This cooperation is crucial: more than twenty years after the conflict in Croatia, the issue of the missing – including fulfilling the right of families of the missing to truth and justice – remains a complicating factor in efforts to strengthen the rule of law and promote bilateral cooperation between Zagreb and Belgrade.

ICMP’s role in accounting for the missing from the armed conflict in Croatia has been to ensure an impartial, non-discriminatory process so that missing persons are searched for and identified regardless of ethnicity, nationality, or religion and regardless of the victim’s role, either as a combatant or a civilian, or allegiance. ICMP has moreover encouraged the Croatian authorities to use modern forensic methods, including DNA testing and data systems, as the optimal way of identifying the missing and protecting the rights of surviving families.

In the process, more than two-thirds of the missing have been accounted for. The majority have been identified using traditional methods of presumptive identification, which, however, increases the risk of error. With the exception of DNA work conducted under a joint project implemented by ICMP and the Croatian Directorate of Detained and Missing, DNA has been used either to confirm a previous traditional identification or to identify missing persons when traditional methods are incapable of assisting in human identification.

According to the Croatian Directorate of Detained and Missing, more than 6,000 people were unaccounted for as a result of the 1991-1995 conflict in Croatia. The Directorate reports that between 1995 and December 2016, 5,077 bodies were exhumed and 4,163 identified (please see Table 1 below). Of the cases that have been recovered, 914 were classified as unidentified or NN, as of January 2017. All NN cases are held at the ossuary facilities in Zagreb and Osijek. The number of persons still reported missing was 1,962.

Table 1.

Years Exhumed Identified
1995-1999 3,190 2,734
2000-2004  920   494
2005-2009  460   423
2010-2014  415   399
2015-2016    92    113
Total 5077 4163

Identification methodology 

The identification methodology used in Croatia has evolved in the wake of advances in DNA-identification techniques. Between 1995 and 2002/3, the focus was on traditional forensic methods. Since 2002/3, both traditional forensic methods and DNA analysis have been employed. The use of DNA by the Croatian authorities, with the exception of cases that fall under a joint project with ICMP, is to confirm a presumptive identification. Cases that fall under the joint project with ICMP were part of a DNA-led process of identification.

Where identifications are carried out using traditional methods, misidentifications may take place, despite the authorities’ best efforts. The Department of Forensic Medicine and Criminology of the University of Zagreb estimates that 65 percent of identifications in Croatia were made using traditional methods of presumptive identification – that is without the assistance of DNA analysis. It is especially difficult to achieve accurate results by traditional methods when applied to large numbers of mortal remains recovered long after death in complex commingled sites. The extent of the misidentification problem in Croatia is unclear. Misidentifications have a compound effect on efforts to account for all the missing. When a body is misidentified, the family that has incorrectly received the body in many instances will not have provided family DNA reference samples. Therefore, the actual mortal remains of their family member, if located, will remain unidentified; and the family whose missing relative’s remains were released incorrectly to another family will not have resolution through a match to reference DNA samples that they have provided. A higher proportion of misidentifications may contribute to an increased number of unidentified mortal remains in mortuaries.

Addressing the issue of unidentified remains and the correlated issue of possible misidentifications is critically important if the process of accounting for the missing from the conflict in Croatia is to continue moving forward.

Cooperation with ICMP

Since 1996, Croatia has cooperated extensively with ICMP to account for missing and disappeared persons.

ICMP pioneered nuclear STR extraction and analysis methods and in 2000 incorporated them in its own DNA-led process. This approach applies DNA testing unselectively on a wide scale, with identifications resulting from DNA-driven matches between the DNA of unidentified human remains and that of family members of the missing. To make this possible, ICMP has collected almost 100,000 reference samples for DNA analysis from family members from countries of the Western Balkans, which, as of January 2017, represented 29,751 missing persons of the estimated 40,000 persons from the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. ICMP’s DNA-led approach transformed the rate and certainty of identifications.

The joint project with Croatia included ICMP’s efforts to collect genetic references from family members – many of whom were Croatian citizens of Serb origin – and subsequently sharing anonymous DNA profiles that ICMP had obtained from family references to facilitate DNA matches with profiles that the Croatian authorities obtained from post-mortem (PM) samples.

In addition to support through the joint project, ICMP has contributed to Croatia’s identification efforts with donations, expertise, support to victims’ groups and the monitoring of exhumations. This has included the donation of a fluoroscope in 1999, DNA-processing equipment in 2000 and financial support for the renovation of a DNA laboratory in Zagreb in 2001, as well as providing training to improve operating techniques in Croatia’s three DNA laboratories. ICMP has supported the work of the associations of families of missing persons, among other things, by facilitating contacts with similar groups elsewhere in the region. In addition, ICMP has, over the years, supported and monitored excavations of mass graves and the recovery of human remains in Croatia, as it has elsewhere in the Western Balkans.

ICMP opened an office in Zagreb in 2001 and an Office Agreement was signed with the Foreign Ministry in September 2002. In 2004, the Ministry of the Family, Veterans’ Affairs and Intergenerational Solidarity launched a Joint Project with ICMP on DNA-led identifications. The Joint Project consisted of two subprojects: the collection of blood samples in Croatia from family members who had not given blood to date; and the exchange of nuclear DNA STR profiles so as to produce DNA reports that would lead to DNA-based identifications. Nuclear STR typing is the predominant modern form of DNA testing that provides very high power for identification of individuals by providing data from multiple highly variable regions of DNA, and can be used to identify individuals through comparisons to the STR profiles of their relatives through “kinship matching” with very high certainty. ICMP also made available its DNA-matching software. In this way, Croatia has benefited from the approach to the identification of mortal remains that has helped to transform the process in the rest of the region.

As of October 2016, ICMP had collected 4,756 reference samples from families of the missing. These represent 1,572 persons missing as a result of the 1991-1995 conflict in Croatia. Of the 4,756 reference samples, ICMP collected 68 percent, (3,248 samples), from families of the missing who are Croatian citizens of Serb nationality and who reside in the Republic of Serbia. This comprised all reference samples from Croatian citizens of Serb nationality who reside in the Republic of Serbia. Nine percent of the total references collected by ICMP, (415 samples) were collected in Croatia from family members who were either Croatian citizens of Serb nationality or Bosnian Croats residing in Croatia, who chose to provide their personal genetic information to ICMP. See chart below.

In addition to samples collected by ICMP, the Croatian authorities report that they have collected approximately 6,100 samples from family members of missing persons. According to the Croatian Commission on Detained and Missing, the genetic references collected by the Commission and ICMP enable the potential identification of around 95 percent of persons who are still registered as missing from the 1991-1992 period.

Croatia and ICMP have exchanged anonymized ante-mortem (AM) DNA profiles, meaning that data exchanged does not include information such as names of missing persons and their family members. If a DNA match is established between AM and PM DNA profiles by Croatia or by ICMP, technical experts from both groups review the anonymized genetic data. Only after completion of the technical review is personal information and genetic data exchanged and a DNA report issued.

ICMP has provided the Commission on Detained and Missing Persons with 4,576 reference profiles, which represent 1,572 missing persons. The Commission, for its part, has provided ICMP with 3,611 profiles, which represent 1,761 missing persons.

Through this cooperation mechanism, which has enabled the comparison of AM and PM profiles, ICMP has DNA-matched 601 missing persons cases related to the 1991-1995 armed conflict in Croatia. Of that number, 567 of the DNA matches relate to human remains recovered on the territory of Croatia, of which the majority of surviving families live in Serbia. The remaining 34 DNA matches relate to missing persons who disappeared on the territory of Croatia but whose remains were recovered on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Regional Cooperation

ICMP has not only provided technical assistance for the purposes of human identification, it has also sought to facilitate enhanced cooperation between Croatia and other states in the region to address the issue of persons missing as a result of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

In January 2017, the Ministry of Croatian Defenders and ICMP signed an agreement on the participation of Croatia in the project: Database of Open Missing Persons Cases from the Armed Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. ICMP had already concluded agreements with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro on their participation in the project, and anticipates signing an agreement with Serbia in the first half of 2017. Croatia’s decision to participate in the Database project is a major step forward in terms of strengthening regional cooperation to account for around 12,000 people who are still missing from the region.

The Database will contain, at a minimum, the missing person’s first name, father’s name, last name, date of birth, place of birth, date of disappearance, place of disappearance, municipality of disappearance, identification (if any, date), and countries in which the disappearance has been registered.

ICMP will ensure that the data is accessible and searchable by the competent authorities in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia on the basis that these authorities reciprocally provide their data relative to active missing persons cases for inclusion in the Database. In this way the Database of Open Missing Persons Cases from the Armed Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia will enhance regional cooperation with a view to resolving missing persons cases from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.