By Kathryne Bomberger,
Two events in the first half of December helped to put the issue of missing persons back at the top of the policy agenda in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The first was a call by families of the missing, through the Regional Coordination of associations of families of Missing Persons, meeting in Sarajevo, for the authorities to maintain their support for the process of reviewing unidentified remains stored in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s mortuaries.
Everyone present at the meeting, including 16 of the most active BIH associations of families of the missing, prosecutors from all levels in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Missing Persons Institute (MPI) Board of Directors, agreed that the issue of possible misidentifications made prior to the introduction of DNA testing must be addressed through mass collection of reference samples. The next step, which also had unanimous support, is to develop a systematic joint plan to carry the process forward.
At the end of 2012 the MPI determined that there were more than 3,000 cases of human remains in mortuaries across Bosnia and Herzegovina that had the status of NN (no name). For the last two years, the NN Working Group has been systematically reviewing these cases, moving from one mortuary to the next. It has so far reviewed cases in Sutina, Nevesinje, Gorazde, Travnik, Visoko and the Commemorative Centre Tuzla. The initial review is scheduled to be completed by the middle of 2016.
So far, 61 new identifications have been made as a result of this review with 63 profiles which do not have matches to blood reference samples, and more than 700 re-association reports (where individual bones have been reassociated with a partially complete skeleton) have been issued.
Cases are being closed as a result of the review, but there are still around 2,700 DNA profiles from recovered body parts that have not been matched with any of the 8,000 references profiles provided by the families who are still seeking answers about their missing relatives. A Final Report will be published when the process is complete. This will be made available publicly to allow prosecutors, families of the missing, the relevant authorities and others to decide on next steps.
There are several reasons why remains stored in mortuaries 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 submit a blood sample. And, of course, some sets of remains may date from a 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.
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, pathologists and the authorities, the MPI and ICMP, is important because it can bring closure to a substantial number of families who still, 20 years after the conflict, do not know the fate of a loved one. It also highlights a very important fact and this is that more than two decades after the war, with more than 70 percent of the missing accounted for, the effort to account for those who are still missing remains absolutely essential.
More remains can be found; more identifications can be made.
This fact was accentuated, also in the first half of December, when the MPI announced that a new clandestine grave had been found at Kozluk near Zvornik. Kozluk is a primary grave site related to Srebrenica events of July 1995.
The grave site was found as a result of the combined efforts of the BiH authorities with international support. The site was excavated in 1999 by the ICTY. A review by ICMP of the excavation data and the cases recovered from Kozluk and related secondary graves indicated that there were more remains to be found. Investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office and the MPI provided additional corroborative information. The Association of Mothers of the Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves also provided corroborative information and information on new locations to search.
Assessment of all the information resulted in a court order being issued by the Prosecutor’s Office. After delays, excavations began on 4 December, and a grave was found on 7 December. ICMP forensic experts are helping the Prosecutor’s Office, pathologists, RS police and the MPI to excavate the grave, with remains being taken to the Podrinje Identification Project mortuary in Tuzla for examination. On Monday, 30 November the Prosecutor’s Office arrested and charged an individual in relation to the events that led to the executions and mass burials at Kozluk.
The new Kozluk site was found through the joint effort of multiple BiH agencies, the international community and the families of the missing, and is an example of how combining and analyzing information from all available sources can yield results.
This exercise also demonstrates a determination, more than two decades after the end of the conflict, not to abandon the search for the missing.
This article originally appeared in the daily newspaper, Dnevni Avaz.