In Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo efforts are underway to resolve the issue of unidentified remains stored in mortuaries, for which there is no genetic match with blood samples provided by families of the missing.
In 2000, when ICMP began using mass database technology to facilitate DNA-led identification of human remains, it was not clear how effective the radical new technique would be. Nothing like it had been tried anywhere in the world. The results were astonishing – an exponential rise in the number of identifications – and unlike non-DNA identifications, those achieved using DNA sampling are more than 99.95 percent certain. The DNA method is more effective, more economical and more secure than the traditional method that had been used until then.
However, when ICMP launched its DNA-led program many thousands of identifications had already been made in the Western Balkans using traditional identification methods. It has since become clear that a substantial number of these were in fact misidentifications. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo thousands of unidentified remains stored in mortuaries do not match the DNA from blood samples provided by families that have not yet been able to account for their loved one. It is likely that this is because their loved one was misidentified through traditional methods and was buried by another family. Having buried the remains of the person they thought was their own relative, this family would not have provided a blood sample. This would mean that the remains of the relative of the family that has not provided a blood sample are in a mortuary, while the remains of the relative of the family that has provided a blood sample have already been buried.
The preponderance of unidentified remains stored in mortuaries has highlighted the need for systematic DNA-led identification programs in post-conflict scenarios – traditional methods on their own are not sufficient.
At the same time, this situation has pointed up the need for a new program of blood collection in the Western Balkans.
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At the end of 2012 the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina (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). Since the beginning of 2013, the NN Working Group has been systematically reviewing these cases, moving from one mortuary to the next.
In Sarajevo in December 2015, at the annual meeting of the Regional Coordination of associations of families of Missing Persons, families called on the authorities to maintain their support for the process of reviewing unidentified human remains stored in mortuaries.
MPI and ICMP have taken steps to initiate a new blood reference sample collection among families of the missing who have not yet donated samples, including families whose loved ones were identified by non-DNA means.
During July and the first week of August 2016, MPI together with ICMP convened a series of meetings throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina to explain the objectives of the new genetic reference sample collection exercise and listen to the concerns of family members.
At a meeting in Sanski Most on 12 July representatives of family associations from Sanski Most and Prijedor pointed out that contacting families who have traditionally identified their relatives and asking them for blood reference samples is not going to be easy, since many such families consider the case of their lost relative to be closed. ICMP and the MPI clarified that the collection of blood reference samples is only the first step, and no family that has identified their missing relative/s by the traditional method will be left with an empty grave.
Representatives of family associations from Banja Luka, Gradiska, Prnjavor, Novi Grad, and Prijedor attended a meeting in Banja Luka on 13 July, at which representatives of the family associations and the Organization of families of the detained and killed soldiers and missing civilians of Republika Srpska expressed their readiness to participate in the process. They asked whether blood reference samples would first be collected from families who express doubts regarding the traditional identification of their relatives, and whether bone samples would be taken from buried remains in such cases. It was explained that blood collection should encompass all families who have identified their relatives using the traditional method. These blood reference samples can then be compared to bone samples from NN remains that are stored in mortuary facilities. Only then would buried remains be re-exhumed for sampling and DNA testing, and the newly identified remains from the mortuary facility be returned to the family.
Representatives of family associations from Nevesinje, Bileca, Trebinje, Gacko, East Sarajevo and Mostar met in Nevesinje on 21 July. Participants expressed reservations about the plan to approach families and ask them for blood reference samples now, many years after they have buried remains of what they believed was their relative. MPI and ICMP representatives pointed out the advantages of the process, which will resolve a large number of NN cases stored in mortuary facilities across BIH, and also the moral obligation to help families who might have misidentified their relative and have buried someone else’s relative. By the end of the meeting the family associations agreed to assist in the process of collecting blood reference samples from the families of traditionally identified victims.
Representatives of family associations from Mostar, Grude, Capljina, Posusje and Prozor met in Mostar on 21 July, while those from Visegrad and Foca met in Visegrad on 27 July. Participants at both meetings expressed support for the initiative. Representatives of family associations from Brcko, Bijeljina, Brod, Doboj and Pelagicevo meeting in Brcko on 1 August and those from Tuzla, Zvornik, Bratunac, Srebrenica, Vlasenica, Sekovici and Kalesija, meeting in Tuzla on 2 August, were similarly positive about the process.
Representatives of family associations from Sarajevo, Bratunac, East Sarajevo, Hadzici and Vares, meeting in Sarajevo on 28 July, also alluded to the difficulty of contacting families who have identified their relatives by traditional means. However, all participants agreed that this project is of great importance and that it should be conducted in a timely manner, as many parents of missing persons are now approaching old age.
ICMP will by the end of 2016 have created a comprehensive database of missing persons who were identified by traditional methods and details of family members and contacts. This will provide an invaluable tool for reaching out to those family members in order to collect blood reference samples. At all the meetings, representatives of family associations agreed to assist in gathering data to populate the database.
When the next phase of the project commences in 2017, which will involve the collection of new blood reference samples from family members who have previously traditionally identified those whom they think are their relatives, ICMP anticipates a significant number of NN cases in the mortuary facilities to be DNA matched and identified. This will not only restore identities to NN cases in mortuary facilities, it will also point to previous misidentifications based on the traditional method which may be corrected through modern scientific methods.
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At the end of the Kosovo conflict, it was estimated that over 6,000 persons had gone missing as a consequence of hostilities in 1998-1999. According to data produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross, of this number, 1,372 persons were subsequently found alive. The vast majority of persons found alive were registered in prisons in Serbia.
Based on 14,800 genetic reference samples provided to ICMP, which represent 4,409 missing persons, ICMP estimates that the number of missing persons at the end of the Kosovo conflict was approximately 4,500.
To date, ICMP has issued 5,054 DNA match reports related to missing persons cases from the Kosovo conflict. These reports represent 2,531 unique individuals. Using DNA-led identification techniques, ICMP has therefore helped the authorities in Kosovo to identify 2,531 missing persons from the conflict.
Little has changed regarding the process of accounting for the missing in Kosovo since ICMP published its 2010 report: The Situation in Kosovo – A Stocktaking. ICMP noted that the search for the missing – while continuing – had become unproductive.
The 2010 report noted three basic issues in relation to DNA-led identification: 1) ICMP’s database lists 1,870 individuals still listed as missing by families in Kosovo, and has sufficient genetic reference samples to assure the identification of 1,650 of them, yet there are more than 400 unique DNA profiles from unidentified human remains that do not match the family references; 2) the rate of location and recovery of mortal remains of missing persons has declined dramatically since 2005, and; 3) an unknown proportion of the approximately 2,000 early identifications made without the use of DNA, in the period from 1999 to 2003, are incorrect.
As in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the high number of unidentified remains in mortuaries in Kosovo highlights the effectiveness of a DNA-led identification system, and at the same time points up the need to address the issue of misidentifications during the period before the DNA-led approach was adopted.
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The issue of unidentified remains in mortuaries in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo sheds light on aspects of the overall effort to account for the missing, in the Western Balkans and throughout the world.
The first is that there has been a revolution in forensic technology over the last 15 years. The DNA techniques employed by ICMP in 2000 have been significantly enhanced since then – and today with the onset of Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS) there is a real prospect that new methods will be many times more powerful – and less expensive – and that these methods can be introduced within a relatively short timeframe.
Secondly, in post-conflict scenarios, different stakeholders may embark on efforts to account for the missing using technical and operating standards that may be incompatible with one another. The result will be a protracted exercise that delivers sub-optimal results.
One of the issues that will be raised at ICMP’s Global Forum on Missing Persons is the need for broad international standards that can be applied in diverse circumstances in order to maximize the effectiveness of efforts to identify the missing. The Global Forum will bring together experts and stakeholders from around the world to forge a coherent global strategy on missing persons. The first Global Forum is scheduled to be held in the spring of 2017.
What can be said from the experience of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo is that identification processes can be adjusted and improved – and even after the passage of decades effective steps can be taken so that more and more families may know the fate of a loved one.