Rene Huel examines the forensic and ethical implications of a multi-generational missing persons case
During a two-day battle in July 1944, the Norwegian Ski Battalion (SS-Schijäger-Bataillon “Norge”) incurred heavy losses in the hills of Kaprolat and Hasselmann in the Karelia region (now in the Soviet Union). The troops were among about 15,000 Norwegians who volunteered for combat duty with the Wehrmacht during World War Two. It is estimated that 190 Norwegian soldiers took part in the Karelian battle: approximately 100 were killed, 40 were taken prisoner and 50 escaped. This was the largest loss of Norwegian soldiers in a single incident in the whole of the war. After 1945, soldiers who had fought on the German side were viewed as traitors: survivors faced the possibility of prosecution as collaborators.
When relatives of those who had gone missing in the Kaprolat and Hasselmann engagement learned that artifacts that may have belonged to the soldiers were being sold on the Internet and that memorabilia hunters had unearthed human remains at the site of the battle, they contacted academics at the University of Bergen and asked for assistance in locating and identifying the missing.
An inter-departmental project committee was formed consisting of a professor of comparative politics, a professor of law and a professor of forensic pathology. A number of anthropologists and experts from other disciplines were also associated with the committee.
Over the next five years the committee embarked on two missions to Karelia to recover remains around the hills of Kaprolat and Hasselmann. Remains were initially transported to St. Petersburg, where examinations were performed to gather physical information that might help in identification.
In many instances the remains were commingled, in part due to the sites being compromised by memorabilia hunters.
In 2007, Dr. Inge Morild, a pathologist and committee member, contacted ICMP and proposed an initial pilot study to determine if DNA could be used to identify the soldiers. Approximately 65 years had passed and there was uncertainty about whether there would still be viable DNA for analysis. A bone sample from a single case where the identity of the soldier was presumed, along with a reference sample donated by a putative sibling, were sent for analysis to ICMP’s laboratory facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Testing produced a DNA match and a report was issued on the name of the soldier.
Due to the passage of time, few close relatives were available to donate a reference sample. Also, the fact that the soldiers were regarded by many as traitors made the project somewhat socially and politically ambiguous. The committee deemed it inappropriate to contact families directly to request reference samples. Instead, the project was publicised in general terms through the media, and some families then contacted the committee on their own initiative. This also led to criticism from families and some religious leaders, who objected to the attempt to identify these individuals in the first place.
Over the five-year period, ICMP received six shipments totalling 150 bone samples from remains in Karelia. The bone samples underwent special DNA extraction procedures developed internally by ICMP. These procedures enhance the recovery of DNA from samples that are highly degraded. The success in obtaining DNA profiles from favored skeletal elements such as femur, tooth and tibia, mirrored that which is typically observed in the course of work from samples from the Western Balkans dating 15 to 20 years in age.
ICMP also received 45 blood samples provided by family members of 42 missing Norwegian soldiers from the battle.
The DNA extracted from relatives’ blood samples was compared with DNA extracted from the bone samples from Karelia.
A total of 93 DNA profiles relating to 57 unique individuals were submitted from the bone samples that were tested. In total, 14 DNA matches were found.
In other words, 14 of the missing soldiers were identified.
The project illustrated key principles related to accounting for the missing.
The first is that DNA-led forensic identification is feasible over very long periods of time – in this case 65 years.
The second is that accounting for the missing is not simply about the dead – it is about the living: the right of the children and grandchildren of the Norwegian soldiers to know the fate of family members was not invalidated by the fact that the deceased were widely condemned as traitors.
And thirdly, the Norwegian project was initiated by families, highlighting the key role of civil society in accounting for the missing, and it was carried forward by legal, political and forensic professionals, highlighting the different types of technical expertise that have to be brought together in order to carry out a successful missing persons process.
For more information on the identification of the Norwegian soldiers see the (July 2015 issue of The Journal of Forensic Science http://bit.ly/1W36HRx)