Why we are excavating the dead of Srebrenica

On 9 July The Guardian published an article by ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger on the work done by ICMP over the last two decades to help families of the missing, the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and domestic and international courts locate and identify the victims of Srebrenica.

Following is the text of the article.

On Saturday, world attention will focus for a few hours on the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. The systematic killing that took place 20 years ago constitutes the only recognized genocide on European soil since the Second World War.

Weeks after the killings, the perpetrators returned, excavated the mass graves with mechanical diggers and transported bodies and body parts to secondary graves in an attempt to disperse and conceal evidence of the crime. This was an enormous undertaking considering that almost 8,000 people had been executed.

For nearly two decades, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), of which I am director general, has worked with families of the missing, local Bosnian authorities and domestic and international courts to locate and identify the victims of Srebrenica. This has made it possible for families to bury their dead with dignity, and it has made it possible to piece together what happened and to prosecute some of those who were responsible for the murders.

On Saturday, at a ceremony that will be attended by world leaders as well as tens of thousands of mourners, more than 100 newly identified bodies will be laid to rest in the cemetery at Potocari, near Srebrenica.

The killers’ attempt to hide evidence by scattering body parts made the usual identification process using articles of clothing, distinguishing physical features and identity documents almost impossible. In 1999, ICMP made the decision to harness a new technology, DNA, to identify the victims. Many observers were skeptical about the efficacy of what was then an untried approach – but it turned out to be astonishingly successful: the number of identifications increased exponentially. Today, almost 7,000 of the 8,000 missing from Srebrenica have been identified using DNA.

Beyond Srebrenica, in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as other countries in the region of the western Balkans, including Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, more than 40,000 persons went missing during the brutal conflicts between 1991 and 2001. Today, more than 70 percent of those persons have been accounted for.

However, accounting for the missing has also involved establishing why they went missing and who was responsible, and it entails upholding the rights of survivors.

The vast majority of the missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina were male, which means that women became single heads of their households and had to deal with often hostile and usually male-dominated authorities when trying to assert their rights to justice and social and economic benefits.

Those who killed in Srebrenica in July 1995 believed they could get away with murder. They thought they could erase the identity of their victims permanently. They were wrong.

The work of ICMP, in particular the scientific evidence of the identity of victims from the conflicts of the 90s, has made it possible to piece together an incontestable narrative of crimes, and to present this evidence in numerous trials, including those of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić.

While this is something that gives substance to the familiar cry of “Never again,” it will be up to the countries in the western Balkans, and in particular Bosnia and Herzegovina, to engage in an honest reckoning with the past, rather than narratives based on chauvinism or denial.

At the end of last year, the Netherlands, the UK, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg signed a treaty establishing ICMP as an international organization in its own right, and by the end of this year we will move our headquarters from Sarajevo to The Hague, where we intend to play a key role in implementing what is emerging as a new global consensus on missing persons – whether the cause is armed conflict or migration or crime or natural disaster.

Once, when I was visiting a woman whose son had been missing for more than a decade, my host took a small blue tin of skin cream and opened it carefully. She pointed to the indentation on the smooth white surface of the ointment. It was her son’s fingerprint, the only physical memorial of his presence on this Earth.

There are no ways of quantifying human love, but there are tangible and useful ways of dismantling the legacy of hate. Accounting for the missing and safeguarding the rights of survivors, including the rights to truth and justice, is among those ways.