The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) is about to make its 10,000th DNA identification of persons missing from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, of which almost 4,300 are the mortal remains of persons missing from the 1995 fall of Srebrenica. Analyzing DNA profiles extracted from bone samples of exhumed mortal remains and matching them to the DNA profiles obtained from blood samples donated by relatives of the missing, ICMP has assisted BiH in making accurate, DNA-led identifications for the last 5 years. This year, ICMP identified 445 persons who will be buried on the July 11th commemoration at Potočari.The ICMP system of DNA-led identifications was established in response to the difficulty in identifying thousands of human remains of persons missing from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Prior to the use of DNA, identification efforts had historically been based on comparison of ante-mortem and post-mortem information, such as age and stature, combined with evidence of clothing or personal items found with the victims. DNA was used only in the final stage to confirm – or exclude – an identification.
The introduction of DNA by the ICMP as the basis for identifying large numbers of missing persons from the 1990’s conflicts in the Western Balkans enabled accurate identifications of persons that would never otherwise have been identified. The first DNA match, for a 15 year-old boy from Srebrenica, was found on November 16, 2001.
ICMP has so far generated DNA profiles from nearly 22,000 bone samples, representing 12,000 individuals. Identification of victims missing from armed conflict and enforced disappearance is an extremely difficult process not only because of the time that has elapsed, but because in many cases the perpetrators removed mortal remains from one location and hid them in another in an attempt to conceal evidence of war crimes, thus leaving a trail of disarticulated skeletal remains.
In one case, ICMP identified a man missing from the fall of Srebrenica whose remains were found in four different mass graves two of which were 50 km from the other two locations.
ICMP has DNA profiles for 84,000 family members of missing persons from the former Yugoslavia on its blood sample database, representing a total of 28,000 missing persons. There are more family members on the database than missing as more than one family member’s DNA profile is required for DNA matching.
Identifying the missing through scientifically reliable methods has not only brought long-awaited answers to distraught communities, but contributes to the process of truth and reconciliation, which are essential elements in building peace and stability in the region.
ICMP, which marks its 11th anniversary on June 29 this year, also helped identify victims of the Asian tsunami and the Hurricane Katrina. In total, ICMP has made 12 706 DNA-assisted identifications. In addition to its forensic science capacity, the organization works with governments, assisting in the development of policies to address missing persons issues, and with families of the missing, helping them to become powerful advocates in addressing the issue.