Review of Mortuaries in Bosnia and Herzegovina Sheds Light on Possible New Identifications

Sarajevo, 30 November: A clearer strategy on how to account for many of the 8,000 persons who are still missing from the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina is now apparent, following a four-year effort spearheaded by the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina in cooperation with the Missing Persons Institute (MPI) and assisted by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

The preliminary results of a Working Group that was set up in 2013 to review cases of unidentified remains in the country’s 12 mortuaries – the NN (No Name) Working Group – were announced today by MPI Chair Marko Jurisic and Head of ICMP’s Western Balkans Program Matthew Holliday.

In 1995, more than 30,000 people were missing as a result of the conflicts. ICMP was established in 1996 to help the authorities account for these people. The process was slow and uncertain until 2001, when ICMP introduced a revolutionary process of mass DNA identification. Almost 15,000 DNA-based, or scientific identifications have been made since then; however almost 8,000 identifications were made before 2001 using traditional, or non-scientific methods.

The puzzle

While over 70 percent of the 30,000 missing are accounted for, approximately 8,000 people are still unaccounted for from the 1991-1995 conflicts relevant to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The MPI, the prosecutors’ offices and ICMP continue to work proactively and systematically to find clandestine graves and follow up with exhumation and DNA identification – but since 2009, despite the innovative use of aerial imagery and other techniques, the number of clandestine graves that have been found has decreased annually.

A potential answer

ICMP believes that there is a very strong possibility that many of the unidentified human remains stored in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 12 mortuaries are a legacy of the period prior to 2001 when individuals were identified on the basis of visual recognition which had a high risk of error that could potentially result in misidentification. On the basis of this hypothesis, in 2013, the BIH Chief Prosecutor ordered a review of all the unidentified cases in mortuaries in order to establish the scope of technical problems and at the same time examine why it has not been possible for over a decade to match the DNA profiles from human remains in the mortuaries to 8,000 reported cases of missing persons, for which families of the missing had provided sufficient reference samples. The mortuaries where forensic examination of unidentified remains have been carried out are Banja Luka, Gorazde, the Krajina Identification Project in Sanski Most, Modrica, Nevesinje, Orasje, the Podrinje Identification Project in Tuzla, East Sarajevo, Sutina, Travnik, Tuzla, and Visoko.

Announcing the results of the NN Working Group’s review today, Marko Jurisic said that 115 persons have been identified and the remains of 948 persons who have already been identified through the use of DNA, were re-associated, meaning that bones from the same skeleton were identified and can now be interred with the rest of that person’s remains. This still leaves thousands unidentified – but it points very clearly to the presumption that a large number of identifications made before the introduction of DNA testing in 2001 may have been incorrect.

“We expect that a large number of NN cases can be resolved by getting genetic references from families that closed their cases based on traditional identification, or non-scientific methodologies. The traditional method is prone to a high risk of error, which can lead to misidentifications,” explained Matthew Holliday. “When a body is misidentified, the family that has incorrectly received the body in many instances will not have provided family DNA reference samples. Therefore, the mortal remains of their family member, if located, will remain unidentified – an NN case. And the family whose missing relative’s remains were misidentified and released incorrectly to another family will not resolve their case even if they have provided DNA reference samples since their relative has been buried with someone else’s name,” Holliday added.

A renewed request for families to give reference samples

The MPI, with ICMP assistance, has been in direct contact with family associations throughout the country to ask families that did not provide blood samples – since their relatives had already been identified using traditional methods – to do so now. ICMP has secured funding under the EU BIH grant to facilitate this additional blood collection through a targeted pilot project.