DNA Tests Help Some Families of Bosnia Victims, but Not Most

Author: Daniel Simpson, Lukavac, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Uploaded: Tuesday, 14 January, 2003

NYT report on the advances made in identifying the remains of B-H war victims since DNA programme was inaugurated, and on the vast difficulties that remain

In the early winter of 2001, Hasa Selimovic finally learned for sure what happened to her youngest son in 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces rounded up the Muslims of Srebrenica and massacred up to 8,000 of them. It was hardly comforting to be shown his remains in a morgue after a pioneering DNA test confirmed his identity. But at least she had an answer and the chance to bury a body, which is more than the families of most Srebrenica victims can draw on as they try to rebuild their lives.

Twelve months later, the science that identified Junuz Selimovic has helped forensic experts to match 1,500 more bodies to the list of 30,000 people still missing after Bosnia's brutal war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives between 1992 and 1995. But two thirds of the bodies that remain unaccounted for have yet to be found, and Ms. Selimovic's search for answers is still far from over. ‘It was terrible to see Junuz again, but it was no news to me,' she said in her dingy apartment in Lukavac, the village in northern Bosnia where she has settled. ‘No one who's missing around here survived. My other son and husband are dead for sure, but I wish I knew what happened. Then I could think about burying them.'

Just 73 victims from Srebrenica had been identified in the six years before Ms. Selimovic, 51, became the first beneficiary of the DNA program run by the International Commission on Missing Persons, a group established by the Clinton administration after it brokered the Dayton accords to end the Bosnian war. The limits of traditional forensic science were all too apparent when dealing with dismembered remains recovered from mass graves that were often the second or third resting place for the remains. ‘It's very difficult to keep the bodies intact unless you're dealing with a primary grave site where you can lift them off one by one, even if they're just skeletons, as many are,' said Gordon Bacon, a former British homicide squad detective who coordinates the international commission's operations across the Balkans. ‘It's very hard to say how many bodies there really are,' he said. Just 1,800 of the 4,500 body bags stacked in a morgue in the northern town of Tuzla contain a complete body, he said, adding, ‘The rest are just bits and pieces of co-mingled remains.'

When the DNA program was started, some scientists were skeptical, noting that the technology had previously been used only to identify a few hundred people at once, as after a major plane crash. But the successes of the first year appear to have proved the doubters wrong as more blood samples from relatives are matched with bone matter from recovered remains every day. Mr. Bacon's staff plans to present a record 18 papers to the annual symposium of the American Academy of Forensic Science in February. ‘It's hard to be happy with our success, given the overbearing sadness that comes with it,' he said. ‘Many people just have no comprehension of the misery that's still here for tens of thousands of people.'

The experiences of Muhammad Husejnovic, who recently went to Tuzla morgue to view the headless body of his father after a positive DNA match, are a case in point. ‘Out of 12 male Husejnovics on my father's side, I'm the only one left,' said Mr. Husejnovic, 27. ‘If you include all of my most distant family members, I lost hundreds of people in Srebrenica, and if you count my friends too, the number is over 1,000.' Like Ms. Selimovic, he is still waiting for his other relatives to be identified - and for the completion of a memorial graveyard for Srebrenica victims, which lies just a short walk from the town where many of them had spent most or all of their lives. ‘What's the sense of burying my father in Tuzla?' Mr. Husejnovic said. ‘I've already moved 12 or 13 times since 1995. Where he was born, he should find his resting place.' The graveyard should be ready early next year, freeing up space in the Tuzla morgue, which has grown so full of body bags as new mass graves are exhumed that some bodies are now being stored in nearby salt mines.

It is difficult to predict how long the DNA program will go on. As international aid to the Balkans starts to dry up, the monthly bill of $100,000 for chemicals alone will eventually make it too expensive to continue. ‘Right now we could even go faster,' Mr. Bacon said, ‘but we simply haven't got the money to do it.' The United States still tops the list of a dozen donors to the program, with $4.5 million this year. The next biggest contributor is the Netherlands, whose soldiers were stationed in Srebrenica in 1995 to guard what had been decreed a United Nations ‘safe area,' but which fell to Serbian forces without a fight.

The relatives of most victims are angry with international officials, both for failing to protect them in the past and now for failing to arrest the men deemed most responsible: the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his top general, Ratko Mladic. ‘The world public wants to absolve itself by catching war criminals, but so far they only caught small fish,' Mr. Husejnovic said. ‘It would be more comforting for the victims of Srebrenica if Karadzic and Mladic were brought to justice.'

Ms. Selimovic, meanwhile, doubts whether she will ever learn to live without her husband and sons, regardless of who is tried for killing them. ‘It's terrible to live on your own; my life has no meaning now,' she said. ‘It would have been better if they'd killed me.

This article was published in The New-York Times, 23 December 2002
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