The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) passed a major milestone Wednesday, when it recorded 10,000 DNA matches for victims of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. The 10,000th missing person to be identified using ICMP’s unique DNA-led system was a man missing from Prozor, in Central Bosnia, since 1993. The ICMP DNA match report, which indicates the identity of the man with a certainty of 99.99987 per cent, will be forwarded to the local court-appointed pathologist in Sarajevo, who will conduct an official post-mortem examination and make the final, legal identification. The remains will then be returned to the missing man’s family.The ICMP system of DNA-led identifications was established in response to the difficulty in identifying thousands of human remains in the former Yugoslavia, many of which were severely degenerated. Identification efforts had for years 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.
ICMP turned the identification process around, systematically analyzing bone samples from remains found in grave sites and blood samples donated by family members of the missing. The DNA profiles of the two groups, stored on two databases, are compared to find “blind” DNA matches. The first “blind” match, for a 15 year-old boy from Srebrenica, was found on November 16, 2001.
“To have found DNA matches for 10,000 individuals, who could otherwise not have been identified, is a major achievement. To have done this in less than five years is remarkable,” commented Dr. Thomas Parsons, ICMP Director of Forensic Sciences, when the landmark number was passed. “It is worth remembering that when ICMP started this process the application of DNA typing on such a large scale to provide blind hits was an unproven concept. It can now be said that the success this approach has demonstrated can serve as a model for similar efforts worldwide.”
Since the ICMP system was first developed, it has been refined to the point where the current output is much higher; during the year 2005 alone, some 4,000 DNA matches were achieved.
ICMP has so far generated DNA profiles from nearly 19,000 bone samples, representing more than 14,000 individuals. Many of the remains in mass graves were moved by the perpetrators in an effort to hide the evidence, which means the remains are often separated; parts of one individual are sometimes even found in separate mass graves. This separation of body parts explains why there is a larger number of bone samples than individuals.
ICMP has DNA profiles for more than 80,000 family members of missing persons from the former Yugoslavia on its blood sample database, representing a total of 27,000 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.
ICMP, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on June 29 this year, is also helping to identify victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami and of last year’s Hurricane Katrina. In addition to its forensic science capacity, the organization works with governments around the world, 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.