One month before the 10th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has completed identifications of more than 2,000 of the Srebrenica victims. There are altogether almost 7,800 persons listed on the ICMP database of the missing from Srebrenica, and, as family members continue to report missing relatives and donate blood samples for DNA identification, that number is slowly growing. Many of the missing have not yet been exhumed from mass graves that are still hidden around the country.
On Thursday morning, Dr. Rifat Kesetovic, ICMP’s Chief Forensic Pathologist and also the official court-appointed pathologist for Srebrenica cases, signed the 2,000th Srebrenica-related death certificate at the ICMP morgue in Tuzla, about 60 kilometers from Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.
“We still have a very, very long way to go in this process,” said Dr. Kesetovic, whose staff left the ICMP facility after the death certificate was signed to inform the family of the identified victim. “We are proud to have passed this landmark, but there are still around 6,000 missing victims from Srebrenica and we are working hard to find them, to identify them and to return them to their families,” Dr. Kesetovic added.
ICMP pioneered the use of DNA as a means of identifying large numbers of missing persons, achieving its first “blind” DNA match between mortal remains found in a mass grave and family members of a missing victim, a boy from Srebrenica, in November 2001. ICMP now has databases with DNA information on thousands of missing victims and their family members. Each day, when the databases are compared using software developed by ICMP to find matches between the missing and their family members, new matches are found. Such matches, where no other information exists to identify the missing, are known as “blind” matches. An ICMP DNA matching report indicates identity with a certainty of at least 99.95 percent. Court-appointed pathologists make the final, official, identification.
Apart from the large number of victims, identification of the missing from Srebrenica is further hampered by the fact that the bodies, which were originally buried in large mass graves, were later dug up by the perpetrators in an effort to hide the evidence and re-buried in many smaller mass graves. As a result, the bodies became dissociated and commingled. ICMP is working to overcome these unique problems in identification of the missing using a combination of traditional forensic archaeology and anthropology with new DNA methods to re-associate the remains, increasing the speed of identifications.
“We created many of these methods of mass identification in the first place,” commented Mark Skinner, ICMP’s Director of Forensic Sciences, “and we are constantly working on improving our methods to speed up the process of identification, as well as investigating new ways to find the mass graves.”