ICMP Exploring Improved Methods for Locating Mass Graves

Article posted on May 31, 2005

Joint teams of satellite imagery experts, geology experts and forensic archaeologists from the United Kingdom and the United States have completed a research visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina to investigate new methods of locating and mapping mass graves. The experts from Britain’s University of Birmingham and Applied Analysis Incorporated (AAI), a US private company specializing in processing satellite images, were part of a multi-disciplinary project organized and implemented by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). The initial research phase of the project was completed on Monday, while further analyses and cost-benefit estimates will be forthcoming.One of the most difficult aspects of finding and identifying victims of conflict or human rights abuses is often locating the graves, which have frequently been hidden by the perpetrators. In many cases in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the bodies have also been moved from one location to another in order to cover-up evidence of the crime. Most mass graves found in Bosnia-Herzegovina so far have been located based on information supplied by survivors or other witnesses.

Satellite imagery and spectral analysis, which measures changes in the composition of the surface of the ground, have recently been used to locate mass graves in Iraq. This multi-disciplinary ICMP project seeks to improve and expand upon such techniques through means such as plant and vegetation analysis, testing of the conductivity of soil and computer mapping analysis. Although spectral analysis is more effective in the desert environment of Iraq, in countries with more vegetation, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, satellite imagery techniques will be more useful if patterns of plant growth associated with mass graves are better understood.

Computer mapping analysis, where, for example, patterns such as maximum distance of mass graves from a road, or maximum steepness of terrain in which mass graves are located, can also help to make the search more efficient.

Testing the conductivity of the earth can pinpoint a mass grave where an approximate site is already known. Mass graves tend to be more moist than the surrounding earth, and therefore more able to conduct electricity. This technique is also useful for mapping the depth and composition of a mass grave before exhumation.

The joint team used some already documented sites near Zvornik, in eastern Bosnia, for their research. All the methods being investigated in this project are non-invasive; the earth does not have to be moved in order to carry out the research, which means no remains are disturbed before exhumation.

“We are not looking to replace the intelligence-based method of finding mass graves,” said Dr. Mark Skinner, ICMP Director of Forensic Sciences, “But we are seeking techniques that can add to the information we have. The perpetrators of these crimes went to great efforts to hide what they did and we need to do everything we can to find the graves.”