During a brief trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of California visited an International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) mortuary and examination facility in Tuzla, eastern Bosnia on Sunday, 19 March. The ICMP facility houses thousands of body bags containing the remains of victims of the 1995 fall of Srebrenica.Dr. Rifat Kesetovic, Chief Forensic Pathologist at the facility, which is called the Podrinje Identification Project, explained to Congresswoman Sanchez that many of the body bags in the morgue contain only parts of individuals, or parts of several different individuals. The problem of separation and mixing of body parts occurred because several months after the Srebrenica victims were buried in mass graves, the perpetrators dug up the remains and reburied them in smaller mass graves in an attempt to hide the evidence. Heavy machinery was used and the bodies broke apart and became commingled during the process. This makes the identification process more difficult and time-consuming.
Congresswoman Sanchez, who represents the 47th Congressional District of California, encompassing the cities of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana near Los Angeles, said she was impressed with the success of ICMP in identifying victims despite the difficult circumstances. In the late 1990’s, ICMP scientists pioneered the use of DNA as the first step in the identification of large numbers of missing persons. ICMP’s use of systematic DNA profiling of victim remains and family members, which are then compared to find matches, has revolutionized the identification process. In the case of Srebrenica, for example, only approximately 100 victims had been identified by the end of 2001, when ICMP made its first “blind” DNA match. Since then, ICMP has found DNA matches for approximately 3,500 of the approximately 8,000 Srebrenica victims.
Establishing the identity of the victims helps to provide a sense of closure for the victims’ families and is an important step towards establishing the truth in a post-conflict environment, where numbers of victims are often manipulated for political gain. Congresswoman Sanchez, serving her fifth term in the House of Representatives, the ranking woman of the House Armed Services Committee and the second-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the visit was a chilling reminder of the consequences of war.
“It is one thing for us to learn about the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, but to come face to face directly with the consequences of that conflict is a truly moving experience,” she said during her visit to ICMP, “Finding justice for these victims, which includes identifying them and returning them to their families for a dignified burial, is an important step towards making sure this kind of tragedy is not repeated.”
Congresswoman Sanchez is also a human rights activist and member of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus; she added, “Living with the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to someone you love is a terrible burden; the right of family members to know the fate of their missing relatives is an important human right that must never be overlooked.”