The dead body of the man in the blue T-shirt is covered in blood, and has been dumped in a line with tens of others in the courtyard of a building in Syria. In the color photograph, the sun is shining down on the corpses, all of whom bear the marks of violence, some showing multiple bullet wounds.
Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, clicks on to the next slide in his presentation. It shows a trench filled with the dead bodies of those killed in a massacre in Syria last year, the corpses lying jumbled, packed tightly on top of one another.
“That man in the blue T-shirt,” Ziadeh says looking at his audience, “is my cousin.”
He pauses, looking at the assembled Kurds, Iraqis, Libyans, Bosnians, Serbs, Mexicans, Americans and others in front of him, gathered in the airy auditorium of the Peace Palace in The Hague.
“I never thought,” says Ziadeh, a soft-spoken man with a neat moustache and black hair, “that I would see mass graves in my country.”
Many in the audience nod firmly in agreement, for, like the activist, who has been documenting human rights abuses in Syria since 2011, they have mass graves in their countries too. They have gathered in the Netherlands to try to establish a workable method of coordinating the multiple, highly complex facets of dealing with the rarified and painful world that is missing persons.
“Before I finish, I want to raise the issue of ‘never again,’” Ziadeh says, clicking off his PowerPoint, and handing over the podium to the next speaker.
This is a quietly determined US woman who knows all too well that those words, uttered at the Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg more than 60 years ago, have proved somewhat hollow. With an estimated 48,000 people, mostly civilians, missing in Syria alone — victims of forced disappearances, massacres and executions — the map of world conflict nowadays would instead seem to shout “again and again.”
The organization that Kathryne Bomberger heads — the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) — has perhaps done more than any to account for many of the thousands of people missing worldwide from wars, ethnic cleansing and natural disasters. The officials gathered in front of her from multiple conflict areas bear testament to this.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, whose country has uncovered about 150 mass graves from the Bosnia-Herzegovina war in the 1990s, said in the auditorium: “The issue of missing persons remains at the heart of every armed conflict.”
“Syria,” Bomberger says, “is a looming challenge. The challenge to carry out the non-discriminatory search for the missing is the challenge of the former Yugoslavia, is the challenge of Syria, the challenge of Libya, and the challenge of Iraq.”
She should know. When, in 1999, the ICMP set out to find and identify the estimated 8,100 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who had gone missing following the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in eastern Bosnia, many people said it could never be done. After all, the bodies of the men killed by the Bosnian Serb forces of general Ratko Mladic — now on trial for genocide in a Hague courtroom, a mile from the ICMP conference — had been buried in dozens of mass graves hidden in the wild Bosnian countryside. One forensic scientist said that finding the victims and giving them back their identities would be akin to “solving the world’s greatest forensic puzzle.”