Fri, Nov 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Using DNA to return identity to genocide victims and bring peace to their families

Thousands of people are missing around the world due to genocide and natural or man-made disasters, but DNA advances are making it possible to identify bodies from mass graves — and provide evidence that can be used to hold warlords to account

By Christian Jennings  /  The Guardian

Undaunted, Bomberger and the ICMP picked up the gauntlet, and 18 years later, using advanced DNA-identification techniques at their Sarajevo laboratory, have identified nearly 7,000 of the Srebrenica dead, along with another 10,000 people missing from the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.

The small organization, only about 175 strong, is made up of forensic scientists, geneticists, biologists, human rights experts and support staff. A high percentage are from the former Yugoslavia, tenacious and resourceful people recruited in Bosnia after the war.

ICMP has now spread its operational wings: It is helping to identify the missing of Iraq and Libya, and has identified Chilean victims of general Augusto Pinochet from the 1970s, hundreds of cases from natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Asian tsunami in December 2004, and even soldiers from World War II.

When former British foreign secretary David Miliband, visiting their Bosnian headquarters in 2009, branded them a “global center of excellence,” he was not being overgenerous.

Danish professor Niels Morling, vice president of the International Society for Forensic Genetics, gets straight to the point.

“The work of the ICMP is almost incredible — its work with DNA is, without doubt, the single most important achievement within the field of human identification with DNA,” he says.

So is it time to use this expertise to help Syria? And how? For now it is too early to say, as setting up a workable program to handle missing persons —which means, to start with, finding and exhuming the dead — is obviously impossible while civil war is cracking across the country.

And ICMP, as it says in its mandate, “provides assistance to governments,” so some sort of post-conflict administration would have to be in place in Syria to request help in dealing with the thorny issue of missing persons.

However, suffice to say that ICMP has already received a delegation of interested parties at its Sarajevo headquarters, which included Ziadeh.

So how on Earth, if asked, would it go looking for 48,000 missing people in a place such as Syria? What forensic science and human rights tools would it need, what judicial and legal permissions? How, in short, would it all work? And why is it so important to deal with the problem of missing people?

How it might operate forensically in Syria is reflected by how it was working last week, several hundred kilometers south of The Hague, in the chilly autumn of northwestern Bosnia. In an enormous clay pit set in scrubby woodland outside the hamlet of Tomasica, British, US and Bosnian forensic experts from the ICMP, along with counterparts from Bosnia’s Missing Persons Institute, are digging up hundreds of muddy, grey-brown corpses. These are Bosnians executed 20 years ago, painstakingly exhumed from one of the largest mass graves ever found in the country. So far, 247 complete bodies have been recovered.

It is a mammoth feat of engineering and forensics, to start with: the corpses, alleged to be victims of ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serb forces in and around the nearby town of Prijedor in 1993, are buried about 7.5m under the surface. In an area larger than a soccer pitch, 40,000m2 of gluey, hard-packed clay has had to be removed with diggers in order to access the bodies. They lie underneath it in jumbled panoplies of death, teeth exposed, mouths open, skin still attached in greying shrouds to their skeletons, forever frozen in their moment of mortal truth.

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