Two years after the 1995 Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian war, then-US president Bill Clinton introduced an initiative to found the ICMP. In the dry, formal language of mandate and policy, its job was to provide a proper accounting of the persons missing from the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia. It then proceeded to revolutionize the process of making large numbers of DNA matches on missing persons’ remains. Using blood samples taken from the living relatives of victims, it matched them with the DNA taken from skeletal remains exhumed from mass graves, such as those from Srebrenica.
“In the early days, while mankind had been able to map the human genome, the ICMP was using DNA technology to map a human genocide,” Bomberger says.
So how does this identification process work, and what makes the ICMP’s laboratory system unique? The answer lies partly in the vast numbers of human remains it handles — 40,000 people were missing in the former Yugoslavia alone — which no other commercial or government laboratory could even approach.
Second, it has developed its own matching software and vast databases containing genetic information from nearly 100,000 people, both living and dead. From this, it developed a system that could cross-reference vast numbers of DNA samples, taken from blood given by living relatives, and that extracted from remains exhumed from graves.
By November 2008, for instance, ICMP would have collected more than 86,650 blood samples from living Balkans’ relatives alone. The more blood samples that were collected, the easier it proved to cross-match DNA samples taken from the bones of exhumed victims.
Third, the ICMP’s laboratory system excels at extracting tiny amounts of DNA from heavily “degraded” bone samples. The DNA molecules that are best protected in bone are in the osteocytes — a type of cell — of mineralized cortical portions of hard bone, such as femurs. These are the hardest substances in the human anatomy and the ones that best resist the degradation of time and burial.
It was thus much harder for the ICMP to extract DNA from the human remains of Norwegian soldiers who had been killed on the eastern front north of Leningrad in World War II than it was to extract DNA from Hurricane Katrina victims from 2005. The Norwegian soldiers had lain where they fell, on the surface of the Arctic tundra, for more than 60 years since 1944, frozen in winter, defrosted in summer, heavily oxidized, with interim interference from animals such as arctic foxes. The Katrina samples were fresh.
ICMP’s central DNA laboratory is set in a quiet part of northern Sarajevo. The identification process for DNA profiling, or “fingerprinting,” starts with blood and bone samples. Human remains, once they are exhumed from sites such as Tomasica, are washed, autopsied and catalogued. Bone samples, each about 10cm to 15cm long, are cut with electric saws from the long bones, such as the femurs, of the victims.
Electric grinders are then used to scour dirt from the surface of the bone samples, which tend to absorb coloring and stains from the surrounding earth and from the clothing covering the corpse.