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

When the ICMP was exhuming Bosnian mass graves in the years after the war, some of the clothing that sometimes appeared best-preserved was that made by Levi Strauss. A common contaminant that can impede the DNA extraction process is humic acid, a constituent part of many soil types.

Then, ground down into very fine powder, the bone samples are washed, and in a chemical solution, “lysis” takes place. This is the process of breaking down a cell so its constituent parts can be isolated for examination. The resultant liquid sample is then purified to remove any traces of detergents or reagents, spun in centrifuges and treated in devices equipped with silica membranes to which, simply put, the microscopic DNA particles adhere.

The DNA profile of a person is made by the ICMP using the Nuclear Short Tandem Repeat (STR) method. The main building blocks of the DNA molecule are four nitrogen-containing compounds called nucleobases —- adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine. The DNA double helix is normally made up of two DNA molecules, whose component parts intertwine like the branches of a weaving vine.

These four nucleobases repeat all along the DNA strand, pairing off and building “base pairs” of adenine with thymine, cytosine with guanine. The patterns in which they repeat and occur on the DNA strand are different in each human being, and form the basis of STRs. If the DNA strand can be amplified millions of times, the patterns of these repeats can be identified, and a profile of them obtained. This is the human DNA profile or “fingerprint.”

Yet the scientific successes of the ICMP could never have been realized without the residual human sadness of thousands of relatives of missing people.

Kada Hotic is one of these. A Bosnian Muslim woman, she lost her husband, son, two brothers and an uncle at Srebrenica in 1995. Over the subsequent 18 years, as the vice president of the Association of Mothers of Srebrenica, she has followed ICMP’s development, and its exhumation of the dozens of Srebrenica mass graves. These have led to her being reunited with the correctly identified remains of her five male relatives.

She sums it up simply: “ICMP has done great things: It gave us back the ones we love.”

One exceptional part played in the aftermath of the Balkan wars by the ICMP was to introduce measures to ensure justice. This approach, stresses Adam Boys, the organization’s chief operating officer, a former chartered accountant from Argyll, Scotland, is about the rule of law.

“You simply cannot kill tens, hundreds or thousands of people and expect to get away with it,” he says. “I strongly believe that this message will be increasingly reinforced so that military leaders or their governments will consider hard before they commit crimes: ICMP’s legacy and the legacies of similar institutions that support the rule of law could be a diminution in the number and scale of atrocities.”

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