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

Fri, Nov 15, 2013 - Page 9

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.”

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.

The decomposition of human bodies is slowed by a lack of oxidization, and the clay in the grave has effectively sealed the bodies from the outside air. The process of saponification, whereby after death the body’s tissue turns to a soap-like substance called adipocere, also called grave-wax, has been slowed. Muscular and organ tissue still clings to the skeletons.

Once exhumed, the bodies are taken to a nearby makeshift mortuary, to begin the road through ICMP’s DNA laboratory system. Hopefully, for the living relatives of the Tomasica dead, who have waited 20 agonizing years to find them, this will see the remains identified and returned to their families for proper burial.

The legal, forensic and human rights apparatus that makes this possible — the pathologists, mortuaries, autopsies, associations of living family members, DNA labs, data-matching software, court orders — is a vast operational monolith whose running the ICMP has perfected in Bosnia since the war. Wherever it goes, it must operate within the framework of any given country’s laws.

“Science cannot exist in a vacuum,” an ICMP director says. “It has to coincide with a rule-of-law approach.”

In The Hague, Dutch Foreign Mnister Frans Timmermans called for the ICMP to be given legal status under international law to enable it to operate worldwide — a motion supported by the UK, whose successive governments have been among the 22 worldwide that have funded the organization over the past 17 years.

Regardless of whether the victims in question are from Kosovo or Iraq or Libya — or, as at Tomasica, from Bosnia — the identification of missing people is desperately important for human rights, reconciliation and justice. It establishes accurate numbers of casualties, and they prove what happened. On history’s card table, they lay down a scientifically precise ace of spades. They put in place an absolutist cornerstone of the process of rule-of-law, as establishing numbers of missing persons is also vital for any war crimes trials.

It helps with natural disasters and terrorist incidents too — ICMP staff are currently in Nairobi, assisting with the aftermath of the Westgate shopping mall attack. Last summer, when a train caught fire off Lac-Megantic in Canada, killing 50 people, the heavily burned remains of some of the victims arrived in the Sarajevo DNA laboratory.

ICMP’s work is also, with the consent of relatives of the victims, used as evidence in war crimes trials, such as those of senior Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Mladic, being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, also based in The Hague. This provision of evidence can thus contribute to a newly emerging form of “atrocity accountability.” It issues a warning to warlords the world over that their crimes can, one day, come back to haunt them in international courts.

However, first the remains of missing persons have to be identified. Since the 1970s, thousands of people have gone missing from conflicts in countries including Chile, El Salvador and Iraq, as well as the Balkans. Before the ICMP started using DNA testing in 2000, human remains were mostly identified through artefacts found with them: dentures, blood-stained clothing, documents and fingerprints — the stark, mundane memorabilia of violent human demise. The problem was that this method was unreliable.

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.

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.”