Bosnia War: Identifying the Victims of Srebrenica

28 more in collection Bosnia War: Identifying the Victims of Srebrenica

Surrounded by neighbors and relatives, Hajrija Selimovic sits on a small bench in front of her house near Bratunac remembering the terrible events 19 years ago. "I was living with my husband and my sons as refugees in Srebrenica", she reports with a heavy voice. "We did not have much, but we had something to eat, the will to survive and a roof over our heads". Hajrija, her husband Hasan, and her then 19 and 23 year old sons Nermin and Samir were encircled in the enclave of Srebrenica, declared by the UN as a protection zone, along with up to 25,000 other Bosniaks from the surrounding Bosnian Serb troops led by Ratko Mladic.


"I remember when Nermin came to me and said that something terrible was going to happen," Hajrija remembers as if it were yesterday. "His face was even more anxious than usual. We all could feel that something big was going to happen." Their fears were confirmed as the Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic's troops overran Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. In 1993, Philippe Morillon, former commander of UNPROFOR in Bosnia, had declared the city a UN safe area. In return, the inhabitants had to give up all weapons. The UN could not protect the people, as less than 400 inexperienced Dutch peacekeepers faced Mladic's troops and Serb paramilitaries such as the feared ‘Scorpions.’ That day, the men and boys were separated from the women and systematically executed around Srebrenica. At least 8,372 people were killed during the massacre, now recognized as a genocide.


"On that day I held my sons and my husband in my arms for the last time," Hajrija recalls painfully. In the next ten years, no one could tell her what had become of her family. Torn between unrealistic hopes and apparent certainty, every day was a misery. "Eventually I was informed that they have found my husband's head," the widow says dryly, adding dryly: "But nobody could tell me where his body was".


Many of the original mass graves were exhumed by the perpetrators in the days following the massacre and reburied in secondary graves to cover up the traces of the genocide. As a result, parts of many bodies were distributed over different locations.


"This makes our work so difficult," says Dragana Vucetic, forensic anthropologist of the International Committee on Missing Persons (ICMP). The ICMP was established in 1996 on the initiative of then-US President Bill Clinton at the G7 summit in Lyon, France.


"We discovered the dead of Srebrenica in over 300 different mass graves," says Vucetic, "and these are not all of them." There is continual evidence from new satellite images of scattered bones discovered in the woods.


6,066 victims have so far been buried during the annual anniversaries of the massacre in Potocari, the location of the Dutch peacekeeping headquarters and where the later victims had fled in a last desperate attempt of hope. The funerals have taken place since 2003. On this year’s July 11th, another 175 have been buried.


"Nearly 1,000 dead have still not found their final resting place," explains Vucetic. The way to identify a victim is a complex procedure, and an especially difficult one for the relatives. If new body parts are discovered, a laborious process is set in motion that starts on top of a metal autopsy table in the forensic institution of ICMP in Tuzla, the workplace of Dragana Vucetic.


"Bones, clothes and belongings of the dead are cleaned, recorded and photographed," he explains. Immediately bone samples are taken and sent to the nearby laboratory, where they are decontaminated and washed in a special solution.


"Our laboratory is also responsible for the blood samples of the family members," explains Edin Jasaragic, Chief of the Identification Coordination Division (ICD). This is particularly important, because without a reference sample of relatives the identification is hopeless. In recurrent campaigns and mobile blood collection stations, which were used among others in Austria, the ICD attempts to move survivors to supply samples. "We even received blood donations from relatives in Australia," says Jasaragic happily.


But often it is primarily the bone samples that cause concern to researchers. "The state of the DNA that is removed from the bones varies greatly," explains Ana Bilic, head of the DNA lab of ICMP in Sarajevo. With a cube-shaped machine, the scientists can extract small amounts of genetic material and are then able to reproduce necessary large strands for identification. "This made it possible for us to give the victims their names and to give the relatives their dead back." Bilic leaves no doubt that this is the most important task of the committee.


The organization's activities are not confined to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The ICMP was instrumental in the identification of victims of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2004 and 2005 to the late identification of victims of the Pinochet regime in Chile. To date, the Committee has taken nearly 90,000 samples of relatives of nearly 30,000 missing people, about two-thirds of them concerned in the conflicts in the Balkans. More than 17,000 people worldwide have been identified so far.


In Tuzla, several hundred body bags with already identified bones are stored in an uncooled stuffy hall. "In all of these victims, however, the skeleton is not complete. Sometimes only the torso is present, sometimes only arms or legs," Dragana Vucetic explains dryly.


However, once the ICMP can identify bones, the relatives get a call. It is up to them if they do not have to bury the remains or not. Most survivors decide to wait for a funeral until more of the body is discovered. In the case of close relatives like brothers, it is often not entirely clear whose body has been identified.


Hajrija Selimovic remembers painfully a call she got a few years ago: "They told me my son was found, only she did not know which son. Was it Nermin or Samir? Or both?” With the certainty that both her sons were murdered, but the uncertainty of where their bones rested, Hajrija decided to wait. During this time she daily re-experienced the grief over the loss of her children. "My biggest fear was to die before I could bury my sons and my husband," she lamented.


ICMP is fully aware of these concerns. Jasmin Agovic, public spokesperson for the committee, emotionally sums up the situation: "Imagine you open up to someone that his missing relatives are dead. Body parts have been found, identified, and it can be assumed with certainty that the person is dead. Only there are not all of the bones in the plastic body bag, so the survivors have to decide to wait for a funeral. Then a new mass grave is discovered, new body parts of dead relatives are identified, but other parts are still missing.”


It is clear from Jasmin’s expression how often such situations occur, as employees must decide whether to engage with each individual whose relative has been identified, notify the bereaved and expose them again to the extreme mental situation of loosing a loved one, or to continue working until all bones have been found. "What are you going to do?" Jasmin asks. “Hang on? What if you never found any additional pieces of bone or if the survivors die in the meantime?” The process from initial identification to the funeral is psychologically stressful for everyone involved.


A year ago, Hajrija was able to bury her husband Hasan. A few months later, she received the long-awaited call of ICMP that the complete remains of her two sons were identified.

On this year’s commemoration in Potocari, Nermin and Samir have been buried beside their father’s grave during the commemoration of the 19th anniversary of the genocide. A total of 175 people have found their final resting place this year. The oldest victim was 79-year-old Hurem Begovic, while the youngest was 14-year-old Senad Beganovic, whose remains were found in four different mass graves.


Without the persistent efforts of the ICMP, the dead would never be returned to their relatives, nor would the victims get their names back. 


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Created by Michael Biach

19 Aug 2014