After Nearly Two Decades, Bosnia's Dead Are Coming Home

Identifying Srebrenica remains
Identifying the remains of the dead is a lengthy process. Ziyah Gafic for Newsweek

The dead of Srebrenica walk at night. "People see men wandering through the streets who they recognise; men who are dead in the Potocari graveyard. They are looking for their houses," says Snezana, quietly. "I couldn't stand Srebrenica. It's a town of the dead. There is something dark there. I said to my dad, I have to get out. Either I get a scholarship to university, or I'll go and work on a cruise ship."

Like most of the residents of Srebrenica these days, Snezana is Serb. Her family re-located to Srebrenica, a small former mining town perched on the edge of the mountains of Eastern Bosnia, in 1995 after the war ended; their original home fell under the Bosniak Muslim-Croat Federation control. Snezana was brought up just a few miles from the Srebrenica memorial cemetery at Potocari, the old Dutch UN base. It holds the graves so far of more than 6,000 of the 9,000 or so dead men of Srebrenica whose bodies have been found and identified so far; they were killed by the Serbs after the former Muslim enclave and UN Safe Area fell on July 11th, 1995. Of Srebrenica's 42,000 Muslim inhabitants who had survived the three year siege, the women and children were forcibly bussed out by the Serbs into Bosnian government-held territory. The 14,000-odd men and teenage boys fled – soldiers and civilians alike.

Under the orders of Srebrenica's sparsely--armed military commanders, the men formed a column, 15 km long, walking, for five nights, single file because of mines, over 70 km, through enemy territory, minefields, artillery bombardments; through forests, orchards and maize fields, over mountains, rivers, and roads patrolled by the Serbs. After a last brutal 24-hour battle to cross the frontline, 3,500 finally made it to the safety of government-held Tuzla. Another 2,000 or so men hid in the woods and crossed in dribs and drabs over the next six months.

More than 8,000 others have never been seen alive again. Mostly unarmed, half-starved civilians, they were either killed on the way, or captured, taken to makeshift detention centres – football stadiums, school gyms, factories, farms – and then gunned down in mass executions, their bodies bulldozed into mass graves. This heroic trek is known in Bosnia as the Put Smrti – the Road of Death.

Maybe their ghosts do walk Srebrenica's streets at night; what's certain is that bone by bone, year on year, the men of the Put Smrti are coming home to be buried in Potocari cemetery.

Thanks to the Sarajevo-based ICMP (International Commission on Missing Persons), founded by Bill Clinton after the war, the mass graves are slowly being found and dug up. But more extraordinarily, because of the ICMP's -revolutionary mass DNA identification programme, every tooth, every mud-stained rib, is tested. As long as the DNA matches with one of the blood samples -collected from relatives by the ICMP, the bones are given a name, an identity; returned to his or her family, and given a proper burial.

In a mortuary, in Podrinje, a suburb of the northern Bosnian town of Tuzla, Mujic Hajdar Fahrudin has just been reunited after 19 years with his half-brother, Sezhad Lolic. Lolic, a tired-looking factory-worker of 54, is standing under a tree in the hot sun outside, waiting to be called to sign the formal identity forms to release his brother's body for burial.

"My brother lived to go fishing. He was only 25 when he died. He was a bit taller than me, a big guy. He had brown hair and light blue eyes. He was a plumber," says Lolic, who survived the war because he was working in a factory in Serbia when it broke out; Mujic lived in the family home in the village of Bratunac, close to Srebrenica, and fled to the relative safety of the enclave when Bratunac fell to the Serbs in the summer of 1992.

"I used to talk to my brother a lot on the ham radio when he was in Srebrenica," says Lolic. Srebrenica, although physically completely cut off from the outside world for three years, had a radio link. "He used to hang out with Srebrenica's radio amateurs. I had a neighbour in Serbia who was Muslim too. He had a ham radio. I'd ring my neighbour on a civilian line and he'd patch me through to Srebrenica. He's the second brother I lost in Srebrenica. We buried my last one three years ago. I lost over 20 cousins as well. My brothers tried to join me in Serbia when the war started but it was impossible to cross the border at the River Drina. The Bosnian Serbs were pulling all Muslim men out of the busses and cars.

"My brother has a son who is still alive. He is 20. He was with his mother in Serbia when the war broke out. He lives in Austria now.

"The last words my brother spoke to me were on July 10th 1995. He told me he was going to the UN at Potocari to surrender. He didn't realise it was the last thing he'd say to me. But once he got to Potocari he realised he'd be killed if he stayed there, so he had to flee. He was on the Death March. People told me they saw him alive in the woods of Konjevic Polje. I don't know how he died. They only found part of his leg and his skull."

More than 30,000 people were missing at the end of the war: some 28,000 were Muslim, 800 Croat, 4,000 Serb. Only 22,000 have been identified so far. Nearly 100,000 relatives gave blood as three matches are needed for a 99% positive result.

"When I first came here in 1998, the bodies from Srebrenica were being kept in salt mines and eaten by rats," says Kathryne Bomberger, the ICMP's director, from her office in Sarajevo. "They needed to be put in refrigerated setting. We had to help build mortuaries. It was the weirdest thing I have ever done. We had to create and build a process to deal with identification."

That process has been extraordinarily successful. Countrywide, 70% of the missing have been found and identified; as an unintended side--result, Bosnia now has the largest national DNA database in the world, something potentially of enormous interest to geneticists and medical science.

"We have over 155,000 genetic profiles from all over the world on our database," states -Bomberger.

As a result of their success in Bosnia, the ICMP's DNA experts now work all over the world, sending back samples to their Sarajevo labs for identification not only from victims of torture and war in Bosnia, but Iraq and Libya; of organised crime in Mexico, of natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and Hurricane Katrina that hit the USA. In recognition of its growing international role, from September the ICMP's headquarters will be established at the Hague as a permanent international body.

"It's not just about conflicts or post-conflict situations. Say a boat full of immigrants capsizes in the Mediterranean, and they are buried on Lampedusa. Then we can collect data from families searching for them," says Bomberger. "Amnesty International says that over 70,000 migrants have gone missing. This is what this is all about – reuniting families with people they have lost."

While it was the post-conflict situation in the former Yugoslavia that provided the initial political will and funding to set up the ICMP, 21st--century scientific developments have allowed the ICMP to expand far beyond it's original remit.

"It's thanks to the revolution in DNA and forensic science," says Bomberger. She is aware that, like all new technologies, sharing information from DNA identification carries risks of abuse of power: "We want to collect data from those searching for individuals, but also to protect that data; and to share that protected data with other states to find the missing persons. But we want to make sure that the DNA's not being used to, say, track unwanted migrants. We have also been approached about identifying missing people in Syria. But the Syrians are worried about the state searching for people regardless of their role in the conflict."

ICMP's DNA programme was started in 2002. The different DNA analysis made is recorded on a pink bar chart on the Tuzla mortuary wall. Dr Dragana Vucetic, 34, is the ICMP's senior forensic anthropologist in Tuzla, working out the sex and age of the skeletons. Vucetic points to the chart, pinned above the largely intact skeleton of a young man recently exhumed and as yet unidentified. "We only did about 150 people in five years before we started testing their DNA. Now we do about 500 a year. We identify 85% of the people we find."

Until 2001, identifications for Srebrenica average 30 per year, from only seven in 1997, to 52 in 2001. Once the DNA tests begin in 2002, the pink stripes surge upwards. In 2002, 516 Srebrenica victims were identified; in 2003, 484; 2005, 543; the biggest year, 2009, was 776. In Srebrenica, they save the bodies that have been identified each year, and every year on the anniversary – July 11th – a mass state funeral and commemoration service is held. It's attended by the Bosnian president, foreign ambassadors, international dignitaries – in the past, the likes of William Hague and Bill Clinton – as well as 35,000 or so former Srebrenica residents and their friends and relations. For many of Srebrenica's Muslim diaspora, scattered all over the world and throughout Bosnia, it's an annual re-union with their families, the living and the dead. There is also a three-day sponsored walk – the Mars Mira (Peace March) re-tracing the 70km route of the Death March. The Mars Mira attracts walkers from all over the world: many were Death March survivors.

"It's really important, what we are doing here. No one can ever deny what happened if we have identified the bodies," says Vucetic, referring to those Serbs who still try to deny or contest the numbers of Bosnian Muslims killed in the war.

The ICMP's task is more complicated than just identifying skeletons. A few months after the massacre, Bosnian-Serb authorities panicked that the mass graves would be found and ordered them to be dug up. Diggers chewed mouthfuls of rotting corpses out of the earth, then dumped them in various "secondary mass graves". As a result, arms and legs, heads, hands and feet of the same person, can be spread over several -different graves.

"It's a human jigsaw puzzle," shrugs Vucetic. "Without the DNA tests it would be impossible to identify these people further, or put their skeletons back together. We took fourteen different samples from this one." She points to a nearly complete skeleton laid out on a white table in front of her. "He came in seven different body bags." Usually, they never find all the bones.

Her job is slowly coming to an end: the supply of dead men in Srebrenica – and Bosnia as a whole – is beginning to run out. Last year, only 263 men were buried at Srebrenica's mass funeral. "We've only got about two more mass graves to go," said Vucetic.

Mujic's body – or part of it – was found this year. At the moment his shin bone and part of his cranium are lying in a numbered white plastic bag on a rack in the ICMP mortuary, along with the remains of more than 1,500 of his unburied comrades. But it's been enough to identify him so he can be buried. Vucetic ushers us into the long, grey, morgue, apologising for the peculiar smell: "We can't afford a proper cooling system. It's freezing in winter as well." It's not a stench – these men died 19 years ago and their flesh has long ago rotted away – just a reminder of mortality, catching the throat.

Shelf after shelf, the men of Srebrenica lie on racks, in numbered white plastic bags, stacked up high to the ceiling; each bag of bones, each number, a different person. Some of the bags are very small, nestling , four or five to a shelf, ten shelves high. On the top shelf, in separate bags, are the clothes – if any – the men were still wearing when their bones were found; bullet-ripped t-shirts, mouldering, blood-stained jeans. These are the men whose bones have been found so far, but not yet buried. "We've identified about 300 of them so far," says Vucetic. "We're waiting on the DNA results for the others."

Once the men have been identified, the clothes and the bones are re-united again.

Mujic's shin bone and skull were found in a secondary mass grave in Lipija, explains Dr Rafet Kesovic, the chief forensic pathologist at Tuzla mortuary. He is sitting at his desk in his office, a Portakabin glued onto the side of the mortuary. "The human remains there were mostly dismembered," he says. "That meant we had to test a large number of bones. The DNA tests helped to identify the person but also to re-associate the bones with each other." They don't bother to test bones from feet and hands, Kesovic says; the bones are too small, and the chances of getting a good amount of DNA is unlikely. They go for the big bones, legs and arms.

"Normally, as a forensic pathologist, my job is to identify the cause of death. Sometimes we can say they were killed by firearms or grenades. But in 70% of the cases for Srebrenica it's obviously not possible as the bodies were dismembered. I couldn't tell in this case."

Kesovic's desk is piled high with files, each buff A4 folder represents one of the men now bagged up in the mortuary. He starts to search the pile. "The worst case we've had is one person being found in five different mass graves. Here we are . . . " He pulls up a file and checks his notes. "Your man was found in two."

"Often in the mass graves we find the bodies with blindfolds, or we can see that their hands were tied, along with specific projectiles by the bodies, so we can tell it was an execution," says Kesovic."

Who killed them, however, is a legal question. It's for the police and the war crimes tribunal. We just make reports and send them to the prosecution office."

Lolic was at work when his wife rang to tell him his brother had been found. She'd been contacted by the International Red Cross of Serbia. "It was really hard for me, but it was also a relief. We assumed he was dead because he hadn't shown up after all these years. But even so, you still hope."