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Burying the dead

By 1st Lt. Philippe Mouret
First published in
SFOR Informerr#127, November 28, 2001

On Tuesday, Nov. 20, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) led one of its last exhumations of the year in co-operation with the Commission on Missing Persons of Republika Srpska (CMP RS), and with support from SFOR.

Hadzici - On this cold autumn morning a convoy formed in front of Sarajevo International Airport. But, in the Bosnian capital, winter is already here. Snow covers the streets and fields, and it will fall again during the morning. The column gathered ICMP and CMP RS teams, an SFOR protection group and a Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) Federation (Fed) police escort. They departed at 9:90 a.m. to Hadzici (Fed), 11 kilometres west of Sarajevo. After 20 minutes, off-road vehicles left the main road to make their way up a snowy track through the surrounding hills. Thirty minutes of slow progress and the group joined Zoran Dzida, Srpsko Sarajevo District Court Investigative Judge, on the research site.
The teams assembled that day searched for the two bodies of Bosnian-Serb soldiers who may have been executed by Bosniac fighters in 1992. A witness was there to direct searches. The location fixed, CMP RS members, led by Slobodan Skrba began to dig. German Battle Group (GE BG) soldiers from Rajlovac kept watch.
Two organisations are in charge of exhumations in BiH: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the ICMP. ICTY is responsible for the charging of war criminals. Exhumations allow for the establishment of possible culpability. ICMP was created on June 29, 1996. Its mission is to resolve cases of missing persons during the war and to help families to determine their close relations' fates. It is the first commission of this type to have been created in a post-war situation; its current president is James Kimsey. Main ICMP donors are Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, the United States and the United Nations. Missing persons searches are initiated by families' demands to local authorities or to the three ethnic CMPs (Bosniac, Bosnian-Croat or Bosnian-Serb), to ICMP or to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). ICTY has priority. It intervenes in investigation sites where a war crime is suspected to have occurred. Mostly, in that case, tribunal anthropologists work in association with ICMP ones. In other cases, it's this last one which takes responsibility for the whole process.
This consists of entities commission teams and investigation supervisors both of which work in co-ordination with local authorities. Every exhumation is subjected to an inquiry by local courts. "My work is to ensure that excavations are correctly made," explains Rick Snow, ICMP Forensic Anthropologist. "I determine the sex and age of found individuals. Then, local forensic scientists carry out autopsies and determine the cause of death." The mortal remains identification process has revealed itself to be the most effective method to end the majority of missing persons cases.
SFOR is in charge of exhumation sites protecting teams on the sites. When ICTY intervenes, it carries out permanent surveillance to avoid the disappearance of any exhibits. French Gendarmerie Maj. Alain Grandjean, SFOR liaison officer to ICTY and ICMP, underlines: "SFOR signed a memorandum of understanding with ICMP by which it undertakes to supply support in terms of security, and information on mined areas and on the state of the roads." On the other hand, mine clearance of sites is financed and managed by ICMP.
30,000 missing, 12,000 exhumations
ICMP considers that between 25,000 to 30,000 persons went missing in BiH during the war of 1992-1995. Most are estimated to be in several hundred mass graves, mainly along the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) and on the road from Srebrenica to Bratunac, where, according to the ICMP, up to 8,000 Bosniacs were executed by Gen. Ratko Mladic's Bosnian-Serb troops in July 1995. According to various local commissions' leaders, 5,000 persons have been identified of the 12,000 exhumed since 1995 in the whole of BiH. Michael Portillo, an ICMP leader, said that 40,000 persons are reported missing in the FRY.
A new DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) analysis method is going to allow the acceleration of the identification process and to reduce its cost. This one, worked out by ICMP experts in BiH, is based on comparison of DNA from the bone marrowof bodies and that of missing persons' families blood. Three laboratories are operational. One, in Sarajevo, is specialising in osseous analysis and two others, in Tuzla and in Banja Luka, specialise in blood analysis. This technology is also used in Croatia, in Serbia and in Kosovo, but was also supplied to the United States to assist in the identification of the victims of the Sept. 11 atrocities. The programme should allow for the analysis of 450 remains a month. Experts hope to test the DNA of all human remains exhumed in five to seven years. The process's speed depends on the established database of the families' blood samples. At the end, 100,000 persons should be referenced. Today, 17,566 samples have been collected. For Gordon Bacon chief of the ICMP in FRY, this programme should contribute to the reconciliation process in all the Balkans.
Missing Persons Institute
Uncertainty about missing people is a permanent source of fear for families and an obstacle to restoring civil peace in BiH. The Missing Persons Institute (MPI) was created on Aug. 15, 2000, on the initiative of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), ICRC and ICMP, to assure a lasting structure dedicated to identifications at national level.
Today, in the snow-covered woods of Hadzici, the searches resulted in nothing. CMP RS's team turned over the undergrowth for four hours without a result. But Skrba is not discouraged: "Never mind. We will be back tomorrow and we will continue to dig."
Grandjean concludes: "The first concern should be to return bodies to families, so that they can bury their dead and do their mourning."

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