The 20th Century’s Most Complex Forensic Investigation

Human remains line the walls from floor to ceiling at the Podrinje Identification Project (PIP). PIP is one of three of the International Commission on Missing Person’s (ICMP) facilities, and one of two that deals directly with the human remains related to the fall of Srebrenica. The ICMP was founded in 1996 by President Clinton to address the issue of missing persons from the former federal republic of Yugoslavia, and its extenuating conflicts from 1991 to 1995. Thus far, over 70% of the victims that went missing from these conflicts have been accounted for. ICMP has worked alongside governments in the region to accurately identify 16,722 persons, of which 13,964 relate to the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The numbers, particularly those related to Srebrenica are staggering, and fail to bring justice to the havoc that was wrecked on this once harmonious, and diverse region.

Srebrenica represents one of the most complex and comprehensive forensic investigations of the 20th century. It has taken over twenty years to find 90% of the estimated 8,0000 victims, and those that have been found were scattered across a territory spanning 2,800 square kilometers. The most complicated forensic challenge has come in the form of locating and identifying the victims. The initial mass graves, also known as primary graves, were unearthed and the bodies were removed and buried in a series of secondary sites in an attempt to conceal evidence. As a result, body parts are scattered throughout multiple sites. Body remains have been found at up to four different sites.

The ICMP was initially utilizing a traditional forensic method of identification for these bodies, however, it became increasingly evident that this method had its limitations. The arduous process of identifying victims of the conflicts warranted techniques that weren’t yet available. The ICMP developed DNA identification in order to more conclusively identify the remains. This is done by taking DNA profiles from blood samples of family members with missing relatives. The DNA profiles are then analyzed and compared, and the bodies are identified. In one instance, a woman came in for a blood sample in hopes of identifying her son who was presumed dead in Srebrenica. The ICMP was able to find a match to her blood, but it was deemed too old by traditional forensic investigation to match the profile of her son. Further investigation revealed the match to be her father who was killed in WW2 alongside the river Drina in Eastern Bosnia.

The ICMP is uniquely indebted to one individual for his tireless assistance in finding the remains of Srebrenica victims. Ramiz Nukic scours the hillsides near his birth home in Kamenize, eastern Bosnia day after day in search of human remains. He has no job, but feels that it is his moral duty to help the ICMP in their identification process. Since 1999 when he began his search (in hopes of finding his father and brother), he has brought countless families closure by finding their loved ones in this tragically beautiful countryside. He recalls the day that he fled from Srebrenica, and hardly recognized his own home, because the hillside surrounding it was covered with the dead. Each time he discovers bones he contacts the ICMP who then take away the remains to be identified through DNA analysis. He stated “I feel bad when I don’t find a bone…. But am happy when I do. Because one family will find closure.” The ICMP found the body of his father this year, and he was able to bury him at the Srebrenica memorial on July 11.

Ramiz Nukic and Hasan Hasanović in Kamenize

Ramiz Nukic and Hasan Hasanović in Kamenize

Since its inception nearly two centuries ago, the ICMP has become the world’s leading authority on missing people. Its headquarters have been transferred from Sarajevo to the Hague to become a permanent global body. The techniques pioneered at the ICMP have helped identify victims of natural disasters, political repression, drug crime, apartheid and war. Countries where it has proven successful have been in Thailand, the Philippines, Chile, South Africa, the United States, Iraq, Colombia and Libya. The ICMP provides some degree of consolation for the widespread deaths that occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina by bringing families unrequited solace and closure. Upon entering the PIP headquarters, you’re overcome by a sense of helplessness when confronted with the scope and complexity of those missing. In the short amount of time we were able to spend with Ramiz Nukic, it was amazing to see how one individual was able to overcome such a daunting physical and mental mission. His tireless pursuit and humility have been integral to the success of the ICMP, but more importantly, have called those directly and indirectly involved in the Srebrenica genocide to redefine how they choose to deal with and confront loss.
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