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.

Reviving Srebrenica

The town of Srebrenica teeters on the brink of existence. It was once an affluent place, known for its metal factory and large spa. Nowadays, its streets resonate with emptiness and despair. Bosnians are quick to advise you not to visit, saying something along the lines of “don’t go there, the place is empty.” Srebrenica is now infamous for being the site of the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II. July 11th marked the twentieth anniversary of the genocide.


The many faces of Srebrenica at the end of the march.

In attempt to pay homage to those mercilessly killed, we took part in the Mars Mira, or March of Peace. We set out in the village of Nezuk alongside 10,000 others, and ended in Potočari. The march commemorates the 15,000 men who fled to Tuzla in hopes of escaping Serbian persecution after the fall of the Srebrenica enclave on July 11, 1995. The predominantly Bosniak area of Central Podrinje was of strategic importance to the Serbs, because without it, there would be no territorial stronghold within their new political entity, the Republica Srpska. Hence, it was in Central Podrinje, and other parts of Eastern Bosnia where the Serbs proceeded with systematic ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks. The Mars Mira is made in reverse order, and ends in Potočari, at the site of the former Dutch “safe zone.” The “safe zone” fell when the Dutchbat were unable to reinforce their batallion and deter the relentless Bosnian Serb attacks. Today, a large memorial is located across the street from the safe zone, and at the end of the march bodies are laid to rest that have been identified that year. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons, 6,930 bodies have been identified from 17,000 body parts found in dozens of mass graves. However, 1,000 victims from the massacre have yet to be identified. This year, there were 136 burials of newly identified bodies.

The genocide that took place at Srebrenica represents the largest DNA-identification project ever conducted, and provides unfaltering proof of the massive atrocity. Despite this, many people claim it never happened. The official ruling of Srebrenica was highly complex and took years to complete. It began with just two detectives from Croatia, who knew nothing about the area, or the extent of the events. They stated that it was like trying to extract diamonds form a coalmine to obtain the best witnesses from a complex web of information. Like Rwanda, it became increasingly apparent that the killings had been systematically planned, indicating that the cases should be treated as genocide. Eventually, Judge Theodor Meron ruled on behalf of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that “among the grievous crimes this Tribunal has the duty to punish, the crime of genocide is singled out for special condemnation and opprobrium. The crime is horrific in its scope; its perpetrators identify entire human groups for extinction. Those who devise and implement genocide seek to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions provide. This is a crime against all of humankind, its harm being felt not only by the group targeted for destruction, but by all of humanity.”

The Peace March was a test of physical and mental resolve, and a humbling experience to say the least. Emotions ebbed and flowed over the course of the three days, ranging from a tremendous hope in humanity to an incredible anguish. People came from all corners of the world to participate in the march, some with direct connections to those killed, others who fled Bosnia, and others simply because they had a deep love for the country. Their individual stories enriched the journey, and provided unique perspectives.

The memorial was an overflowing of international dignitaries. Back in Srebrenica, the town had been transformed into a bustling city. Cevapi stands lined the streets, the highway overflowed with cars and buses, and people opened up their homes to accommodate the mass of walkers, and dignitaries. We remained in Srebrenica the day after the memorial, and awoke to a desolate city. A few photographers and journalists remained in the local coffee shop, making final edits on their work before sending it off to their agencies. It served as an eerie reminder of Srebrenica’s future. Hassan Hasanović, the curator of the memorial, and a survivor of the march, accompanied us for most of the weekend, and in an interview with the BBC made the plea “the whole world should show that there is life here after the deaths. We need to persuade people to invest here and have their future here, especially the young people. If young people leave, Srebrenica will die. So my question is – does the world want Srebrenica to die again?”


Sarajevo: A Meeting of Coffee Cultures

The history of Bosnia is very much intertwined with the history of coffee. The Bosnians were by no means pioneers in the coffee movement, however, their geographic location placed them at an ideal crossroads to incorporate coffee consumption as a meaningful daily activity. My first impressions of Bosnia came when we crossed the border from Croatia to meet up with our Bosnian tour guide, Faruk. Faruk insisted the most important thing we do before exploring his country was to get to know each other over a cup of coffee. imagesWe marveled as he managed to make an espresso last over an hour. While slowly sipping, he explained the importance of coffee, and the role it has accorded in most Bosnians lives.

Once outside Africa, coffee beans were utilized and quickly spread throughout the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Shortly after, when the Austrians defeated the Turks in the Battle of Vienna, it was discovered that the Turks leftover spoils were in fact coffee beans. The Austrian officer who received the spoils used them in Vienna’s first coffee house. He helped make the coffee more palatable by adding sugar and milk to the acidic coffee.imgres Bosnia, whose history is uniquely indebted to both countries, has assumed their own identity that is a delicate balance of East and West. Strolling through the old town, you walk across a compass with two directions: East and West. The compass symbolizes the country’s tug-of-war between the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarians, and how despite the pull of both empires, Bosnia managed to emerge as their own unique entity.

Our first cup of coffee drew to a close, and Faruk used the dwindling time to discuss – what else – Starbucks. He remained baffled by the company’s success. Why would someone enjoy being corralled into a line only to be served a large, syrupy coffee only to leave 10 minutes later with very limited interaction? Coffee, he said is meant to be shared, and is an opportunity to spend time with loved ones. Coffee is a special opportunity to cherish time with one another, and you never know if you’ll see someone again.. It’s a common quip that in Bosnia happiness is not measured by the amount of wealth you have, but by the number of close friends you have. Coffee is merely an excuse to enrich these relationships. img_2294-0


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