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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 12:09 GMT
DNA clues to Bosnia's missing
The remains of victims of the Srebrenica massacre
Each body contains a unique DNA fingerprint
By Andrew Carter in Tuzla

Ramiza Hodzic's hands are shaking as she takes a sip from a small cup of strong Bosnian coffee.

The families need to be told 'That box contains the remains of your loved one'

Gordon Bacon
Chief of missing persons commission

She keeps stopping to wipe away the tears as she tells the story of her missing 15 year-old son and her husband.

They both disappeared during Bosnia's bitter ethnic conflict in the early 1990s as they tried to flee their home.

"We came to a barricade with Serb soldiers, where they told my younger son to step out," she said. "I was telling them not to take him away as he was young and he was sick."

"They told me: 'Don't you worry, we will treat him with medicines and when he is better we will bring him back to you.' That was the last time I saw my son."

Mass murder

Fuad Hodzic and his father were victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign on a scale not seen in Europe since the Holocaust.

Muslim woman at Srebrenica memorial ceremony
It is hoped that naming the dead will alleviate the grief and loss

Some 40,000 civilians were murdered as Serbs, Muslims and Croats fought for control of Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. Most of the victims were male, and most were Muslims.

The task of putting names to the bones in the mass graves was so big that a specific organisation was set up - The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

"The families need to be told 'That box contains the remains of your loved one'," says Gordon Bacon, the ICMP's chief of staff and a former UK detective.

"Then they can bury that person and be satisfied that person is dead. Only then can they get on with their lives and have closure."

It is an immense and grisly task, but the ICMP's scientists recently made a crucial breakthrough. They used DNA analysis to match some of the bones with their living relatives - and began giving some of the victims a name.

DNA identification has been used in the past in plane crashes, but it has never been attempted on such an enormous scale.

Anonymous remains

At the city cemetery in Tuzla, northern Bosnia, is a huge cold store that looks from the outside like a small industrial unit.

Inside is a catalogue of human misery and suffering - the anonymous remains of 4,000 people killed in the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995.

The air stings with the stench of decay. Rows and rows of unlabelled white body bags make a disturbing sight.

In an adjoining room, workers cut small bone samples from each skeleton and store them in a domestic freezer. These fragments are then taken to the ICMP's laboratory in Sarajevo, where they are powdered and their DNA is extracted and profiled.

Now I can bury him, I can go and see his grave

Widow of identified victim

This gives each skeleton a unique "fingerprint".

John Crews, the ICMP's DNA laboratory director, said: "If you think of your DNA as a book of about 300,000 pages, we are looking for information found on 16 of those pages."

The computer screen behind him glows with columns of red, green and blue lines - the DNA profiles of 34 bodies.

One of the problems is that the genetic material in the bones degrades over time.

"We start by looking for a needle in a haystack," he said. "Using genetic amplification techniques we make the needle bigger than the haystack."

At the same time, all across Bosnia teams of investigators are tracking down the families of the missing and taking blood samples for DNA testing.

The blood and bone profiles can then be compared to look for matches. The first match was made just a few weeks ago.

"I don't know if there was a dry eye in the room where we did this comparison," said Ed Huffine, the ICMP's director of forensic science. "It showed everything we had laboured for in the past two-and-a-half years worked."

When the system gets up to full speed, it is hoped hundreds of identifications could be made each month.

Hopes of healing

A few weeks after giving her blood sample, Ramiza Hodzic was one of the very first people to be told the news they all dread - the remains of her son Fuad had been identified.

Blood samples
Blood samples are taken from family members of the missing

"It's better for me at least to know where his bones are," she said. "Now I can bury him, I can go and see his grave."

There is a long silence as Ramiza fights back tears.

"They say we must all live together now, but I don't know how I can deal with that," she said. "I wish my heart would break into pieces. I wish I could die."

Naming Bosnia's dead will not bring and end to the families' misery, but it may start to build some pillars of truth in a society riven by resentment and distrust.

And without these pillars, bridges between the divided communities will never be rebuilt.

See also:

06 Jul 01 | Europe
Where are Karadzic and Mladic?
05 Jul 01 | Europe
Mixed views on Balkans pair
13 Mar 00 | Europe
Bosnia massacre trial opens
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