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Last Updated: Monday, 6 June, 2005, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK
Bosnia helps trace tsunami dead
By Nick Hawton
BBC News, Sarajevo

ICMP forensic experts at mass grave in Bosnia
The ICMP was set up to identify Bosnian war victims
Forensic experts used to identifying bodies from mass graves in Bosnia are turning their expertise to help the Thai government identify victims of the Asian tsunami.

Renee Kosalka, a forensic anthropologist, is scraping the dirt from a bone found in a mass grave near the town of Zvornik in eastern Bosnia.

"It's difficult to say how many bodies are here," she tells me.

"It's a really difficult grave to deal with. It's been disturbed and it's been used as a rubbish tip after the bodies were dumped. Not only that, but we're close to the underground water level."

Ten years after the Bosnian war, mass graves are still being discovered. The remains are usually some jumbled up clothes and jumbled up bones. There are at least another three mass graves within a few hundred metres of this one.

"At this stage, all we can say is that they're mainly young males aged between 15 and their early 20s," says Renee.

And until a few years ago that is about as far as identification would get, investigators having to rely on relatives perhaps identifying some of the clothing in the graves.

But then the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), set up in the aftermath of the war to try to identify thousands of victims, developed special DNA extraction techniques.

Justice

Their expertise has persuaded the government in Thailand to ask ICMP to try to identify up to 2,000 killed by the devastating tsunami at the end of last year.

Bone samples from the victims have already been flown to special laboratories in Bosnia, where ICMP scientists are applying the same techniques they have used for victims of the Bosnian War.

ICMP laboratory using special techniques to extract DNA from bones
By identifying victims you provide truth, a form of justice
Doune Porter
ICMP communications director
At ICMP headquarters in Sarajevo, the Canadian head of the DNA programme, John Davoren, shows me the techniques that have helped to identify the victims in mass graves.

The extraction of DNA from bones has been traditionally a very difficult process - especially if carried out on a mass scale.

"The bones are cleaned and bar coded. We then extract the DNA from the samples using special chemicals we have developed," says Mr Davoren.

"Once we have the DNA profile we use special computer software to match the DNA profile with the DNA of the relatives of the victims. The results are extremely accurate. We can identify bone samples with an accuracy of about 99.9999%."

The skills pioneered by ICMP have been used by those investigating the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and also in attempts to identify up to a million people missing in Iraq.

At this stage, only the Thai government has formally asked ICMP to get involved in tsunami identification. But other countries in the region are thought to be interested in following their lead.

ICMP's principal mandate is to help identify the victims of war and human rights abuses. But they believe their specifically developed skills can help under different circumstances as well.

"By doing this work, by identifying victims you provide truth, a form of justice and that way you can help stabilise a peace process and hopefully bring some type of reconciliation," says Doune Porter, Director of Communications at ICMP.

And by identifying remains, a certain amount of peace is brought to the relatives of the victims, whether killed in a man-made disaster like the Bosnian war or a natural disaster like the tsunami.




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