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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 July 2005, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
A life identifying Srebrenica's dead
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Exhumations at a mass grave near Srebrenica, Bosnia
New excavations have recently started at several mass graves
The burial of more than 600 identified victims of the Srebrenica massacre on Monday marks another stage in a remarkable and innovative project.

DNA samples are being used to put names to the remains of as many as possible of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslims killed and dumped in mass graves by the Serbs 10 years ago this month.

The 600 join more than 1,400 others already identified and buried.

One of the scientists leading the task is Dr Eva Klonowski, a forensic anthropologist born in Poland who later took political refuge in Iceland.

Her name has just been added to the list on a joint application called 1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005.

"I always liked bones very much," is the laconic way in which Eva Klonowski explains her commitment to work which has brought comfort to the relatives of the Srebrenica dead.

In addition her results have huge implications for the identification of victims of other mass disasters.

Already authorities in Thailand are trying to learn from this experience in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami.

"I kept skulls as a student," she said in an interview on a visit to London. "My first boyfriend gave me one. My mother was terrified and my husband later had the task of cleaning it."

Secret history

That husband, Irek, whose geniality complements her steely determination, was with her on a skiing trip in Austria in 1981 when martial law was declared in Poland.

They decided not to go back. "We wanted to be far away from communism," she said.

Eva Klonowski(2nd left) at an exhumation in Bosnia
Eva Klonowski (2nd left): 'My vacations are exhumations' says her husband
The couple accepted an offer of asylum from Iceland and have lived there ever since.

Irek prompted his wife to reveal the family history that helps to explain her interest in identifying the dead.

It goes back to the exhumation of her grandfather from the Katyn forest massacre in Poland in 1943.

"He was in the Polish army reserve when the Soviet Union invaded from the east in September 1939 following the German invasion in the west.

"The reservists were sent to the east, were captured and later shot by the Russians. His letters from a camp to my grandmother ceased in the spring of 1940.

"My grandfather was dug up by the Germans, keen to make propaganda out of this, in the first exhumation. His body was number 2828. He was identified by a postcard from my grandmother who had an unusual name in Poland, Elvira."

Dr Klonowski's own full first name is Eva-Elvira.

Fragments of memory

That event gave her a lasting ambition to see that relatives are given the satisfaction of finding remains over which to mourn.

"It is absolutely important and the same all over the world. When someone you love dies, you bury them or perhaps scatter the ashes.

A woman sat quietly patting some bones, a tear slowly fell from her right eye. Her brother said it was time to go and she replied: 'Let me touch him just once more.'
Dr Eva Klonowski

"Our human reaction is to have a place to go and sit or pray or put a candle or a flower. It is exactly the same whatever religion.

"My father died from a heart attack. When we go back to Poland, we always go to the cemetery where he is buried. It is an iron part of coming home."

Dr Klonowski has seen the effect on the Srebrenica relatives of having even part of a body - and usually just the bones - identified as a loved one.

"In one factory where we were examining bones, I heard a woman sobbing near a body bag. She was clutching her hands to her chest.

"Her sobbing and choking became uncontrollable and she was collapsing, so we called an ambulance.

"I noticed she was holding part of a shoe with thread hanging from it. She had recognised it as the shoe of her son which she had mended. The ambulance crew wanted to take it off her but I told them they would have to cut her hands off first.

"Another woman once sat quietly patting some bones. A tear slowly fell from her right eye. Her brother said it was time to go and she replied: 'Let me touch him just once more.'

"I showed a skull to one woman who recognised the teeth of the dead husband. Her daughters were with her and crying. One of them asked me to take the skull back and close the body bag but the woman reached back in, took out some bones and started to kiss them."


When the Bosnian crisis broke in 1992, Eva Klonowski knew that her moment had come.

"I was horrified. It was part of Europe. You saw the horse carts, the people on tractors, the burned houses. I felt I was totally useless as a human being. So when the war ended and there was talk of exhumation, this was something I could do."

The project to try to identify all the victims was not an easy one to start nor has it been straightforward to carry out.

The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, for which Eva Klonowski first worked through its contractor the US-based Physicians for Human Rights, was interested only in gathering evidence as to how people died and who killed them, not in identification.

She admits to a frustration with that approach and she hints that she has been involved in many a bureaucratic battle as her determination clashed with political agendas, ran into lack of money and the indifference of governments unless put under pressure.

So in 2001 she started working for the International Commission on Missing Persons.

Based in Sarajevo, its work concentrates on the Balkans, but its aim is very much to put names to the bones.

Exhumation vacations

The job is more complex than the use of the magic phrase "DNA" might suggest.

"There are primary, secondary and even tertiary graves," Eva Klonowski says.

Dr Klonowski examining bone fragments
Identifying exhumed material is a long, laborious process
"The Serbs started to move the bodies to more remote sites once they realised that the outside world knew what had happened.

"They brought in back-hoes and diggers to do the job and the decomposing bodies often broke up. Sometimes we get different parts of a body from different graves. Once I predicted that two pieces of bone would fit together. They did. People applauded.

"The DNA analysis is also only taken so far because of money problems and this means that we often have to use other means of making a final confirmation, such as bone structure, previous fractures and teeth.

"That is where I come in. Sometimes we get a DNA match to any of perhaps several brothers and we cannot identify an individual.

"There was a case involving a girl in which we found remains which could have been any of her five brothers or her father. I asked if she wanted them buried. She said she would wait for completion."

Dr Klonowski expects completion, in so far as that is possible, to take another 10 years and she intends to be there to see it through.

So will Irek whose humour, one senses, helps to keep her going. "My vacations are exhumations," he comments with a smile.

And it is he who tells me, right at the very end, of his wife's nomination to the list of the 1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005.

She would not have mentioned it.

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