DID YOU KNOW?  -- Three years before the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide, Serbs torched Bosniak villages and killed at least 3,166 Bosniaks around Srebrenica. In 1993, the UN described the besieged situation in Srebrenica as a "slow-motion process of genocide." In July 1995, Serbs forcibly expelled 25,000 Bosniaks, brutally raped many women and girls, and systematically killed 8,000+ men and boys (DNA confirmed).

12 May, 2007


"We can for the first time say that the 8,000—maybe more but certainly not less missing from Srebrenica is accurate." Source: The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP)


Mass graves are still turning up on the killing fields of Bosnia. Behind the ongoing battle to identify who the bodies are and how many people really died there.

By Ginanne Brownell
Newsweek [Republished for Fair Use Only. ]

The genocidal massacres of Srebrenica took place more than a decade ago, but Kathryne Bomberger relives them every day. As the director general of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), Bomberger spends a good portion of her days visiting mass graves. Another grim stop: the Podrinje Identification Project (PIP) in Tuzla, Bosnia. Specially built to house recovered remains of Srebrenica victims, it is filled from floor to ceiling with body bags and thousands of bones.

There are also poignant personal items like clothing, photos and, in one instance, a handwritten German-Bosnian dictionary. Bosnian and international anthropologists and archaeologists extract DNA and use ante-mortem reports from family members to identify which skull goes with which arm. It’s a painstakingly long process—and one that Bomberger says is only half done. For the ICMP, Srebrenica is only one part of a story of missing people across the globe—the organization has used its specialized technology to identify remains from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Bomberger, who hails from the U.S. state of Virginia, spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Ginanne Brownell from the ICMP headquarters in Sarajevo about how far the group's work has come and how far it still has to go. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: There has always been controversy about just how many people have gone missing in the Balkans. What are the numbers according to your DNA findings?

Kathryne Bomberger: From the region there were 40,000 missing overall, which includes Croatia and Kosovo. Of that number, about 30,000 were missing from Bosnia. We can for the first time say that the 8,000—maybe more but certainly not less—missing from Srebrenica is accurate. We can tell this based on the rate of blood-sample collection. You have to collect at least three different family members’ blood samples for every missing person. The 85,000 blood samples [collected so far] accounts for 28,000 different individuals missing from the conflict.

What do you say to those who claim the numbers are exaggerated?

Using DNA has proved to be an invaluable tool in providing truth regarding these disputed events. In 1999 we had hit a brick wall in making identifications—if there was no body there was no crime. After [former U.S. secretary of State] Madeleine Albright said [the United States] had satellite photos showing mass graves, the perpetrators went out and dug the bodies and moved them. We found one body in four different locations 50km [30 miles] apart. So we went to the families and said, “We are not sure if [DNA] is going to work but work with us and we will try.” We had to educate them about this DNA. We had to mount a huge campaign to take blood samples. We had to build a lab, and it was not until 2002 that we had a functioning process. We made our first DNA match of a 15-year-old boy from Srebrenica in 2001. So since that time to today we have made 12,000 DNA identifications of individuals in a five-year time span with over 1,000 for Thailand, 1,000 for the Balkan region and 9,000 for Bosnia. Of the 9,000 DNA matches, 4,174 of them relate to Srebrenica.

How much longer will this process take in Bosnia?

We hope by 2010 to assist in 9,000 to 10,000 DNA identifications—bringing the total to 20,000. A lot of people were identified before using DNA, so by 2010 probably most everybody will be accounted for. This is unique in history—we are a political organization that uses science as a tool to help find people. DNA proves that in this politically charged environment, where mass graves are political land mines being misused for political gain, we can provide concrete accurate evidence of what did happen.

Every year the graves keep popping up. Last year there were three exhumed with thousands of cases. How many graves do you expect to find this year?

Photo Credits: Archived bone samples of Srebrenica massacre victims in ICMP's center in Tuzla Maybe three. [Since the end of the war] I would say about 500 or so mass graves have been discovered. We are hoping that the implementation of the national Missing Persons Institute this year, which will require that the abolition of the two separate offices in the two separate entities of Republica Srpska and the Federation [of Bosnia and Herzegovina], will merge to a national structure. [It] will create for the first time a unified list of missing persons.

Though Srebrenica makes news in Bosnia almost every day, the rest of the world seems to have forgotten what happened here. Does that depress you?

It just reinforces the work that you have to do and to getting it right. Dealing with the past is important for the future, so we need to document these atrocities and give a record of what happened. What you are ultimately hoping for—stupid us—is that it does not happen again. And of course it is happening again in Sudan.

Published by Newsweek on May 11th, 2007:
Digging Up the Secrets of the Dead. Republished for Fair Use Only [Educational / Non-Commercial purposes]. Photo credits for Archived Bone Samples in ICMP's Center in Tuzla -from ICMP web site.