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Giving Bosnian victims a name

A Bosnian Muslim woman weeps near the coffin of her brother, exhumed from a mass grave, during a funeral this year for 33 victims who were killed in the war that ended 13 years ago.

Associated Press

A Bosnian Muslim woman weeps near the coffin of her brother, exhumed from a mass grave, during a funeral this year for 33 victims who were killed in the war that ended 13 years ago.

In just a few days, Radovan Karadzic, who stands accused of war crimes and genocide, will enter a plea at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague. His trial will be the latest exercise in international criminal justice, holding leaders to account for crimes they ordered or had the power to halt.

Karadzic has been indicted on 11 counts, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and extermination. During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he led the Serb separatist area and, along with military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, is accused, among other crimes, of masterminding the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims (now more commonly called Bosniaks) at Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, in July 1995.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) estimates that the Bosnian Serb army and police systematically executed 8,100 men and boys after the fall of the Srebrenica "safe area" on July 11, 1995, when the Dutch U.N. battalion, fearing rout, allowed the Bosnian Serb army into the enclave.

Even now the grim forensic accounting continues. In ICMP's mortuary in Tuzla the air hangs thick and musty — the dank odor of mortal remains excavated from mass graves, placed in numbered plastic burlap sacks, stacked seven high and 15 wide. Brown paper bags of clothing found on or with the remains, also carefully labeled, top the shelving. A neighboring room contains personal effects, such as walking canes, ID cards and canteens.

In many cases, the whole male line of a family was wiped out. Just last month, on the 13th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica, 308 bodies found in mass graves and identified by the ICMP were reburied.

The massacre was among the final acts of a brutal 3½-year- long war that killed more than 97,000 people, with perhaps up to 10,000 yet to be added, according to a landmark study last year by the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo. About 41 percent of the dead were civilians. Although 97,000 is about half the number most commonly cited over the past decade, the meticulous documentation presented by center director Mirsad Tokaca should put a definitive end to such apologia as "all sides suffered equally" and therefore "all sides are equally guilty."

Bosniak casualties were not only significantly higher in number — particularly in the opening year of the war, when "ethnic cleansing" was essentially unopposed because Bosnia had no army, and in the war's final year — Bosnian civilian casualties also outnumbered military, while Serb military casualties outnumbered civilians 5 to 1.

NATO finally intervened about two months after the massacre, and its light bombing campaign, combined with a Croatian-Bosnian joint offensive, helped lead to the Dayton Accords, which followed in November 1995.

It's worth remembering that for some time after the Bosnian war, Karadzic roamed freely in Bosnia, despite being indicted and the presence of 60,000 NATO troops. Later he went into hiding; speculation at the time usually placed him in the mountainous area between Serbia, eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, and his native Montenegro. That he was living disguised but openly in Belgrade as an alternative medicine guru named "Dragan David Dabic" was shocking in its insouciance. He will enter his plea on Thursday.

ICMP's Podrinje Identification Project aims to identify bodies unearthed from mass graves in the Drina River Valley, the area with the greatest number and proportion of civilian casualties during the war. Most "primary" mass graves, where those murdered were initially buried, were dug up after then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright revealed satellite imagery of mass burials to the U.N. Security Council. Serb forces then reburied the bodies in "secondary" mass graves, where they became mixed or "commingled" — and nearly impossible to positively identify by traditional methods. One person's remains can be found in separate graves — parts of one man were found at four sites.

To meet this challenge, the ICMP has had to tailor new and cost-effective DNA matching techniques to identify the remains — methods that have made the ICMP a sought-after partner to identify bodies from such natural disasters as the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, and most recently for such crimes as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's 1973 "caravan of death." The method requires DNA samples from living relatives of the missing, most importantly parents or children, but from other relations as well. In Bosnia's case, more than 86,000 blood samples were collected in an international effort; these are linked to 28,600 missing persons. This provides the database for matching the DNA from remains, usually long bones or teeth, to individuals.

At the project's mortuary in Tuzla, Cheryl Katzmarzyk, who leads ICMP's anthropological examination, notes that clothes, as well as occasionally helping identify remains, can give evidence of how the persons who wore them died. I asked whether she meant bullet holes, looking at a shirt drying on a rack with some closely grouped holes in it. "Exactly," she replied.

The center painstakingly links the remains of individuals killed at the same execution sites but spread among many secondary mass graves. The bones of some 140 individuals were laid out on long tables and shelves in the large room, each bone and fragment individually marked with a numbered foil tag. The skeletons of three brothers are laid out side by side. DNA from parents can only ensure identification as a child, but not which one absent other data. Two of four missing brothers could be positively identified by other distinguishing features, relative age, or because they themselves had children with matching DNA. But one partial skeleton could only be narrowed down to brother number three or four. More evidence is needed to positively identify him.

Every year on July 11, the remains of those identified are buried at Potocari, near Srebrenica. Families have sole discretion as to whether to bury a loved one who has been only partially found. Great is the trauma suffered by some who have buried a loved one only to find more remains later, and face the choice of disinterring the previously identified remains. ICMP refrains from contacting families until a significant amount of remains have been identified.

As the forensic identification process continues, so does the effort to bring the massacre's perpetrators to justice. With the conviction of Bosnian Serb Gen. Radislav Krstic, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia established that Srebrenica was genocide. Krstic, the former commander of the Drina Corps, is serving a sentence of 35 years in Britain for aiding and abetting genocide, murder, extermination and persecution. The International Court of Justice, which adjudicates disputes between states, confirmed that genocide occurred at Srebrenica in a ruling last year.

With the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, only one accused architect of the massacre, military commander Ratko Mladic, remains at large. He is strongly believed to be living in Serbia. The Netherlands and Belgium, alone among European Union members, insist upon his arrest and transfer to The Hague as the final condition for progress toward EU membership,

Serbian President Boris Tadic's government weathered the domestic criticism for arresting Karadzic, who many Serbian nationalists regard as a hero unfairly maligned in the West. His government has seen its position strengthened as a result. There are indications that Belgrade wants to finish the job by handing over the last indictees, to clear that hurdle in its relationship with the EU, and focus on another contentious matter: the independence of Kosovo.

Will the man accused of being operationally responsible for creating the tangle of human remains that is still being sifted ever see justice? That largely depends on the continued lonely leadership of the Dutch and Belgian governments, and the readiness of those, including the U.S. government, who bankroll the international tribunal to continue financing its work until justice is done. If those most responsible for atrocities in Bosnia face trial, then the principle of accountability for crimes against humanity will be strengthened, and similar atrocities might be avoided in the future. With the accusations between Russia and Georgia over war crimes, and probable charges against Sudan's Omar al-Bashir for genocide in Darfur, this principle of accountability is needed more than ever.

Kurt Bassuener is a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council ( and served as strategy analyst in the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia in 2005-2006.

Giving Bosnian victims a name 08/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 2:41pm]
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