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DNA the Latest Weapon in Bosnia War Aftermath

Forensics: Identifying remains is slow, difficult and wrenching. New analysis offers hope to grieving survivors.


TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Like a kid with a jigsaw puzzle, Nancy Fichter arranges fetid bones on a table until they form a male teenager. Finding no identifying clues, she sighs and puts him back into a numbered mesh sack.

Another 4,150 puzzles wait in the cold room behind her, each jumbled into muddy white bags with separate sacks for rotted clothing. All were shot by Serbs at Srebrenica, in the best known but hardly the only Bosnian atrocity.

Five years after the war ended, 25,000 to 30,000 people are missing, most of them still hidden in graves under mounds of garbage, in the rubble of mosques or in mine-studded fields. About 90% are Muslims.

Anthropologists like 29-year-old Fichter, from Michigan State University, peer hopefully for healed childhood bone breaks or deformities a mother might recognize. So long after the fact, they mostly peer in vain.

"It is frustrating, and when there are decayed bits of flesh to cut away it can be disgusting," Fichter said. A stench that defies description underscores her point. "But it is important."

A deal struck in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 21, 1995, silenced the guns. Today Bosnia is hard enough for the living, with lingering hatreds and economic depression in a land that suffered 200,000 deaths in three years. For many, the dead are a secondary priority. But survivors need answers to rebuild their lives.

"Counting family members and close friends, maybe a quarter-million people desperately await news," said Gordon Bacon, a former homicide detective from Britain who heads the missing persons project in Bosnia. "That is an awful lot of misery and sadness."

The year after the Dayton accord, leaders of the Group of Eight nations set up the International Commission for Missing Persons. Now, headed by former U.S. Sen. Robert J. Dole and run by Bacon, the commission struggles to operate on a budget of about $5 million a year.

"We know we can't help everyone," said Bacon, a burly, graying veteran in the field of humanitarian aid. "But if we can just get the financial resources, we can relieve a great deal of this pain and uncertainty."

The United States has given $10 million over four years. The Dutch, whose troops were based at Srebrenica when it fell, have paid about $4 million. Britain has donated only an initial check for $15,000.

"We are trying to raise more," Bacon said. "There is nothing at all from the Middle East, although for Muslims a proper burial is almost a sacrament."

So far, specialists have relied on conventional means to identify bodies: recovered documents and personal items; skeletal peculiarities; an occasional match from rare dental records.

Fichter and her husband, Robert Ashford, work in Tuzla trying to trace nearly 8,000 Muslims killed in Srebrenica in 1995. So far, only 109 of them have been identified.

Elsewhere, Eva Klonowski, a Polish-born anthropologist from Iceland, helps Bosnian specialists find scattered mass graves and identify remains.

When family members provide a name, DNA tests are used when possible for confirmation. Only 70% of what scientists call "presumptive identifications" by relatives are found to be accurate.

But now the ICMP is shifting its emphasis to wide-scale DNA sampling. With state-of-the-art laboratories in Bosnia, the cost will be cut by two-thirds to $300 per case.

This will speed up the process substantially. It will also require extra funding. For a complete DNA database, field teams must collect 75,000 blood samples from close relatives in Bosnia and abroad.

"At this stage, DNA is the only hope for many of these cases," Klonowski said, standing amid a different sort of puzzle board she had laid out at Visoko, near Sarajevo.

Seventy-three zippered white body bags lay on a concrete floor under a tin roof, each topped with ragged clothing, shoe fragments and items from pockets. Families browsed among them, like customers at a macabre flea market.

One hefty woman in a scarf stopped at bag No. PK15B, her eye caught by the remnants of her son's sneakers. She snatched up one shoe and clutched it to her breast. Then she collapsed in sobs until an ambulance came to take her away.

Moments later, PK18B, lying nearby, also had a name, thanks to the last shreds of a familiar leather belt. If DNA confirms these two, they will bring to 45 the identifications from the 73 bodies Klonowski found in August at Visegrad and Rogatica.

Although buried for eight years, many of those bodies could be identified quickly because the circumstances of their disappearance remained fresh in their families' memories.

Serbs herded Muslims from Visegrad into a bus, supposedly heading to a camp. The men were taken to a forest and executed, one by one. A lone survivor escaped, running through the trees in a hail of bullets. He fell and was presumed dead.

The man walked for two days, his hands tied behind his back, until a sympathetic villager found him and nursed him to health. When the war ended, he took investigators to the massacre site.

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