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Investigators try to identify thousands killed during Bosnian civil war — July 27, 2001

July 27, 2001

Copyright 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
The Macon Telegraph
July 27, 2001, Friday

KR-ACC-NO: K5952
LENGTH: 953 words
HEADLINE: International investigators try to identify thousands of people killed during civil war
BYLINE: By Drew Brown

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina _ The remains of 4,420 people are stacked floor to ceiling in a refrigerated room a few blocks from this town’s central square.

Row upon row of white body bags fill stainless steel shelves in a morgue measuring 50 feet by 100 feet.

Across the hall, workers examine and catalogue clothing and other personal effects recovered with the bodies in a meticulous effort to put names and faces to the legions of dead still missing from Bosnia’s civil war.

The Missing Persons Institute in Tuzla is one of three such facilities in Bosnia. The 1992-95 conflict killed 200,000 people and left another 20,000 unaccounted for.

The nine-person staff of the Tuzla facility is charged with locating and identifying victims of the July 1995 massacre at Srebrenica. The incident was the single worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.

“We (estimate) 10,700 missing persons from the Srebrenica massacre,” said institute official Zlatan Sabanovic. “We expect that we are going to find between 7,000 to 8,000 bodies.”

No one knows for sure how many people died at Srebrenica. Estimates vary from 6,000 to more than 10,000 victims.

Srebrenica had been declared a “safe area” by U.N. officials earlier in the war. Muslim refugees packed the enclave when the Bosnian Serb army surrounded and moved against the outgunned Bosnian government defenders.

As the government army retreated through the mountains, the Serbs overwhelmed a small force of Dutch peacekeepers, who had been ordered by U.N. commanders not to fight. The Serbs took 32 Dutch troops hostage. The Serbs threatened to kill them if NATO warplanes struck the area.

On July 11, 1995, Serb gunmen gathered Muslim civilians at a battery factory and separated the men from the women. They took the men away, and later murdered nearly all of them. The Serbs expelled the women, more than 13,000 of whom ended up in a refugee camp at the Tuzla airport. The location is now Eagle Base, headquarters for the American peacekeeping sector in Bosnia.

Srebrenica was not an isolated incident. Paramilitary forces murdered tens of thousands of civilians, particularly in the Serb-held areas in the east.

Finding and identifying the Srebrenica dead, most of them old men and boys, has been especially difficult because the Serbs dug up the bodies and buried them in scores of secret locations.

So far, officials have found about a dozen secondary mass graves. Institute officials announced June 11 that they have opened investigations at a dozen other sites in eastern Bosnia.

“We expect to find another 1,200 bodies” at those sites, Sabanovic said.

A government official in Sarajevo announced July 8 that forensics experts have uncovered more than 100 sets of remains from several of the new locations.

Only 1,850 of the 4,420 sets of remains in the Tuzla morgue are complete skeletons. Many body bags contain just a few bones. DNA testing has identified only 118 victims so far. Another 73 results are pending, according to Sabanovic.

The process is painstaking. DNA analysis for a single case can take up to six months.

“The International Committee on Missing Persons expects that DNA testing will take around seven years,” Sabanovic said. “Right now, our family outreach program has collected 10,000 blood samples from relatives.”

The identification process also involves a lot of guesswork. Forensics experts try to match clothing and other articles with the remains as best they can. But the bones of several victims often are mixed together, Sabanovic said.

The institute assigns a number to every item and piece of clothing, corresponding to the remains with which they were found. Workers clean these items, photograph them and place them in cold storage with the body bags.

Sabanovic leafed through a catalogue that contained snapshots of clothing and personal effects, with an identification number and a short description listed below each image.

“We have to do this because we don’t have identification cards or other documents with the bodies,” Sabanovic said. “We have to have something with which to start. If someone recognizes something in these books, then we can open a case.”

Last month, about 354 cases were under investigation.

Sabanovic slowly turned the pages. A musty odor pervaded the building. The only sound was the hum of the refrigeration unit in the morgue.

Here was all that was left to identify the dead: a set of striped, tattered underwear. A dirty pair of athletic socks. A denim shirt spotted with dark stains. A cigarette holder. A pair of rubber galoshes. A rotten pair of canvas boots. A patch of blue cloth. Most of them belonged to different victims.

A green shirt lay on the floor, waiting to be photographed. The short sleeves were frayed and rotting. Blood stained the front of the shirt.

Victims’ relatives held a ceremony at Srebrenica on July 11 to mark the massacre’s sixth anniversary. About 5,000 Muslims, most of them women, placed a memorial for their sons and husbands.

A three-ton granite marker sits in a cornfield with the inscription “Srebrenica, July 1995.” Plans call for eventual burial of massacre victims at the site, about 45 miles northeast of Sarajevo.

Srebrenica is in the Serb-held territory known as the Republic of Srpska.

About 2,000 Bosnian Serb police and several hundred U.S. peacekeepers provided security for the event.

Meanwhile, the search for the dead continues. Sabanovic says the work often overwhelms him.

“But it’s easier to work at this facility than it is with the families,” he said. “That can be a very tough job.”

(c) 2001, The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.).


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