INTERVIEW: Naming the Dead in Bosnia

The most violent period in human history is considered to be the 20th century, where an estimated 191 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly as a result of conflict, and more than half of them were civilians. Half a million people live in countries at risk of instability that could end in battle.

In the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) was added to the list of 21st-century conflicts where 100,000 people lost their lives, 80,000 women and young girls were raped, and over a million people were displaced as a result of war crimes and genocide committed by its neighbors, Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia.

According to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), in total, it is estimated that the war in Former Yugoslavia resulted in 140,000 missing persons, of which 100,000 are in Bosnia, and 31,000 were unaccounted for when the fighting stopped. An estimated 23,000 of those missing persons have been accounted for as of June 2017, while 8,000 are still missing.

The Missing Persons Institute in Bosnia (MPI) annual budget covers the costs of field reconnaissance activities, excavations, storage of mortal remains, and burials. MPI's budget per year has been decreasing, for instance in 2008 it was at 6,455,467 BAM (US$3,651,649), but over the years it was significantly reduced, and in 2017 that figure stood at 3,334,000 BAM (US$1,885,936), as the number of missing was decreased due to a dedicated work of the ICMP to find and exhume mass graves.

I visited the Podrinje Identification Centre in Tuzla, northeast Bosnia, and I learned that the center which identifies remains found in mass graves around Srebrenica is financially unstable. To continue its work, it must receive more permanent funding. The building itself looks unkempt, with leaking roof evident by the yellowish stains on the walls of the center, which also houses a massive mortuary with remains of those whose families choose not to be buried until all parts of their bodies are found. On the table in front of me are two skeletal remains of two men found in a mass grave buried there by Ratko Mladic's troops who also executed them.

The costs of the Podrinje Identification Project (PIP) and other storage facilities in the Federation of Bosnia are paid for from the Bosnia budget via MPI Bosnia. The MPI transfers the funds to Cantonal and District Prosecutor’s offices every year on a need basis. Speaking with me about this, including the challenges faced in Bosnia, I interviewed Kathryne Bomberger, Director-General of ICMP, an American who has been responsible for this center since 1998.

“We are concerned about the funding for the entire process, including the PIP, and we want to ensure that there is sustainable funding for the years to come. But I am concerned with what could potentially happen with the funding in general.”

According to their website, ICMP is responsible for “providing technical assistance to governments in locating, recovering, and identifying missing persons.” Bomberger, however, is responsible for giving the names to the Bosnia’s dead, and while she once said she works for the living, if the dead could talk, they would say she works for them too. Bomberger tells me she is happy with the results achieved in Bosnia so far

“there are still 8,000 persons missing, so we want to make sure that the government of the region remains vigilant and accounting for other missing person cases.”

She continued:

"In 1999, we assisted the Bosnian government in creating PIP, which is relevant to persons missing from the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica. The number as you know is astronomical, and the capability of the Bosnian government or any country to deal with a number of that many missing persons was impossible. So we created a team in Bosnia, specifically in Tuzla, where bodies are stored after being recovered from Republika Srpska. When it comes to PIP, we have fought over the years for sustainable funding from Bosnia to go towards identifying and looking for missing persons.”

And while Munira Subasic, president of Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves, speaks highly of the work ICMP has done to help mothers like her and other families find their loved ones, the ICMP has identified a problem in their work. Bomberger explains that ICMP only started using DNA in 2001 after seeing a first successful match of a 15-year-old boy’s remains killed in Srebrenica, and before this, cases were closed without DNA.

“There could be a significant misidentification issue. Together with the Bosnian authorities and experts, we’ve gone through 11 mortuaries in Bosnia to determine which cases cannot be closed before solving the issue of miss-identification that took place before the DNA was used. So every time, given the new identification methods, we are confronted with new issues and challenges. I hope we will be able to overcome this one as well.”

I ask Bomberger whether this miss-identification would force the exhumation of the graves?

“I think that is a possibility which we have put on the table with Bosnian authorities, with prosecutors office, and the families of the missing. But I think as far as we are concerned, if there is a problem and our hypothesis says there could be, we would rather that the families of the missing know exactly what they are up against so that they are in the position to decide for themselves what route they’d like to take on this issue. But we don’t know the scale of the problem yet.”

But it does affect not only the families but also all the cases that have been processed through as a result of evidence collected over time as mass graves are exhumed. Those graves are increasingly challenging to find, and most of them are located in today's Republika Srpska, where former Prime Minister and current Serb member of the presidency of Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, has denied genocide took place and has claimed that numbers are exaggerated. Bomberger said:

"Our ability using scientific methods, including DNA to provide irrefutable evidence of the personal identity which could be linked back to the scene of a crime, provides a very powerful scientific narrative of exactly what happened. I have to say we've been transparent throughout this process in providing every authority in the region from Serbia to Croatia to Bosnia to Kosovo information as we receive it regarding the identity of the victim, so they know very well what has happened."

And while politicians like Dodik and other Serbs deny the enormity of the crimes committed in Bosnia, the evidence speaks for itself. But laws that need to be implemented have not been, and for that Bomberger said:

“As far as I am concerned, the law on missing persons still need to be implemented that is clear. Right now, families of the missing are going without that right because the law has not been fully implemented, and it is absolutely critical that it is. Secondly, the agreement on the missing person institute needs to be amended, and this is the process that we started in 2009, and yet the Council of Ministers has not yet amended the agreement.”

She continues:

“Thirdly, I would say that the Institute for missing persons itself through the amended agreement needs to be transient and the capacity to search for the person who is missing regardless of their ethnic-religious or national origin or role during the conflict must be maintained. Fourthly, I think that the central records must be implemented as well. To date, Bosnia does not have a central record of persons who have gone missing, and that is due to political reasons, that also impede the abilities of the families of the missing to access their right, in particular, the right to reparation.”

When we spoke, she had just returned from Mexico, and she said that

“Mexican government has looked at what Bosnia and the governments of the region of the Western Balkans have accomplished and they see it as a model for what they could do, and many other governments see it in that way too. I think with the authorities and the families of the missing and thousands of other people, something significant and something worthy of observation by other states has been accomplished in Bosnia.”

Another accomplishment is also the bodies pulled out of the rivers. I told Bomberger, of one of my earliest memories of the war was when Arkan, a Serbian warlord, and his thugs blew up a bridge on River Sava as 100s of civilians were trying to cross into neighboring Croatia. The blast had caused bodies to dismember, ending up in the River Save and some parts all over the town. I asked her whether there have been cases where ICMP has exhumed bodies from the rivers? She said that a massive collection of remains took place between 24th July and 2nd October 2010 when Serbia drained one part of the lake due to the overhaul/repair of the hydro-power plant at its end. Search, and recovery efforts were led by state and local agencies and included the MPI, the Commission on Missing Persons of Serbia, local Bosnia forensic pathologists, crime scene technicians from Serbia state police, Visegrad, and Srebrenica. Legal representation included personnel from the district prosecutor’s office, the Investigative Judge from Serbia, and Border Police from both Bosnia and Serbia. The activity resulted in 163 new identities from both sides of the river of Bosnia and Serbia.

“This was an amazing effort, and it was surreal, and as a consequence, a number of bodies were pulled out from the river bed, including as we went deeper, soldiers from WWI. We were able to, for the first time, test new capabilities to try and identify bone samples that have been in the water for a very long time, and in many cases, I think we succeeded in extracting the DNA from the sample.”

It takes a large organization of institutions working alongside the Bosnia government to bring that little bit of comfort to the victims, something Bomberger understands far too well better than most at the UN Security Council. There are a few people who can share that understanding with her, and they have all worked on post-war Bosnia. Yet, only those who have lost loved ones in brutal wars will also understand the suffering that never ends, especially for those identifying remains of some 50 members of their family.

“For the missing what we have tried to do, and it is about the living, is we try to secure their right to the truth, the justice, and economic reparation. And I think for the families of the missing, in particular from the Western Balkans, given the Mladic and Karadzic trial have taken place in the context of the Western Balkans, does serve as a model in terms of justice, and make no mistake the families of the missing want justice.”

Concluding the interview, I ask Bomberger how she has felt working in Bosnia, especially with Mother’s of Srebrenica who holds her and the ICMP in the highest regard, she says:

“They are my friends, we have been on this journey together for a very long time. They are my teachers. When I first met Munira and the families of the missing of Srebrenica and some other places in the region, I felt very strongly that this was an issue we could partner on, and we could work on together. They are mainly women, they weren’t treated very nicely, in the beginning, I have to say, and I felt as somebody coming from the outside of the region and through an international organization, we could be strong and speak on their behalf and partner with them. So I think the sense of accomplishment is one that is shared between us and the families of the missing and many people who have played a very significant role in making this happen.”

There are not that many people in the world who have shown the victims the respect Bomberger has. She does not discriminate. She works with victims of all ethnic groups. Her fight for victim's rights speaks volumes. While many politicians, including those from the international community, have sought to minimize the impact of war in Bosnia, ICMP has proven them wrong. And if the dead could speak, they would honor Bomberger's legacy, just the same way as she honors theirs.

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