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The International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia Herzegovina

 Digging up tortured past

Photographs by Eddie Gerald

The violent breakup of Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War left a painful legacy. It is estimated the conflict claimed over 100,000 lives, with thousands more missing, amid the chaos of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

One small office, in a nondescript business park on the outskirts of the Bosnian industrial city of Tuzla, belongs to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) which is an intergovernmental organization that addresses the issue of persons missing as a result of armed conflicts, violations of human rights, and natural disasters. The ICMP office in Bosnia was tasked with the almost impossible - to trace and identify the 40,000 people missing at end of the Yugoslav wars. It makes thousands of DNA-assisted identifications of missing persons by analyzing DNA profiles extracted from bone samples of exhumed mortal remains and matching them to the DNA profiles obtained from blood samples donated by relatives of the missing.

The process of identifying the Srebrenica victims is arduous. Bone samples from victims are taken for DNA testing and matched with profiles on the ICMP database. Courts require that DNA matches are of 99.95 percent probability or higher. Once a body has been formally identified, the person is officially pronounced dead.


The ICMP facility is open to the public but relatives are discouraged from visiting to see the remains.

Governments worldwide trying to cope with missing persons, from Iraq to Colombia, and from South Africa to Norway, now come to ask for the ICMP’s assistance. The organisation has identified in its Sarajevo laboratory Chilean victims of General Pinochet killed in the 1970s.  The ICMP assisted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and after the Asian tsunami. The organisation will also assist the Libyans by deploying the same operationally-trifurcated approach that reaped success in the Balkans.

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