EXHUMATION begins the DNA forensic process. Officials from the International Commission on Missing Persons, including Queen Noor of Jordan (fourth from left), oversee this June 2003 disinterment of a mass grave outside Sarajevo. Image: AMEL EMRIC AP Photo
Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina--Forensic anthropologist Cheryl Katzmarzyk stands above three metal tables pushed together, hundreds of finger bones laid out neatly before her. Not long ago the metacarpals had been found dumped together in a mass grave, the jumbled remains of bodies dug up and moved several times in an effort to conceal a massacre. "There are about 22 people here," she estimates--bits and pieces of the roughly 8,000 Bosniak men and boys killed in Srebrenica alone.
For 10 years, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has been assembling data on the 40,000 civilians who disappeared in the wars that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Its archaeologists help to locate burial sites and assist in exhumation. Then Katzmarzyk and other forensic anthropologists work with molecular biologists to apply state-of-the-art techniques to reassociate and identify remains. It is a daunting assignment: The bodies, mostly men of about the same age, have been buried for years. Decomposing pieces of one person could be spread into five different graves and commingled with other parts.
The quest to identify victims began in 1992, when the United Nations asked forensic adviser William Haglund and a team from Physicians for Human Rights to investigate a mass grave in Croatia. Four years later they returned to document war crimes in the Srebrenica region and collect data to match missing people with exhumed bodies there. Early on, families resisted, insisting their relatives were alive, Haglund recalls. The investigators had to build trust and, before asking for a blood sample, have a potential identity in hand. But that led to delays in collecting DNA for shipment overseas and lots of mistaken probable identifications. In massacre situations, up to 40 percent of circumstantial matches turn out to be wrong, according to one recent study in Kosovo.
Furthermore, the original investigation's primary purpose was prosecution, not identification. The G7 Summit nations voted in 1996 to fund an international laboratory that would focus on the missing and could analyze DNA on-site. Many were skeptical, though, that the newly formed ICMP would succeed. "This was based on a sincere concern that the DNA-identification program could create expectations on the part of families and would be unable to deliver," recalls Eric Stover, who directs the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and was on the forensic team in Croatia. Now, he says, the ICMP's work has become a blueprint for similar efforts elsewhere.
Progress was indeed slow until six years ago, when the ICMP shifted to blind DNA matching. Now, instead of starting with family interviews and anthropological forensics, scientists begin with genetic analysis of the remains. Technicians painstakingly recover whatever DNA they can from a bone, then compare 16 markers against a database of DNA profiles from 80,000 survivors who lost a family member during the war. "We're now at our highest efficiency ever," says ICMP forensics director Tom Parsons. In early July, just after its 10th anniversary, the ICMP identified its 10,000th person. Parsons expects results to soon reach 5,000 a year.
To piece together the bodies from Srebrenica, Katzmarzyk first conducts bone-to-bone DNA matches, relying on just six markers. Working with a team of interns and local experts, she next reassembles as much of a skeleton as possible. Team members check bones for consistency in length and robustness and make sure that anomalies such as rheumatoid arthritis show up in both knees, not just one. They estimate age and stature based on known standards of bone growth and degeneration specific to the Bosniak population. Then a bone sample goes out for genetic matching with the family database. Without DNA, muses forensic anthropologist Laura Yazedjian as she contemplates one reassembled skeleton, "this guy would have been without a name forever." Finally, the team cross-checks age and stature and asks relatives if they recognize clothing. A court-appointed pathologist goes through the entire package with the family, who must agree to declare the person dead.