Identification of War Victims in Croatia and Bosnia (World of Forensic Science)
Forensic analyses are used for many types of investigations, including those of wartime crimes against humanity, such as occurred in Bosnia and Croatia during the 1990s. A combination of forensic techniques, including forensic DNA analysis, forensic dental analysis, ballistics analysis, and others, were used to identify the victims of violence in these newly independent countries.
At the end of World War II, the communist country of Yugoslavia was formed and was comprised of multiple ethnic groups that were continually at odds. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe, violence erupted in regions of now former Yugoslavia. Various regions declared independence in 1992, and others attempted to expand by invading neighboring territories. The diverse ethnic backgrounds of the former Yugoslav states added to the conflict and wars broke out amongst the different ethnic and religious groups. During several bloody years, more than 100,000 people were killed, a vast majority being civilians. Access to the region by the international press was limited, but reports from those who were present as well as Croatians and Bosnians alike, suggested that ethnic cleansing was rampant and mass executions were commonplace. Similar atrocities were committed in the Kosovo region of the former Yugoslavia, where ethnic Albanians and Serbians were both allegedly the victims of ethnic cleansing.
Many of the dead were buried in mass graves and survivors were forced to flee to neighboring regions for safety. When aid workers and forensic teams were allowed access to the war-torn regions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Kosovo, many of the mass graves were exhumed to identify the dead and determine the cause of death. As of March 2005, the identification of victims is ongoing. Most of the bodies were decomposed to mere skeletal remains when the teams arrived. However, this still allows for a significant amount of information to be gained about the individuals. Initial means of forensic identification include detailed examination of the clothing and belongings on and around the skeletons. Height is estimated and sex determined if possible. Unique skeletal features are then noted and x rays obtained. Then, dental records are used to compare the dead to the dental records of missing people.
Although some individuals may be identified using unique skeletal features, most cannot and require DNA analyses to be performed using DNA isolated from the teeth or bones of the skeletons. Multiple laboratories are currently performing DNA analysis corpses removed from mass graves. In general, commercially available molecular kits are used along with PCR techniques to amplify unique gene sequences, or STR (short tandem repeat) loci. In some cases mitochondrial DNA (genetic material in the mitochondria, organelles that generate energy from the cell and are inherited from the mother), is being used. The sequences obtained by these analyses are then entered into a computer and compared to a database. This database contains sequences of DNA determined from blood samples of relatives of missing persons. Comparison of the sequences and DNA profiles enables scientists to determine whether or not the skeleton in the mass grave was a relative of someone registered in the database. In addition to mass graves, thousands of bodies remain in refrigerators and morgues waiting to be examined and profiled.
In 1996, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was created and given the responsibility of helping remaining family members find their missing relatives. The ICMP assists all victims in the former Yugoslavia, regardless of religion or ethnic background. Organized into four major areas: the forensics program, family association development, the political program, and the DNA program, the ICMP has the goal of training scientists and technicians around the region to set up a network of laboratories for victim identification and to help rebuild the war-torn communities.
Investigators have encountered many complications examining mass graves in countries that were once Yugoslavia. Because of the implication of war crimes against humanity, some of the mass graves have been disturbed by perpetrators. Bodies were often moved, mutilated, or other actions taken to attempt to disguise the cause of death. At The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is responsible for bringing criminal charges against those allegedly involved in the war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Forensic investigators are discovering evidence that some murdered individuals were killed execution-style or tortured. Physical forensic examination of the bodies is key to the ongoing trials, as evidence such as bullet holes in the skull and blindfolds may indicate execution-style shooting.
It is expected that the war crimes trials of individuals responsible for atrocities in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo will continue for years. This is also the case with the identification of victims in mass graves found across the region.
SEE ALSO DNA; DNA databanks; DNA fingerprint; DNA mixtures, forensic interpretation of mass graves; DNA profiling; Odontology; STR (short tandem repeat) analysis; War crimes trials; War forensics.