Forensic Experts Unearth Mass Grave

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Forensic Experts Unearth Mass Grave


By: Danilo Krstanovic

Date: July 25, 2002

Source: Reuters/Corbis

About the Photographer: This photograph was taken by Danilo Krstanovic, a photographer for Reuters (newswire service), on July 25, 2002, at a mass graves for victims of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica.


In the summer of 1995, as part of a program of "ethnic cleansing" being carried out by Serbia in the country of Bosnia and Herzogovina, Serb military forces executed some 8,100 Muslim males civilians, from teenagers to elders, near the town of Srebrenica. Bodies from the massacre—actually a series of massacres, not all committed one day or in one place—were buried in several mass graves. Several months later, in an effort to conceal these facts, Serb military forces used earth-moving machinery to excavate the mass graves and move the bodies to fresh graves in more remote locations. This picture shows a member of an international team excavating one of these secondary graves in 2002 as part of a project to identify the victims.

Following the G-7 summit in Lyon, France in 1996, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was formed to uncover information about persons who had disappeared in the various wars and conflicts that had occurred in the Balkan states in the early 1990s. (The G-7 or "Group of Seven" consisted of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.A, who together represent about half the world's economy; it has since become the G-8, with the addition of the Russian Federation. The G-8 meets periodically to discuss economic and other issues.) The ICMP's operations were later expanded to cover missing-persons cases from Macedonia and Kosovo, where conflicts had also occurred. The ICMP has also assisted in identifying human remains from the tsunami of 2004.



See primary source image.


The main activities of the ICMP are carried out by its Forensic Science Department, which, in the ICMP's words, "has the primary responsibility within ICMP for developing, implementing and managing the technical process of assisting governments in exhumations, examinations, and identifications of persons missing as a result of violent conflicts." Exhumations are a primary activity because many of the people who are disappeared in these conflicts are buried after being shot. The ICMP's Forensic Science Department has three divisions:

(1) Excavations and Examination Program. This is the division at work in the photograph. This division detects burial sites and excavates them to recover human remains and all possible information about their origin, identity, and circumstances of interment. "Anthropological examination" of the remains and any artifacts found with them is one of the methods used in collecting this information, hence the presence of an anthropologist in the photo.

(2) Identification Coordination Division. Many of the people murdered and buried in the conflicts studied by the ICMP left surviving relatives. Identifying victims' remains depends largely on matching DNA from bone marrow in mass graves with the DNA of living relatives. Moving the Srebrenica bodies with power machinery to secondary mass graves tended to tear them apart and mingle them, making DNA identification of remains particularly needful. To match DNA of victims to living relatives, DNA from those relatives is also needed, so the Identification Coordination Division of the ICMP has carried out an extensive program of collecting blood samples in order to construct a DNA database.

(3) DNA Laboratories. This division extracts DNA from the samples dug up by the Excavations and Examination Program and subjects them to analysis. The ICMP has become an acknowledged world leader in forensic DNA extraction and matching.

The Srebrenica massacre, because of its magnitude, has been the largest single project of the ICMP. Human remains from Srebrenica recovered by the ICMP are transported to a dedicated mortuary and examination facility in Tuzla in eastern Bosnia. Thousands of body bags containing remains of victims of the Srebrenica massacre are kept on shelves in this refrigerated facility, pending identification and burial.

The ICMP program has been notably successful. As of the end of 2001, at which time ICMP made its first DNA match, only about 100 Srebrenica victims had been identified; since that time the ICMP has identified about 3,500 of the massacre's 8,100 victims through DNA matching. As of 2006, the work was continuing

State terror in the form of "disappearance"—meaning abduction, torture (often), execution, and clandestine burial (usually)—has been used by a number of governments in the last several decades, including Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Serbia, and others. The goal of clandestine burial is to erase evidence of the perpetrators' actions and terrorize the surrounding population with fears of disappearance and presumed death. The ICMP strives, by undoing the anonymity of some victims, to reduce the effectiveness of "enforced disappearance as a tool of war." Also, by documenting the numbers and identities of victims, the ICMP provides scientific information that can be used to refute revisionist claims about the number and identity of the victims. For example, politically motivated claims have been made to the effect that the Srebrenica massacre did not really happen, or was not as large as claimed, or that the dead were soldiers killed in combat, not murdered civilians. A recent report issued by the government of Serbia claimed, for example, that only 1,800 soldiers had been buried at Srebrenica, not 8,100 civilians. The ICMP's data precisely and scientifically refute these claims.



Rohde, David. "Graves Found that Confirm Bosnia Massacre." Christian Science Monitor. Nov. 16, 1995. Available at 〈〉 (accessed March 23, 2006).

Web sites

International Commission on Missing Persons. 〈〉 (accessed March 23, 2006).