The Bosnia-based group that names the nameless

Formed after the Bosnian war, missing persons body now works globally

Bosnia Muslims pray near coffins at the memorial centre in Potocari during a mass burial near Srebrenica three years ago. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Bosnia Muslims pray near coffins at the memorial centre in Potocari during a mass burial near Srebrenica three years ago. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

The green valleys of Bosnia lie quiet now. War ended 20 years ago, many residents who fled the slaughter never returned out of fear or lack of work, and most young people left for a new life somewhere less poor, divided and scarred.

Two hours’ drive east of Sarajevo, close to where Bosnia meets Serbia, a pale road noses south between lush fields and allotments. Most of the houses are small and tidy, recently built or with a new roof or windows. But here and there stands a ruin, staring out from the past through gouges in its bomb-blasted walls.

The wooded hills shoulder in and climb higher as the road winds on, and then a flash of white appears around a bend, before spreading out along one side of the valley floor and flowing up over grassy banks towards a dark line of trees.

More than 6,000 marble steles stand in the village of Potocari, each marking the burial place of a Muslim murdered in July 1995 by Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb forces when they overran the next town along the road – Srebrenica. They died because Mladic and his allies were bent on ethnically cleansing this part of Bosnia to create a racially pure “Greater Serbia”.

The dead belatedly have the dignity of an individual resting place and headstone, their remains and identities rescued from the mass graves into which they were dumped. This is largely down to the work of a little-known organisation.

The International Commission on Missing Persons was created in at a G7 summit in 1996, on the initiative of then US president Bill Clinton, to ensure the states of the former Yugoslavia accounted for people who had disappeared during the recently ended wars.

“It was quite revolutionary,” said the commission’s director-general, Kathryne Bomberger, at its headquarters in Sarajevo. “Before, you basically had the Geneva Conventions that defined what warring parties should do during conflict, but in the western Balkans and now Syria and elsewhere, we see that warring parties don’t protect people. Sometimes, they massacre them. So our mandate said what states should do after the war.”

The conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia, and in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, killed some 140,000 people; when fighting stopped, some 40,000 were missing.

“Having such a large number of missing persons was an impediment to rebuilding society and establishing peace and justice,” said Bomberger. “What we made clear in Bosnia was that governments must search for the missing, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, political allegiance or their role in the conflict. It was very tough, but now 70 per cent of the missing from the Yugoslav wars are accounted for and 90 per cent of the 8,000 killed at Srebrenica.”

Just as daunting as persuading hostile states to co-operate in accounting for people whom they had “disappeared” was the technical task of finding and identifying the bodies of victims whose killers intended them to be lost forever.

Civilians murdered in Bosnia’s war have been found in hundreds of graves around the country, some containing hundreds of bodies. Remains are still regularly discovered: in 2013, a mass grave of almost 400 bodies was unearthed.

Most victims were Bosnian Muslims killed by Bosnian Serbs, who often subsequently tried to cover their tracks by digging up their victims’ remains with bulldozers and moving them long distances by truck to another mass grave.

It is common for the remains of one person to be found at several sites. It is only by collecting more than 90,000 blood samples from Bosnians and using new DNA analysis that the commission has identified so many of the missing.

The expertise of the commission is now employed around the world, in war-ravaged states such as Iraq and Libya, and in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the 2004 southeast Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005.

“Now we can act globally in all cases of involuntary disappearance, whether resulting from conflict, human rights abuses, disaster, organised crime or trafficking,” said Bomberger. “The case of a refugee fleeing Syria, for example, could cut across several of those categories.”

The work of the International Commission on Missing Persons – to which Ireland is not a donor – is only likely to grow, as millions of people are registered missing and mass migration is on the rise.

“The issue of missing persons is as old as mankind,” she said. “People have been disappearing forever because of conflict and slavery. There is not a place on the planet that does not have a missing persons problem or is not responsible for disappearances . . . Finally, we have a way to fight this.”

Born out of a European war nearly 20 years ago, the commission has visited Ukraine to offer help in the continent’s latest conflict. Some 6,500 people have died and more than 1,300 have gone missing in fighting that pits Ukrainian troops against militants and their Russian allies.

“Kiev was very eager to receive our assistance,” said Bomberger. “It may be hard to identify bodies because they are not from Ukraine or they may be victims of forced disappearance . . . and it would have to include Russia, so it would be a very complicated political issue.

“But that’s the reality. Here we have Kosovo dealing with Serbia and Serbia with Croatia and so on. We’ve created cross-border mechanisms to deal with these issues and we would love to help Ukraine.”

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