- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Divided by war, Bosnia, Croatia and Yugoslavia may be united by death through a DNA database intended to help identify the remains of tens of thousands of victims of the bloody Balkan conflicts.
Scientists say the genetic sleuthing techniques — which will compare DNA drawn from survivors with DNA extracted from bones unearthed from mass graves — can help put names to the bagged bodies stacked in refrigerated rooms and the bits of bone stored in plastic 35-millimeter film containers.
The International Commission on Missing Persons wants the expanding database to serve as a "warehouse of DNA information" bridging the borders and mistrust separating the three nations, said Ed Huffine, director of the commission's DNA program.
"It's important because families who are missing family members very often live in different countries now from where the body is going to be recovered," Mr. Huffine said, citing the many ethnic Serbs who fled Bosnia and reside in neighboring Yugoslavia.
The bodies are the legacy of the wars that rocked the region between 1991 and 1999.
Last month, the commission took a major step in breaking down borders, signing an agreement with U.N. officials to allow investigators to collect blood and bone samples in Kosovo.
A preliminary agreement is also in place for the commission to work with existing labs in Croatia, and talks are under way in Yugoslavia — where mass graves containing the bodies of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo are being unearthed — to begin a program there within two months, Mr. Huffine said.
So far, the focus has been on Bosnia, where an estimated 30,000 are missing nearly six years after the war's end.
The magnitude of the problem is most apparent in Tuzla, where 4,419 body bags stacked in refrigerated rooms serve as grim reminders of the Srebrenica massacre that left 8,000 men and boys dead when the Muslim enclave fell to Serbian forces in 1995.
Once stored in tunnels under the city, the remains were moved to their temporary resting place last year, but "unfortunately, all is filled up already," said Rifat Kesetovic, the commission's chief forensic pathologist.
Scientists have tried to identify the remains using traditional forensic techniques, but so far that has yielded only 124 identifications. Many dental and medical records were destroyed in the war, and much physical evidence has deteriorated over time and exposure to the elements.
In addition, "there was a deliberate attempt to mask evidence of crimes," with bodies unearthed from mass graves, moved, and reburied, leaving scattered remains, said Brenda Kennedy, the commission's forensic program director.
Now scientists are turning to nuclear and mitochondrial DNA analysis for help.
Nuclear DNA varies widely among individuals because half is inherited from the mother and half from the father. If both parents donate blood, it's easy to make a match. But nuclear DNA quickly deteriorates.
Mitochondrial DNA remains better preserved. "It can be used for very damaged and very old specimens," Mr. Huffine said.
Because it is passed down through the maternal line, any relative from the mother's side of the family is a match.
In less than a year, more than 12,000 people have donated blood for the project. Investigators hope about 60,000 more will step forward.
"Once they have at least 100,000 samples, then we can expect that almost every body we find can be identified," said Amor Masovic, who heads the Muslim Commission for Missing People in Bosnia. "One day, every result will be positive."
In June, scientists in Tuzla began extracting DNA from the blood. The DNA is repeatedly replicated and then sequenced.
At a new lab scheduled to open in Sarajevo this month, sections of bone from the victims — will be pulverized and the DNA extracted and sequenced to compare with the blood-sample results.
A third lab, planned to open later this year in the Bosnian Serb administrative center of Banja Luka, will do blood and bone analysis in cases after tentative identifications have been made.
Ivan Gruic, head of Croatia's missing persons office, said remains of more than 3,000 Croats have been exhumed from mass graves in his country, and 80 percent have been identified, primarily using traditional forensic techniques.
About 1,500 Croats remain missing, as well as 1,000 ethnic Serbs.
Mr. Gruic is unenthusiastic about the new database. If Croatia needs information from other countries, "there are bilateral agreements that enable us to get it," he said.
But in Kosovo, the commission's work is seen as a boon.
Susan Manuel, spokeswoman for the United Nation's Kosovo mission, said that war crimes tribunal experts exhumed the bodies of about 4,000 Kosovo Albanians, and that about two-thirds have been identified.
For the 1,200 still unidentified, "we're counting on it [DNA testing] to solve a lot of the mysteries," she said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide