If Bones Could Talk: Reassembling the Remains of Srebrenica

Twenty-one years after the mass killing of 8,300 men and boys in Srebrenica, the project to find and ID their remains continues. The warning Srebrenica offers to Europe is ever more poignant as the continent drifts apart amid rising nationalism. 


“The youngest was thirteen.”

The Podrinje Identification Project is the forensic wing of Bosnia’s International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).  Located in Tuzla, a former socialist mining town in north east Bosnia, it is here that the remains of Srebrenica’s 8,300 murdered Muslim boys and men were first brought to lie in local salt mines, before a proper morgue and labs could be built.

The facilities that the international community provided for the identification of the murdered are in fact retrofitted container offices, more at home on construction sites than serving as pathologists’ offices. The containers look like an ad-hoc building site, rusting on the outside while inside Bosnia’s war dead are identified on metal pathology tables and stored in the morgue: containers with air conditioning.

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Dragana Vucetic working with the remains of a man murdered in Srebrenica, in the container labs of Tuzla’s Podrinje Identification Project. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
Forensic anthropologist Dr. Dragana Vucetic working with the remains of a man murdered in Srebrenica, in the container labs of Tuzla’s Podrinje Identification Project. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)

“We made 22 new ID’s in 2016, bringing the total number of identified Screbrenica victims to 6615, of approximately 8,300”, states Dr. Dragana Vucetic a stoic forensic anthropologist, in the cluttered lab room next to the morgue. “So that’s 90 percent now ID-ed.” Without segue, she adds, “11 were women, the youngest was a 13-year-old boy.”

The scale of the Srebrenica massacre becomes evident when the morgue doors swing open, a waft of decay-infused air rushing out. Stacked floor to ceiling are the remains of 300 of the 8,300 victims; those still being identified packed into thick white plastic bags, others in red netting. 300 bodies alone are enough to fill the three conjoined morgue containers and impress just how vast a total sum of 8,300 truly is. Here are those still waiting to become more than anonymous, story-less, bones and yet still more lie undiscovered in the Bosnian soil.

“We have five active excavation sites and we suspect that there are another two mass graves we still need to find,” explains Dr. Vucetic. She is one half of the two forensic anthropologists who now man the ICMP’s lab for examining physical remains. International volunteers, mostly students, come to Tuzla to help and gain experience with Dr. Vucetic, while across town in an abandoned sports complex another team runs a DNA lab with rooms of analysis machines.

The excavation sites are considered active crime scenes and photography is forbidden. Although Dr. Vucetic has given evidence in war crimes courts, she points out that this project is not about justice or judgement, but rather closure. “We aren’t working to find the criminals, this is about helping the families of the victims and making sure the victims have a respectful resting place. In fact we need a family’s permission to use our findings in court, I can’t offer anything without the consent of the living relatives.”Balkanist Srebrenica C.Bobyn 5 Balkanist Srebrenica C.Bobyn 4

Remains are kept in plastic bags or netting for quick access. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
Remains are kept in plastic bags or netting for quick access. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)

ID’s are made from the DNA volunteered by living relatives, in the hopes that positive matches to missing family are made to a newly exhumed body. DNA has been collected from as far away as the US, Canada and Australia. The ICMP also uses the clothing to make positive ID’s, matched to old family photos and personal testimony.

For anthropologists like Dr. Vucetic, the bones themselves reveal certain histories that together with family testaments can help make a match. “Old bone fractures from childhood injuries help us, as do signs of specific dental surgeries when jaws and teeth are found intact.”

Clothing found in mass graves is meticulously documented to use as further reference for victim ID’s. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
Clothing found in mass graves is meticulously documented to use as further reference for victim ID’s. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)

21 years ago the men whose bones and clothes lie in the morgue were rounded-up, executed and buried, only to be exhumed and reburied across the region by their murderers, desperate to hide their crimes.

“You have to understand,” explains Dr. Vucetic, “the bodies were removed with bulldozers and sometimes more than once. So we have remains of one individual in three, maybe four burial sites.”

It’s a medically sanitized way of saying that the victims’ bodies were ripped apart by industrial machinery in the murderers’ haste to cover up the killings. The crushed bodies were spread among various ad hoc mass graves by panicked soldiers-turned-mass murderers. “In 2007 we found one individual spread across five burial sites,” states Dr. Vucetic dryly, inspecting half a human femur in her hands.

The entrance to the ICMP DNA labs in Tuzla, housed in an abandoned Yugoslav-era sports complex. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
The entrance to the ICMP DNA labs in Tuzla, housed in an abandoned Yugoslav-era sports complex. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
A lab technician prepared blood from living relatives for DNA matching. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
A lab technician prepared blood from living relatives for DNA matching. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)

 

A lab technician prepares bone from a femur to be ground down into powder in order to extract DNA samples. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
A lab technician prepares bone from a femur to be ground down into powder in order to extract DNA samples. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)

Other Conflict Zones

21 years after the Bosnian Serb forces swept through the UN’s so-called safe zone of Srebrenica, and Dutch peacekeepers watched as Muslim men and boys were rounded up for slaughter, the process to find victim’s remains still work goes on, but slowly drawing to a close.

As work winds down with each new positive ID, the ICMP in Tuzla has begun to shift their work to other conflict zones and natural disasters. They have been called to use their expertise and first-in-the-world DNA ID processes to help identify bodies in Chile, Iraq, the remains of those killed in the tsunami in Thailand and during Hurricane Katrina in the US. The ICMP has in fact become a success story of Bosnian enterprise, brought about by the most painful of local necessities.

“There isn’t money enough in the world”

10 Kilometres from Tuzla, the village of Mihatovići is like many dotting the former Yugoslavia. It was built by the UNHCR for refugees and the houses are the identical model as one finds for refugees in Croatia, Kosovo, or Bosnia’s Republika Srpska.

Children run through the pre-fab UNHCR houses in the town of Mihatovići, home to approximately 10,000 Bosnian refugees, a majority from Srebrenica. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
Children run through the pre-fab UNHCR houses in the town of Mihatovići, home to approximately 10,000 Bosnian refugees, a majority from Srebrenica. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)

While outwardly similar to other pre-fab refugee towns of the international community, Mihatovići is unique in that the majority of its residents are survivors of Srebrenica. Specifically, most are women whose husbands, fathers and brothers were killed while they were shipped off by Bosnian Serb forces on tour buses.

Zinahida Mašić, a resident of Mihatovići, was 15 when her five brothers and father were taken away in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb soldiers. Of the six men she lost on July 11th 1995, her father was the last one she saw alive. She clung to him until a soldier with what she says was a Montenegrin accent ripped her away from her father and threw her into a bus.

Zinahida Mašić, a survivor of Srebrenica, who lost 6 male family members on Jully 11, 1995: five brothers and her father. (Chris Bobyn)
Zinahida Mašić, a survivor of Srebrenica, who lost 6 male family members on Jully 11, 1995: five brothers and her father. (Chris Bobyn)

“No one can ever pay me for my brothers and father, there isn’t money enough in the world,” states Mrs. Mašić in her home, with a Belgrade-based reality TV show on in the background. “Seeing (Bosnian Serb general) Mladić or (Bosnian Serb President) Karadžić in prison doesn’t satisfy me.”

Now married and herself a mother, Mrs. Mašić’s situation is similar to the socio-economic challenges fueling nationalism and staunch political obstructionism between the former warring parties of Bosnia. She and her husband are unemployed and dependent on dwindling state handouts. Their daughter faces zero opportunities after high school. It is a story of hardship shared across the region that has the  creeping potential to fuel further divisions.

This year on July 11th, like each of the past twenty, Mrs. Mašić will make the pilgrimage to the Srebrenica and the graves of her five brothers and father. Over the years all were found and identified.

An Anniversary Unlike Any Other

This year’s 21st anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre isn’t a round number. It doesn’t have the immediate impact of last year’s “20th“, nor the historical importance of a half century like the 50th anniversary will. However, this year the systematic killing of 8,300 civilians is put into stark new relief as the year when the stability promised by the European Project is itself at all time risk.

Dr. Dragana Vucetic with a colleague in the container labs of Tuzla’s Podrinje Identification Project. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)
Dr. Dragana Vucetic with a colleague in the container labs of Tuzla’s Podrinje Identification Project. (Photo credit: Chris Bobyn)

Since their murders in 1995, rare has there been a time that the remains of the men of Srebrenica have spoken so loudly for Europe to heed their warning about the path the continent finds itself drifting towards. Never since the breakup of Yugoslavia has nationalism been on such a steady march across the entire continent.

 

Christopher Bobyn

Canadian-born documentary photographer Christopher Bobyn grew up in Montreal and received his BA in Film Studies from Queen’s University before devoting himself to photojournalism and uprooting to Europe.Christopher’s extensive documentary photography has been inspired by the desire to document the evolving human landscape resulting from conflict, immigration, revolution and poverty.Christopher’s previous work has had him extensively document the aftermath of conflict in the former-Yugoslavia, as well as work on Syrian refugees in Turkey and recent geo-political events in Egypt, the West Bank, and Ukraine.Christopher lives and works in Berlin, Germany.

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