Bosnia's Million Bones: Solving the World's Greatest Forensic Puzzle
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Bosnia's Million Bones: Solving the World's Greatest Forensic Puzzle

by Christian Jennings
     
 

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The extraordinary story of how a team of international forensic scientists pioneered ground-breaking DNA technology to identify the bodies of thousands of victims of the Yugoslav Wars, and how their work is now giving justice to families from Iraq to Bosnia

What would it be like to be tasked with finding, exhuming from dozens of

Overview


The extraordinary story of how a team of international forensic scientists pioneered ground-breaking DNA technology to identify the bodies of thousands of victims of the Yugoslav Wars, and how their work is now giving justice to families from Iraq to Bosnia

What would it be like to be tasked with finding, exhuming from dozens of mass graves, and then identifying the mangled body-parts of an estimated 8,100 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in eastern Bosnia? A leading forensic scientist likened it to "solving the world's greatest forensic science puzzle," and in 1999 one DNA laboratory, run by the International Commission on Missing Persons in Sarajevo, decided to do just that. Thirteen years on, the ICMP are the international leaders in using DNA-assisted technology to assist in identifying the thousands of persons worldwide missing from wars, mass human-rights abuses and natural disasters. Christian Jennings, a foreign correspondent and former staffer at the ICMP, tells the story of the organization, and how they are now gathering forensic evidence of those killed in Libya and Iraq, and tracing the victims of brutal regimes in Chile and Colombia. He describes too how they helped identify the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami , in this moving and fast-paced story about the power of science to bring justice to broken countries. Now used as evidence at war crimes trials in The Hague, the technology described in Bosnia's Million Bones is an amazing story of modern science, politics, and the quest for truth. It is real-life CSI in action.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/02/2013
With cold-blooded, deadly efficiency, Serbian troops brutalized Bosnia’s civilian population and left behind thousands of victims executed in the war-torn country during the 1990s. Attempts by crack forensics teams to identify the victims and bring their killers to justice form the core of this difficult new book by Jennings, a journalist and former communications staffer for the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). According to ICMP estimates, some 30,000 people went missing during the Bosnian conflict. The teams used the latest forensics methods to collect bone samples and develop DNA profiles around mass-grave sites, including profiles of 7,000 men killed in a grisly massacre in Srebrenica. Using the latest facts and figures, Jennings brings to light the horror of the ethnic cleansing, with Serb soldiers killing civilians with assault rifles and hand grenades, and trying to hide the evidence. At the tribunals of the International Criminal Court, a brutal Bosnian past catches up with Serbian butcher Ratko Mladic and his underlings as the grieving families rebury their dead in the book’s startling conclusion. Jennings stunningly renders the process of exhuming and testing the bodies, while highlighting the ICMP’s dogged determination to link the victims to the murderers. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“This is an important book: it illustrates the unspeakable horrors of a complex war whose causes have always been hard for outsiders to comprehend.” —Nature

“In his detailed portrait of the bestial war crime that took place in Srebrenica, Mr. Jennings doesn't shy away from the stomach-churning details contained in the eyewitness testimonies he draws from. He previously worked as a communications officer for the ICMP, and deftly tracks commission investigators in action around the globe, whether in the aftermath of a typhoon in the Philippines or probing the remains of Saddam Hussein's victims in Iraq. The real value of this book, though, lies in Mr. Jennings's reporting of what occurred following the (Srebrenica) massacre. Ultimately, Mr. Jennings's vivid portrait of the commission's noble but tragic mission will have its greatest value as reading for Western policy makers, who shouldn't assume that the existence of the ICMP obviates the responsibility to protect target populations before the horror of mass murder descends.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Bosnia's Million Bones is not always comfortable reading, but the story…is utterly compelling.” —The Northern Echo, UK

“Precisely rendered, grueling account of how the 1995 Srebrenica massacre propelled a scientific revolution in missing persons identification.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A comprehensive and up-to-date work for scholars and students of international relations, human rights, and forensic science as well as those interested in current events where the need for such DNA identification will most likely continue.” —Library Journal

“The International Commission on Missing Persons' work done with DNA is, without doubt, the single most important achievement within the field of human identification with DNA. The story of their very important, almost incredible, work must be told to the world. In this necessary book, foreign correspondent Christian Jennings has done just that. This book makes a difference.” —Professor Niels Morling, Vice-President of the International Society for Forensic Genetics

“A terrific piece of work: an important story which is told compellingly but soberly.” —Edward Stourton, BBC journalist

“Until now, the issue of the millions of persons missing due to armed conflict and human rights abuses has been a silent one. When people disappear, particularly through violent crimes by state authorities, family members left behind are often terrified to seek answers about the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. ICMP has helped end that silence. This important and timely book on the groundbreaking efforts of ICMP demonstrates that the missing can be located and those responsible brought to account.” —Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan

“Christian Jennings is a lucid and compassionate writer. His research, attention to detail, and storytelling skills make Bosnia's Million Bones an engrossing exploration of the techniques that forensic scientists use to unravel the crimes of war and bring those responsible to justice. This book is a poignant tribute to every parent who has moved heaven and earth to find his or her disappeared child--and to the scientists who have come to their aid.” —Eric Stover, author of The Witnesses: War Crimes and the Promise of Justice in The Hague and Faculty Director, The Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

“Precisely rendered, grueling account of how the 1995 Srebrenica massacre propelled a scientific revolution in missing persons identification.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A comprehensive and up-to-date work for scholars and students of international relations, human rights, and forensic science as well as those interested in current events where the need for such DNA identification will most likely continue.” —Library Journal

Vice-President of the International Society for Fo Professor Niels Morling

The International Commission on Missing Persons' work done with DNA is, without doubt, the single most important achievement within the field of human identification with DNA. The story of their very important, almost incredible, work must be told to the world. In this necessary book, foreign correspondent Christian Jennings has done just that. This book makes a difference.
Library Journal
11/01/2013
Jennings, who writes for Wired, The Economist, and Reuters, was communications director for the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), a group founded through an initiative by Bill Clinton to aid governments with this tragic issue. The ICMP was formed a year after the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, when 8,100 male civilians were taken from their homes, never to return. In 2000, the ICMP started working with the new government in Bosnia and bodies were recovered from mass graves. The ICMP's team of international scientists created new forensic techniques to identify the victims through improved DNA technology. As of February 2013 more than 88 percent, or 6,850 persons, have been identified. The impact of this method is far-reaching: it can be used for evidence in war-crime trials and help to enable a successful prosecution, give some closure to families by providing remains, and discount conspiracy theories that such an atrocity never occurred. The technology can and has been used elsewhere, such as with the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami. A scientific success story, this is also a powerful account of how the ICMP used DNA technology to map a human genocide. VERDICT This is a comprehensive and up-to-date work for scholars and students of international relations, human rights, and forensic science as well as those interested in current events where the need for such DNA identification will most likely continue.—Krista Bush, Shelton, CT
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-03
Precisely rendered, grueling account of how the 1995 Srebrenica massacre propelled a scientific revolution in missing persons identification. Sarajevo-based journalist Jennings creates an ambitious narrative divided between the Bosnian War's horrific endgame and the prominent role of forensic science in its aftermath. He argues that the massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of several thousand Bosnian Muslim males--"the only incidence of genocide to have taken place in Europe since the Holocaust"--provoked the creation of the International Commission on Missing Persons. Since then, the ICMP has grown into an effective clearinghouse for the science of forensic pathology, particularly regarding mass graves and natural disasters. Jennings seems equally fascinated by the difficult scientific advances made since then and by the war narrative of ethnic conflict that preceded the massacre. He authoritatively describes how Yugoslavia's breakup created a brutal civil war, depicting the repugnant actions of the Bosnian Serb military with cool detachment. The massacre was quickly detected by American surveillance, and key figures like the notorious Ratko Mladic were soon indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The Serbs then dispersed the large mass graves to numerous secondary burial sites, dismembering the bodies in the process. As a result, the initial forensic investigations following the war presented unique challenges, which Jennings discusses in grotesque detail. Yet the ICMP responded by building a scientific facility in Sarajevo and developing an enormous DNA repository of both survivors and unidentified remains, ultimately identifying many of Srebrenica's victims, thus providing evidence for the ICTY war-crimes trials and some closure to the Bosnian people. Since then, the organization has become a worldwide scientific force, aiding in recovery efforts following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, among other traumatic events. An inspirational but disturbing story of science as counterweight to evil--not for the squeamish.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781137278685
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
11/26/2013
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Bosnia's Million Bones

Solving the World's Greatest Forensic Puzzle


By Christian Jennings

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2013 Christian Jennings
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-40120-5



CHAPTER 1

HOW DOES A COUNTRY RECOVER AFTER A GENOCIDE?

SARAJEVO, SUMMER 2012


It is a hot Saturday morning in June on Kulovica Street in central Sarajevo — 93 degrees of scorching, dry summer heat in the Bosnian capital. The Hotel Bosnia sits in the middle of the thoroughfare, and the pitted, gray tarmac of the surrounding streets still bears the unmistakable fragmentation marks of mortar strikes — a by-product of the four-year-long siege of the city that ended in 1995.

However, life is moving on in Bosnia. Today it remains a land of haves and have-nots, but there are signs of progress. For some — those with money, political power, influence, jobs, initiative, and confidence — things are moving slowly forward. Many of the buildings around the hotel, like hundreds across Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, bear splashes of new plaster covering the wartime bullet scars. Kulovica Street leads down toward the Cobanija Bridge, which crosses Sarajevo's narrow River Miljacka. From its banks, Bosnian fishermen float maggots and flecks of cheese down the current of the gin-clear waters, hoping to tempt the small klen that flicker through the shallows. Mountains appear above the river. The city is surrounded by hills, one reason why it was so easy for the Bosnian Serb forces to besiege it during the war.

But on this particular summer day, with the war long over, the hotel serves as a venue for hosting the twenty-first International Meeting on Forensic Medicine, organized by the medical faculty of Sarajevo University. A team of Albanian scientists presents a workshop on "Autopsy Findings in the Putrefaction Process," while forensic experts from Italy use detailed and graphic slides for their talk, which they call "An Unusual Case of Suicide with an Electric Saw." Bosnians present their latest findings on determining age at time of death by examining the translucency of the root of the human tooth, and two Germans talk the audience through "The Discovery and Identification of a Corpse Left in a Lake for Ten Years." Italians make a second presentation, called "Double Murder by Crossbow Arrows — From Crime Scene Investigation to Autopsy." Some Macedonians tell delegates about "Occurrence of Acute Subdural Hematoma and Diffuse Axonal Injury as Two Typical Acceleration-related Injuries." The topics range from those with broad implications for the international community to those narrowly focused on aberrant circumstances. (None seems more specialized than a Hungarian forensic team's talk entitled "Fatal Injury Caused by Domestic Swine Tusk.") Regardless, at the Hotel Bosnia, forensic science is the order of the day — and the most logical place in the world for such a gathering of specialists.

Bosnia, although at peace, is still struggling in many ways — politically, socially, psychologically, and economically — to come to terms with the events that took place from 1992 to 1995, and the forensic conference in the hotel is an example of how Bosnian society is attempting to understand and reconcile its gruesome past with its peaceful present. In a conference room, an American forensic scientist from Ohio, working for the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), displays a complicated graphic on a large white screen that shows interlocking lines and semicircles colored in purple, green, orange, pink, and blue. The scientist explains the links between five primary execution sites where several thousand Bosnian Muslim men were machine-gunned outside the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in 1995, the only incidence of genocide to have taken place in Europe since the Holocaust, and the largest massacre of the Bosnian war. The American shows some of the primary mass grave sites where the victims were initially buried, such as Branjevo Farm, Kravica Warehouse, Kozluk, Petkovici Dam, and Lazete. He says that forensic experts have so far been able to gather DNA from some 13,000 bone samples from these sites, which have yielded over 5,500 unique DNA profiles, allowing the scientists to link all of the different execution sites and mass graves together.

* * *

The burial sites on the map are centered around three small villages and towns in eastern Bosnia, marked Srebrenica, Potocari, and Bratunac. By 1995, toward the end of the war, more than 50,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians displaced from surrounding areas by three years of fighting had poured into Srebrenica, where they were protected by an ad hoc force of irregular Bosnian Muslim fighters and soldiers from the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Opposing forces from the Bosnian Serb Army surrounded them. A battalion of Dutch United Nations peacekeepers was stationed there too, and the UN mission mandated to operate in Bosnia in that fourth year of the war had declared the enclave a "safe haven." Srebrenica's occupants did not expect to be attacked by the Bosnian Serb forces, and if they were, they fully expected the Dutch soldiers to protect them and NATO to deploy airstrikes from its bases on the eastern seaboard of Italy and from the American Navy carrier battle groups stationed on the Adriatic.

They would be very disappointed on both counts.

Bosnian Serb forces stormed the enclave on July 11, 1995, and thousands of the male occupants were captured as they tried to flee. The number of persons subsequently reported missing to national and international organizations was more than 7,500 men. Soldiers executed most of them and buried them in nearby mass graves. In August 1995, the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, stood up in front of a closed session of the UN Security Council to display US Air Force aerial photographs showing hundreds of the captured Srebrenica men sitting on the football field in the small farming village of Nova Kasaba, a few miles from Srebrenica. Two days later, photographs taken from the sky showed the men were gone.

Realizing the judicial net was closing in on them as the war was ending in autumn 1995, the Bosnian Serbs made a bold and enormous attempt to hide the evidence. They dug up the remains of the thousands of executed men and buried their decomposing bodies and body parts in dozens of secondary mass graves in a twenty-mile radius of Srebrenica, over some 300 square miles of countryside. In woods and valleys, along minor roads and on farmlands the human remains broken up by the bulldozers' blades and mechanical diggers' clawed shovels were intermingled — a head here, part of a torso here — and the whole appalling human residue of Srebrenica was reburied. Years later, parts of one man's body were found in four different mass graves miles apart.

But while the Serb perpetrators were hastily digging up the original mass graves and moving the contents, they were leaving a trail. Excavating and moving thousands of decomposing bodies takes manpower and machinery. And the Bosnian Serb Army officers were good Yugoslav bureaucrats, raised in the ordered, quasi-Communist regime of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who had governed for forty years after World War II, before Yugoslavia broke up. The army logged each mechanical digger, lorry, and bulldozer, along with the petrol and rations. The signatures that were scrawled hurriedly over military petrol requisitions, as growling lorries hauled hundreds of putrescent, decomposing corpses across the narrow back roads of eastern Bosnia, would one day come back to haunt them.

Also, soil mineralogy provided clues. Scientists identified distinctive dirt and rocks carried on, and with, bodies that were moved from execution site to primary burial pit to secondary mass grave. Different ligatures used to tie prisoners' hands before execution provided further specificity, as did such seemingly arcane details like the wheat pollen from one execution site in a cornfield that was subsequently found in a soil analysis from a mass grave. Bodies executed near a bottling plant were found in graves miles away with shards of green glass stuck in their bodies and clothing; soil moved with victims machine-gunned near a dam containing the "tailings" of red mud from a bauxite mining plant was found miles away in the form of water-diluted red mineral dust from the mine.

There was a story to be told, an irrefutable account of atrocities that simply required putting all these puzzle pieces together. Except that there was nothing simple about it.

* * *

Before the war began in 1992, Bosnia was a quiet, sedate, and beautiful backwater, one of the six republics that made up Marshal Tito's Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, lying tucked away across the blue Adriatic Sea from Italy. In the west it borders Italy and Austria, in the north Hungary and Romania, and in the east Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania. To the south is the Adriatic Sea. The seventh son of a Croat father and Slovene mother, Tito was the youngest sergeant-major ever in the Austro-Hungarian army. He was wounded and captured by the Russians in World War I, imprisoned in a Urals work camp that he escaped twice, recaptured, and ultimately set free around 1917, the year of the October Revolution. He had seen more than his fill of the harsh downside of communism. In World War II he was the leader of the Yugoslav partisans who fought against the Germans and their ultra-nationalist Croatian allies. He was a war hero, and a huge variety of foreign governments awarded him a total of 98 decorations for his service. After the war he led the Non-Aligned Movement, rejecting the Soviet-style state authoritarianism that he saw to the east in favor of a national form of communism. And he kept NATO at bay to the west, too. He brought the constituent republics of Yugoslavia together under the banner of "Brotherhood and Unity," cleverly suppressing internal ethnic divides, ensuring economic stability, and keeping the snapping jaws of the myriad of Cold War wolves away from his country's door. Tito was a bullish, avuncular dictator who understood his people and saw that the best way to keep the country's ethnic Serbs, Croats, and Muslims from cutting each other's throats was to bring them together under a gentle banner of communism-lite. Everybody did national service in the army, political dissent was quashed, and under a cult of personality, Tito governed absolutely. But then, in May 1980, he died.

In Bosnia, relatively little happened. The countryside was beautiful. A regional production boom and international borrowing kept the economy in the post-war world. There were jobs for all, and the state employment structure ensured housing, holidays, and healthcare. Peace prevailed. Nobody thought war would come again. Years later, many Bosnians were to wax nostalgic and look back on this period as a kind of halcyon era: no more so than the months surrounding the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, held in and around Sarajevo, when the world's focus was on the mountains around the city, on sport, the great leveler, and on Sarajevo's rather individual people. Even though Tito had been dead for four years, it was as though his mantra of togetherness still burned bright.

Across the River Drina, by the end of the 1980s, the Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic had other ideas. In their indictment against Miloševic, The Hague Tribunal — the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) — claimed that Miloševic's agenda was one of Serbian nationalism. The latter had been firmly banned under Tito, as it completely contradicted the ethos of "Brotherhood and Unity." Miloševic was trying to strengthen centralized rule in the former Yugoslavia, exploiting nationalism to create a "Greater Serbia" that united the Serb-inhabited areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Kosovo, and removing all non-Serbs from these areas through ethnic cleansing. Others say Miloševic was more of a political opportunist, driven by a desire for power, seeing himself in the mold of a second Tito, and hijacking nationalist agendas to this end. The different Yugoslav republics split up in a swarm of nationalism, largely stoked by Miloševic, who also embraced the historical cult of defeated Serbian grievance that harked back to their humiliation by the Ottoman army in 1389 at the battle of Kosovo Polje in southern Serbia.

But as Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia seceded, Yugoslavia collapsed into a hellish, bitter, internecine civil war of nationalism and land-grabbing. Fighting in Croatia broke out in 1991 between the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army, local Serbs, and Croatian government forces, after the latter had promptly declared independence from Yugoslavia. Slovenia broke away, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in 1992, and eastern Bosnia and parts of Croatia were partially "ethnically cleansed" of Muslims and Croats by Bosnian Serb and Serb soldiers. Some of them were still operating as part of the old Yugoslav National Army as paramilitaries intent on creating Miloševic's ideal. War erupted on European soil for the first time since 1945.

The Bosnian Serb Army, including elements of the former Yugoslav National Army, or JNA, laid siege to Sarajevo from April 1992 to February 1996, a total of nearly four years. It was to be the longest siege of a capital city in modern history. But the city and its staunch defenders never gave in.

Approximately 11,500 people, more than 1,500 of them children, died. This was war fought "amongst the people," as opposed to "between the people," as British paratrooper Lieutenant General Rupert Smith, a UN forces commander in Bosnia, later described it. The opposing armed forces fought their battles in the middle of the movements, refugee fluxes, and daily lives of a civilian population. There were rape camps, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, forced displacement, and detention centers. In the whole war, 100,000 people died. A million were forced from their homes. Despite massive diplomatic and peacekeeping efforts by Western powers and the international community at large, which proved too often hesitant and ineffectual, the war tore a beautiful country and its singular people into pieces.

In November 1995, an internationally brokered peace treaty hammered out at an airbase in Ohio ended the conflict. Under the auspices of the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the different parties agreed to the Dayton Peace Accords, which divided Bosnia into two parts. There was the Muslim-Croat Federation, while the huge Serb- dominated horseshoe of territory stretching around the north and east of the country was established as the Republika Srpska, distinct from the sovereign state of Serbia proper, which lay to the east across the River Drina.

The Muslim-Croat Federation retained its capital in Sarajevo. The war was over, but a vast amount of work had to be done. It was as though the war had taken everybody by surprise, tearing through the country for four years, leaving no time for anything but the present, because nobody during the war knew what was going to happen in the future. Rebuilding Bosnia, stabilizing it, assisting the wounded, burying the dead, and helping the living were the order of the day. Hundreds of millions of dollars, pounds, deutschmarks, and francs poured into the coffers of international development and relief agencies. The war in Bosnia became the top US, NATO, UN, and EU foreign policy priority. Stopping war from breaking out again and keeping the former warring factions apart was paramount. And this was, it must be remembered, December 1995: Americans had seen the mutilated and beaten bodies of US Army Rangers dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu in 1993, after a mission to kill or apprehend a Somali warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, had gone disastrously wrong. The American public did not want more American soldiers coming back in body bags from a foreign war. Casualties damaged votes: "force protection" for the US soldiers of the Clinton administration was the order of the day.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Bosnia's Million Bones by Christian Jennings. Copyright © 2013 Christian Jennings. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Christian Jennings is an investigative journalist who has written for Wired, The Economist and Reuters, among others, from countries including Rwanda, Kosovo, Somalia, Burundi and Bosnia. He is the former Communications Director at the ICMP, the international forensic science organization, founded by Bill Clinton, that uses advanced DNA technology to identify persons missing from conflicts worldwide. He has also been investigating and covering the hunt for Ratko Mladic and other major war-criminals in the Balkans since 1999, and splits his time between Sarajevo, Bosnia and Turin, Italy.

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