Kelsey Bristow

Kelsey Bristow (Bosnian Women – BOSFAM): At the time of her fellowship, Kelsey was a rising senior at Georgetown University majoring in English and Justice and Peace Studies. Kelsey’s interest volunteering began at High School when she worked with at-risk children in Appalachia. Kelsey as one of two undergraduate students in the 2009 cohort of Peace Fellows and worked closely with her advisor at Georgetown University to turn her experience in Bosnia into a thesis paper.

Conference on Missing Persons: What Now?

07 Jul

About a week and a half ago Beba took Alison and I to a conference on missing persons in BiH (sorry, I know it’s a bit late to be posting this).  The conference was organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) and Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves, an association BOSFAM frequently works with to organize events and awareness of the genocide in Srebrenica.  Luckily for us, the conference was conducted in both English and Bosnian and headsets were available with live translations of presentations.  The conference was not only extremely informative on the process of identifying victims buried in mass graves, but also offered me insight into the effects of the emotionally charged issue.

After the war ended in 1995, there were about 30,000 missing persons in BiH.  About 8,000 of those people were victims of the genocide in Srebrenica on July 11, 1995.   With such high numbers of missing persons, it is no wonder that just about everyone I have met in BiH is missing at least one loved one (often it’s multiple people).  It was not enough for the Serbs and Yugoslav People’s Army to commit mass murders and genocide, but they buried those they killed in mass graves.  And as if that wasn’t enough, mass graves were dug up multiple times to move bodies from one grave to another.  A result of these secondary, tertiary, etc graves: one person can be found in five graves.  At the end of the war, because of the lack of DNA testing, it was virtually impossible to make accurate identifications.  However, by the early 2000’s DNA testing was utilized to make accurate identifications.

Ever since the breakthrough of using DNA-based identifications, the issue of finding and identifying missing persons has become a very difficult and emotionally charged issue in BiH.  The Missing Persons Institute (MPI) in BiH works with ICMP to identify bodies and up until now, once 70% of a person’s remains are found, they can be buried.  Identified by blood samples from relatives, 12,508 identifications have been made since 2001.  Obviously, that’s a big success considering it is a large portion of the missing persons.  However, now that they are finishing exhuming bodies from found mass graves, the problem becomes how many remains constitute a “found” missing person.  There is a lot of disagreement amongst families of missing persons.  At this point when just about all of the known mass graves have been found and exhumed, the question is whether or not 70% should still be the number MPI goes by.

Obviously, with any issue like this one, there are differing opinions and it brings up all sorts of other questions.  If not all remains are identified, should they be put in an ossuary; if a bone from a found missing person is found after burial, should the remains be dug up and re-buried (and if so, how many times); should a family be notified if just one bone is found of their loved one?

At the conference, it was clear that this issue of “what now?” with remaining missing persons will not be resolved easily or quietly.  So many women and men attending the conference expressed the need to find closure through finding and burying their loved ones.  This is an issue that many families in BiH deal with and all of the women at BOSFAM are affected by the decisions made on the subject of missing persons.

*statistics and numbers from ICMP

Posted By Kelsey Bristow

Posted Jul 7th, 2009


  • Owen

    July 7, 2009


    Very interesting account of the way even relatively little problems “stick” and cause distress – relatively little, that is in the light of the immensity of the original crimes.

  • Annette

    July 8, 2009


    This just seems so sad and so prolonged for these families to have closure. It’s amazing how strong they must all be – it truly makes me appreciate our security and family here.

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