The pale yellow cooler door opened and I stepped into the storage room. 4,000 bodies, now bags of bones, stacked one on top of the other from floor to ceiling. Paper bags filled with personal belongings – a sweater, an ID card, a pair of glasses – lined the top shelf, each carefully marked with a number written in permanent marker.
The Missing Persons Institute in Tuzla is responsible for the identification of the bodies exhumed from the mass graves found after the war and has particularly focused its efforts on identifying those lost during the massacre outside Srebrenica. It is estimated that over 8,000 men and boys were killed at Srebrenica – 2,000 have been buried, just over 4,000 are housed in this morgue, and an estimated 2,000 are missing. Some may never be found. Some of those found may never be identified. Thirty mass graves have been exhumed and search teams are still combing the landscape for more.
The identification process is long, sometimes tedious, and often yields no results. Bulldozers were often the machinery of choice to make these mass graves, burying bodies deep in the earth. Bodies were often moved from one grave to another, possibly even a third, in an effort to hide the evidence. Stacked one on top of the other, bodies were slowly reduced to piles of bones, leading to a comingling of parts – the rib bones of one mixed with limbs of another.
Mass graves present unique obstacles for teams trying to piece together the history of events – and their findings often provide little solace to families. An ulna found in one grave, the piece of a skull in another – every bone must be examined . One can live without a foot or an arm, so when does a family stop losing hope that their missing son or brother may still be alive?
A national campaign encouraged families of missing persons to have blood samples taken, creating a bank of potential DNA matches as bodies were exhumed. In some cases, whole families were killed, leaving no link to bodies found. In other cases, remaining family members have passed away, unable to identify those who have been matched to their DNA.
The identification system that has been established here is the most advanced in world and has assisted with identifications from Hurricane Katrina, Sri Lankan victims of the tsunami and the recent Cameroonian airplane crash. Despite its state of the art technology, the process of identification is slow. A decade later families anxiously await word of a positive match.
For those who are identified the family is contacted and a death certificate is written. The primary cause of death listed in the majority of cases – gunshot wound to the head. Once the family has identified the body, the slow bureaucratic wheel begins to turn in order to have the body reburied at the July 11th ceremony at the memorial site in Potocari.
As I stood in the cooler, the smell, though not overpowering, slowly seeped into my system. Ammonia mixed with the mustiness of old clothes. I could feel the saliva building at the back of my throat. I stared at the cement floor, beginning to tune out the statistics and images of bones and bodies now in my head. I wanted to leave, to take in a breath of fresh air, to close the door and forget the stories that lay inside.
Posted By Alison Morse
Posted Jun 19th, 2007