Laila Zulkaphil

Laila Zulkaphil (Bosnian Women’s Group – BOSFAM): Laila’s family is from Kazakhstan. She was born and raised in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and speaks English, Russian, Kazakh, Mongolian, and Bulgarian. In 2005, Laila entered the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) on a full Soros Scholarship. She graduated in 2009 with a BA and honors. At the time of her fellowship, Laila was pursuing a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution with a concentration in Human Rights at Georgetown University. Prior to her deployment, Laila interned at The Advocacy Project’s DC office. After her fellowship, Laila wrote: “I have been greatly inspired by the amazing women of Bosfam. Despite all the pain and hardship they have been through, they are able to stay strong, cheerful, and optimistic. They never give up; they never lose hope. As a result of this fellowship, I will avoid favoring a certain group based on ethnic or religious identity."

“Working with dead people is easy”

18 Jun

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was established in 1996 to address the issue of missing persons due to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Although its mandate has been expanded geographically, ICMP’s largest project remains the identification of persons who went missing during the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. The Tuzla branch of ICMP is responsible for this lengthy and complicated process.

My new friend Laura, a Canadian anthropologist who works at ICMP in Tuzla, was very kind to spare some time to give me a tour of her workplace. The first room we saw was a large morgue which had about 5,000 body bags representing more than 1,500 persons awaiting identification. Human bones were placed in white bags, while yellow bags contained the victims’ clothes. I had seen photos of the ICMP morgue many times before, but being there myself and standing in front of those 1,500 individuals – once sons, brothers, and husbands but now mere bones lying on the cold shelves of a morgue – was nothing like looking at pictures. The feeling was indescribable.

ICMP has so far identified 732 persons since July 11 of last year and expects that the number may reach up to 750 by the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. This is the largest number of persons to be buried at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial at once.

The books and reports I read about the Bosnian war several years ago indicated that 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed during the Srebrenica massacre. The international community has recently raised the number to 8,000. However, we know that 6,000 persons have already been identified and buried, and another 1,500 persons are awaiting identification in the ICMP morgue in Tuzla. Still more mass graves are found around Srebrenica almost every year, and local authorities are exhuming another one at this moment. This easy math makes me think that even 8,000 is too small a number.

These numbers also disprove the Bosnian Serb explanation of the Srebrenica massacre. Serbs have argued that persons found in these mass graves are not victims of a single massacre, but were brought from different parts of Bosnia during the war and buried around Srebrenica to make it look like a serious mass crime had taken place. The fact is that people from Srebrenica and the nearby towns reported their missing relatives after July 1995, and these missing individuals have been identified with more than 99% accuracy using DNA samples.

Before the DNA method was introduced at ICMP in 2001, it tried to identify missing persons using clothes and other belongings. ICMP printed a thick book containing the photos of clothes and belongings obtained from exhumed bodies and asked people to identify their missing relatives by looking at the items. However, many of these items were not unique. For instance, a large number of the victims had exactly the same black shoes which they obtained from aid agencies when they were refugees during the war. This slow and inaccurate identification process was completely transformed with the introduction of the DNA method. Whereas only 52 persons were identified in 2001 with the old method, 518 persons were identified in 2002 thanks to the new method. The first person to be identified using DNA was a 16-year-old boy.

. The book of clothes from victims

Even with this much superior method, identification of the Srebrenica victims has not been a simple task. One relative of a victim is usually not enough to issue a DNA matching report. However, it is difficult to obtain DNA samples from multiple relatives because many Bosniaks left the country during the war and those who are in distant countries like Australia do not often come back to visit Bosnia. Some victims will never be identified because their entire families are dead.

Another challenge is that not all parts of a human body can give a useful DNA sample. Better DNA results are obtained from teeth and lower body parts. Those parts from which a DNA sample cannot be obtained are called ossuary material and can range from toe bones to entire upper part of a human body.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that it is extremely rare to find the Srebrenica victims’ whole bodies. The Bosnian Serb Army dug up the primary mass graves and reburied the bodies in secondary and tertiary mass graves in order to conceal the extent of the crimes they had committed. Bodies from primary mass graves have all been identified. By contrast, bodies from secondary and tertiary mass graves are hard to identify because the body parts have been not only separated but also damaged. The Serbs most probably dug up the primary graves with large machines and dumped the bodies in a truck to move them somewhere else, as a result of which the bones were broken and completely mixed.

Due to this challenge, many people decide to bury the partial bodies of their relatives. However, ICMP has found the remnants of 500 persons already buried at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial. Some families decided to re-exhume the graves of their relatives to add the remaining body parts, but they later regretted that if they had known how traumatic this process would be, they would not have opted for re-exhumation.

. The remains of an already buried person

My tour of ICMP ended with a room where the exhumed bodies are washed and dried. After hearing all these details from Laura and seeing the bodies of the victims, my voice was trembling and hands were shaking. I told Laura that her job must be very hard and depressing. She answered, “People always ask me if my job is hard. But working with dead people is easy.” The case managers, who are responsible for communicating with the families of identified persons, have the hardest job, she said. Of course, it must be an emotionally challenging task to call someone and say that his son, brother, father, or cousin has been identified – or worse to say that a part of his body has been found but his head, arm, or leg is missing. I could not even imagine what is felt at the receiving end of such information.

. Where the exhumed bodies are washed and dried

Posted By Laila Zulkaphil

Posted Jun 18th, 2010


  • Karie Cross

    June 18, 2010


    It strikes me that although working with dead people may be easy, living with their memories certainly is not! This thought goes back to your earlier post about your conversation with a Serbian guy, who said that it may take 5 or 10 years for Serbs to open up about this. Humans have selective memories, and sometimes we don’t even acknowledge things that have happened.

    People like you have to keep telling the story so that the women you’re working with can live in peace! I’m enjoying your great blog. Good luck in your work.

  • Laila Zulkaphil

    June 19, 2010


    Thanks Karie. I’ve been following your blog too and like it very much. I really hope that your visa problem will be resolved soon. Take care!

  • Antoine Arnerich

    June 19, 2010


    Good blog with some useful information. I will be back.

  • Dear Laila, thank you for commenting on my blog. To answer your question, the title of Hasan Nuhanovic’s book is: “Under the UN Flag: the International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide.” It is available in both English ans Bosnian. You can find more information about the book here. Thank you for raising an awareness about the Srebrenica genocide. I will link to your blog.

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