SARAJEVO (Reuters) – An agency set up to identify the dead of the Yugoslav wars is now sharing its missing persons expertise with nations including Lebanon, Colombia and Iraq.
“Effectively, we have the biggest human identification laboratory in the world,” Kathryne Bomberger, the head of the Sarajevo-based International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), told Reuters.
“What we are trying to do is build a capacity to address the needs of a variety of governments around the world affected with missing persons, whether it’s because of human rights violation, crimes against humanity or natural disasters.”
ICMP, set up in 1996 by the international community, developed its techniques dealing with hundreds of mass graves from the Bosnia war. DNA profiles from skeletal remains are matched with DNA profiles of surviving relatives.
Some 86,000 blood samples have been collected representing more than 23,000 people who went missing in the former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia alone, more than 11,000 bodies have been identified out of 17,000 exhumed from mass graves.
The success of the Bosnian DNA project, the biggest undertaken, prompted governments across the world to ask for help from ICMP. The agency has assisted in the identification of victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
Bomberger said ICMP would go to Chile to assist its government with DNA testing on misidentified remains of some of 3,000 Chileans killed during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
In Colombia, apart from DNA assistance, it will help in drafting laws and building institutions to track the fate of the missing in a 40-year guerrilla war driven by the drug trade.
“Colombia is dealing with a case here and a case there, but now the demobilization process is taking place they are going to deal with 4,000 cases this year,” Bomberger explained.
ICMP will also visit Lebanon this month to help tackle the issue of 13,000 missing people.
“But it is very complicated for Lebanon because of the very fragile government,” she said. “The persons are missing not only on the territory of Lebanon but also in Syria and Israel.”
The agency trains Iraqi experts in tracing the fate of those who disappeared under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
International groups say more than 300,000 people died in the 24 years he was in power and ICMP estimates there are some 270 mass graves in the country.
“We are training Iraqi anthropologists and archaeologists so they can go out and at least record the existence of mass graves so when the time comes they can properly excavate them and meet the needs of families,” Bomberger said.
In Bosnia, 13,000 people are still missing more than a decade after the war ended, claiming 100,000 lives.
“Bosnia should serve as a model. It’s a sad thing to be a model for but the way the country has actually dealt with the victims and provided them with rights is amazing,” she said.