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DNA, Mladic and the science of justice in the former Yugoslavia

Genetic testing has helped identify victims of genocide and has made denial of atrocities untenable

By Lara J. Nettelfield and Sarah Wagner

1:31 PM EDT, June 6, 2011

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Despite his efforts to stave off his long-overdue date with justice, indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic appeared before a panel of judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague on Friday. Soon he will stand trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, atrocities he planned and executed throughout the 1992-1995 war, from the siege of Sarajevo to the concentration camps of Prijedor and the genocide at Srebrenica. Mr. Mladic's last request before his transfer was to visit the grave of his daughter, Ana, who committed suicide in 1994 with her father's pistol. But in facing his responsibility for wartime violence, the graves Ratko Mladic should have visited are those of his victims, such the thousands of tombstones that now fill the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center and Cemetery.

The slender white columns that mark the absence of the more than 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys killed in the July 1995 Srebrenica genocide testify to another, often overlooked, kind of justice: the use of DNA technology in identifying the missing. Forensic science has returned remains to surviving families and played an integral role in documenting the crimes committed by the Army of Republika Srpska, led by General Mladic. It has also profoundly influenced the rhetoric of postwar Bosnia, challenging claims of denial through the language of DNA analysis.

At the end of the war, some 30,000 Bosnian citizens were missing. Among them were the Srebrenica victims, whose bodies were dumped into mass graves. Previously obscure places such as Branjevo farm, Pilica Cultural Center, Petkovci Dam, and the Kravica warehouse have become emblems of Mr. Mladic's calculated strategy of criminality.

In fall 1995, Mr. Mladic's forces returned to the primary mass graves, and with backhoes and dump trucks, they dug up, transported, and reburied the remains of the thousands of civilian victims. It was a forensic nightmare: trenches of commingled bones and partial skeletons confounded the forensic specialists attempting to identify the remains. The conditions of these secondary mass graves eventually prompted the International Commission on Missing Persons to develop a DNA-based identification system. Blood samples collected from surviving relatives are matched with bone samples taken from recovered remains. The innovative forensic model has helped identify 13,541 individuals.

This system has worked in large part because the families demanded the resource of a local DNA testing facility and contributed more than 88,000 reference samples. Combined with forensic anthropological and archaeological evidence, DNA has imparted otherwise elusive knowledge. People like Hasan Nuhanovic, whose mother, father and younger brother were among the Srebrenica missing, know firsthand the extraordinary forensic feat in process. In his essay "Made in Portugal," Mr. Nuhanovic writes: "They identified my father four years ago, eleven years after his execution. They found a little more than half his bones, they say. His skull smashed from behind. The doctor couldn't tell me whether that happened after he died. They found him in a secondary mass grave ... near Zvornik. There are thirteen mass grave sites there."

While the identification process has answered families' questions and often returned remains for burial, forensic science has also contributed to justice in less visible but still concrete ways. The results of the DNA matching reports have entered the lexicon of postwar tabulation of human loss, making denial — a position still prevalent in Serbia and Bosnia's smaller entity, Republika Srpska — untenable. This technology has changed the nature of the discussion, as truth-telling has assumed a more scientifically backed, rigorous tone.

The use of DNA testing now joins other tools of post-conflict social reconstruction. The forensic science of accounting for the missing — from victims of Argentina's "dirty war" to the U.S. military's efforts to recover its fallen soldiers — works in tandem with other projects to respond to the consequences of violent conflict.

Graves become silent witnesses to atrocity. The Yugoslavia tribunal will excavate Mr. Mladic's crimes and determine the extent of his culpability. Science will play an important role in that process. As the president of the Women of Srebrenica in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hajra Catic, told us, "there is nothing left of [Mladic]. He is a gravedigger."

She's right. His arrest comes 16 long years too late. Nevertheless, Mr. Mladic will now have to answer for the graves he and his forces dug and the legacy of brutality he helped forge.

Lara J. Nettelfield (ljn9@columbia.edu) is a visiting associate research scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. Sarah Wagner (sewagner@uncg.edu) is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. They are completing a book titled "Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide" (Cambridge University Press).