Forensic science: Bringing out the dead

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
503,
Pages:
465–466
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/503465a
Published online

Alison Abbott reviews the story of how a DNA forensics team cracked a grisly puzzle.

Bosnia's Million Bones: Solving the World's Greatest Forensic Puzzle

Christian Jennings Palgrave Macmillan: 2013. ISBN: 9781137278685

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During nine sweltering days in July 1995, Bosnian Serb soldiers slaughtered about 7,000 Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica in Bosnia. They took them to several different locations and shot them, or blew them up with hand grenades. They then scooped up the bodies with bulldozers and heavy earth-moving equipment, and dumped them into mass graves.

DADO RUVIC/REUTERS/CORBIS

A forensics specialist from the International Commission on Missing Persons examines human remains from a mass grave in Tomašica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It was the single most inhuman massacre of the Bosnian war, which erupted after the break-up of Yugoslavia and lasted from 1992 to 1995, leaving some 100,000 dead. With the war's end in sight, the Serbian army had to worry about hiding the evidence. In the late summer, they brought out the bulldozers again, roughly dug up the decaying bodies, threw them into dumper trucks and distributed them between 30 or so more remote burial sites. After the war shuddered to a halt in the autumn, these hastily disguised sites, with their cargoes of disconnected bones, were discovered. Christian Jennings's Bosnia's Million Bones tells the story of how innovative DNA forensic science solved the grisly conundrum of identifying each bone so that grieving families might find some closure.

This is an important book: it illustrates the unspeakable horrors of a complex war whose causes have always been hard for outsiders to comprehend. The author, a British journalist, has the advantage of on-the-ground knowledge of the war and of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), an organization created in Sarajevo in 1996 that has a central role in the story. In 2000, the ICMP launched the world's first systematic attempt to apply DNA-identification techniques to large numbers of people. Its labs have since been used to help to identify individuals in other large groups killed in natural disasters, accidents and wars — including the 2013 terrorist attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping centre, in which dozens of victims were mangled beyond conventional recognition.

As Jennings shows, the organization's first job was a masterwork from hell that involved locating, storing, preparing and analysing the million or more bones. It was in large part possible because during those fateful days in July 1995, aerial reconnaissance missions by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had picked up images of large groups of men on open ground near Srebrenica. Subsequent images showed that the men had disappeared and large areas of disturbed earth had appeared. Over the following weeks, as the bodies were relocated, images showed more stretches where the soil was newly disturbed.

In 1997 and 1998, a team of archaeologists and forensic experts — put together by the Netherlands-based United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia — began excavating the burial sites. They pieced together some evidence of when and how the mass killings had taken place from clues such as the bodies' states of decay, the times and dates on their self-winding watches, and the characteristic patterns of damage caused to skulls by bullets. Analysis of the colours and textures of soils pointed to where some of the bones had first been dumped. For example, chips of glass indicated burial near a glass factory in the area.

The task of identifying the bones was exquisitely difficult. The bulldozers had broken up the bodies, and the pieces had been mixed up in the dumper trucks transporting them to new burial sites. DNA analysis of each bone was the only possible method of conclusive identification, so the ICMP set up its lab.

At first, this remarkable operation ran on a shoestring. Members invented cheap alternatives for equipment, such as adapting a chicken rotisserie from the local market to stir DNA solutions. All of these staff (many of them “massively adaptable” graduates, Jennings writes) were locals, who could easily communicate with the traumatized relatives of the missing. This helped them to collect the blood samples for the DNA analysis needed for comparison with DNA from the bones.

“More than 80% of the remains were returned to their families for burial.”

Each staff member was trained in a specific aspect of this analysis, which was then carried out in modular fashion. The remains were first prepared for DNA extraction, then ground into powder in the Republic of Srpska, now an independent Serbian enclave within Bosnia. Next, the powder was transferred to Sarajevo for DNA extraction. Through that analysis, more than 80% of the remains were returned to their families for burial.

That story needed to be told. But Bosnia's Million Bones is a confusing read. It weaves in other, undoubtedly important, stories — such as the manhunt for the war criminals responsible for the massacres — and diverts frequently into issues involving unrelated wars. Its structure is undisciplined, muddling timelines and sometimes even basic numbers (such as the number of victims identified by a particular date). But those who make it through will emerge shaken, and educated.

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