Blood is given again to identify the dead of Srebrenica

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The Independent Online

Muska Gingerly lifts the crumbling remains of her father's jumper. But the other clothes laid out in front of her did not belong to him. The contents of a second brown paper bag are poured on to the stainless steel table and she spots her father's boots. As she picks a boot up, her face crumples. It is too much. These tattered and muddied remains shatter any hope that he is still alive.

Every day families come to the Prodrinje Identification Project in Bosnia to identify clothing remains found in mass graves around Srebrenica; 11 July will mark the six-year anniversary of the massacre, where it is now thought that nearly 9,000 men were slaughtered in what had been designated a Muslim "safe haven" by the United Nations (UN).

The trail of evidence could go right to Slobodan Milosevic, who is expected to face war crime charges over Bosnia and Croatia as the indictment against him is expanded in the coming days. The Bosnian Serb commander General Ratko Mladic, whose forces overran the Muslim enclave in 1995, and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, have been charged with genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal for their role in the Bosnian conflict. So far, more than 4,700 bodies have been uncovered. These lie in the warehouse where Muska came to identify her father's clothes. Rows of white plastic body bags are marked with felt pen. The stench of decaying corpses is unbearable but the inhumanity overwhelming. Only 180 of these bodies have so far been identified.

Dr Kestovic is the Bosnian pathologist in charge of the project. He has only two assistants to help with the gruesome task of piecing together the remains, and many are not intact. Bone samples have to be taken from the bodies, which will then be compared with DNA extracted from the blood samples of close family members. Nearly 100,000 blood samples will probably be needed to determine the identities of all those who are missing. It is the first time DNA testing has been used in a post-conflict area, and never before on this scale.

The International Commission of Missing Persons established the project two years ago, to help find more than 30,000 missing people in the aftermath of the Bosnian war. The Americans have led the funding for the project, with donations totalling $4m (£2.8). The British Government has given a mere £140,000. The project is desperately short of money to complete its work.

Only 12,000 blood samples have been collected so far, and the details stored on a database. The vast movement of people after the war has meant many families are virtually impossible to trace; and even when potential donors are found they are often reluctant to give blood.

Hava Omerovic is sitting on the steps of her sister's house when the car from the DNA collection project arrives. For a second time they try to persuade her to donate the four drops of blood needed. "There is often a fear among the women that they will lose their state pensions if their husbands are identified," Adnan Rizvic, the head of the project explains. Hava lost four sons, her husband and three brothers at Srebrenica. Eventually she agrees to the test, which takes less than five minutes. Each sample is bar-coded so there can be no bias in the identification process.

The Office of the High Representative in Bosnia has designated a 44,000 sq m patch of land for a memorial site and cemetery to be built at Srebrenica. The foundation stone for the project will be laid at the memorial service to be held on 11 July, when more than 5,000 Bosnian Muslims are likely to return. A special representative has been appointed to oversee the memorial project, and foreign governments have donated money to a fund.

Women's groups and families hope the site will allow space for 10,000 individual graves, making it the largest civilian cemetery in Europe. It will allow for identified bodies to be buried, as well as free space in the warehouse for further remains.

Although the remains of Amra Selemovic's son have been identified, she refuses to allow the remains to be buried at Srebrenica until the memorial project is complete – which could take up to five years. "Once some graves have been dug and a small statue built the money will run out," she says. "This memorial needs to be the biggest in the world and represent how international politicians failed to help us. I trusted the UN to protect my family, I do not trust them now to bury what remains of my children."

For women such as Hava, the pioneering use of DNA in positive identification will bring an end to years of anguish and uncertainty as to the whereabouts of her family. "I would like to be able to visit their graves," she says. "But when they are buried I want to die too, because then I will know they can never come back."

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