In Bosnia, each funeral never ends

Bone by bone, victims of the Srebrenica massacre are being identified, pieced together and, finally, laid to rest

How many times can you bury your child without going mad? It's a question that has haunted hundreds of Bosnian mothers facing an agonising dilemma: as researchers identify remains scattered around mass graves from the Srebrenica massacre, do they bury the first few bones or wait potentially years for a skeleton to come together?

Many choose to bury whatever fragments turn up first. Then another bone is found and they have to reopen the grave. Months later researchers find another piece, and then another – and each time, the women say, it feels like another funeral. The identification mission being carried out by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) is a monumental task. More than 8,100 men and boys were killed over five days when Bosnian Serb forces overran a United Nations-protected enclave during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Newly identified Srebrenica remains are buried at a memorial centre each year on the 11 July anniversary of the start of the 1995 massacre, Europe's worst slaughter of civilians since 1945. After the bloodshed – classified by the UN as genocide – troops led by General Ratko Mladic scattered the bodies in dozens of mass graves that are still being found. Yesterday, the partial remains of 534 victims were buried.

Ten years after a DNA lab took a drop of blood from Habiba Masic, researchers called her to say they had made a positive identification. It reopened a new cycle of anguish. The man at the lab said they had found 90 per cent of her husband's body. His bones had been dispersed among four different mass graves. "And the children?" she recalled asking. "The man went silent, and I knew something was wrong." She was told there was no trace of one of her boys but a small part of the other had been found. The problem was DNA analysis could not determine which one he was. "I couldn't breathe," she said. "I couldn't speak."

Now, she cannot bury the precious fragment, for what would the gravestone say: Sadem Masic, 1976-95? Or Sadmir Masic, 1977-95? "Brother is now waiting for brother," she said.

The ICMP, established in 1996 at the urging of the then US President Bill Clinton, has collected 87,049 blood samples from relatives of the missing, has analysed their DNA profiles and is now matching them with profiles extracted from the 29,185 bone samples that have been exhumed. The ICMP grew into the world's largest DNA-assisted identification programme, and so far investigators have helped to identify 12,518 individuals in Bosnia. Out of those, 6,185 are Srebrenica victims. The agency also carries out work in Chile, Iraq, Colombia, Norway, Kuwait and the Philippines. It helped to identify victims of the 11 September 2001, attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the remains of those who died in the 2004 Asian tsunami. But Bosnia remains its biggest operation.

During the war, the United Nations declared Srebrenica, besieged by Serbs throughout the conflict, a protected area for civilians. When General Mladic's troops overran the enclave, people flocked to the UN base in the suburb of Potocari for protection. Outnumbered Dutch UN troops never fired a shot. They watched troops round up the entire population, and take the men and boys away to be shot. After the massacre, the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, waved satellite photos of mass grave sites at Security Council members. Washington knew what had happened and where the mass graves were, she told them.

Serb troops rushed to the sites with bulldozers and moved victims to other locations – now called "secondary" mass graves – to conceal evidence of war crimes. As the machines ploughed up bodies, they ripped them apart, and now fragments of the same person can be scattered among several sites. The ICMP found "one man in five different locations who came to us in 11 different body bags", says the head of the Sarajevo-based organisation, Kathryne Bomberger. She believes the enormous cover-up should be considered another war crime.

One thing is certain. It created a forensic science nightmare. "This is the biggest forensic puzzle that exists anywhere in the world," Ms Bomberger said. Over a decade ago, when the ICMP began its work in Bosnia, most pathologists, anthropologists and those in the forensic community said, quite simply, that what they were trying to do was impossible. Nobody in the world had ever tried to find, exhume, identify and in many cases reassemble so many sets of remains – and then return them to families. Slowly, however, the researchers have made progress.

At the ICMP Podrinje Identification Project in Tuzla, 70 kilometres (45 miles) north-west of Srebrenica, the case manager, Emina Kurtagic, pushes a heavy morgue door to reveal aisles of blue and white body bags. The 876 trays in the aisles were built to accommodate one body each. Instead, they hold a total of 3,500 bags, each with a few bones of one or more victims waiting to be identified and reassembled. Remains of one of Habiba's sons are probably in here somewhere and won't be among the 600 victims to be buried at this July's memorial. "About 12,000 bags passed through this room in the past decade," Dr Kurtagic said. "Today, we just loaded 503 fairly complete and identified bodies on the truck. Those will be buried this year in Potocari, it's just part of this year's delivery."

At another facility, Cheryl Katzmarzyk, a senior forensic anthropologist, is trying to solve hundreds of other human jigsaw puzzles. She is running a department established to deal with the worst cases – those scattered over multiple sites. On one table is a nearly complete skeleton. Just the head is missing. The one on the other table has only five bones. "This case is more common," Dr Katzmarzyk said. "Here we have approximately 20 per cent of the skeleton of this man recovered. In fact, he was found in two different graves, his arm was found in one, his lower body, his legs, were found in another, mixed up within that grave."

General Mladic, indicted for genocide, is still in hiding, apparently in Serbia. Recently, television channels aired videos confiscated by Serbian police in one of his hideouts. They showed him dancing, singing at parties and cuddling his grandchild. "Mladic is holding his granddaughter in his arm at a birthday party. And how do we feel?" Habiba Masic said bitterly.

It is hard to imagine anybody would envy her, but Rufeida Buhic, 68, does. Her husband was killed early in the war. Serbs caught her only son, Razim, 17, when he tried to escape from Potocari. A massacre survivor told her Razim was one of the first to be shot. His body was never found. Mrs Buhic returned to her pre-war home near Srebrenica to be where the three had lived together. "That's where they walked, where they worked. That's where I want to walk," she said. When neighbours see her working around the house and the garden all day, "They say, you really work too much. But I'm not alone, I tell them. The two are with me and are helping me."

Mrs Buhic can't sleep at night. No medication helps. Often she visits a neighbour's house, where her son's friend lived and where Razim once measured how tall he grew. She goes there just to look at the line carved in the wood of the doorway: 195 centimetres, or nearly 6ft 5ins. Constantly, she checks her mobile phone.

"Every time it rings, I think they are calling me to say they found him... even one bone," she said.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?