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DNA Helps Identify Bosnian War Dead

It's been a decade since the Dayton Agreement brought an end to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The three-year-long ethnic conflict left 250,000 people dead, thousands of them still unaccounted for today. A group founded in 1996 has traveled the world to help survivors of all the wars in the former Yugoslavia learn what happened to their missing relatives. They just ended a mission to the United States.

Elma Karic was just 10 years old when her father Mahmed was killed near their village. It happened in 1992, at the start of the Bosnian war. The Muslim family lived outside the city of Vlasenica in eastern Bosnia.

Serb troops were in the area. So the family took refuge in a forest nearby. "He was going back to get some food from the home and on his way back he got killed by troops that were getting inside the village," she recalls. Her father was buried where he fell. "We had to bury him in the woods because it was impossible to go down to the village cemetery and bury him down there." She says a funeral service would have been too big of a risk.

Later, Elma Karic and her mother moved to St. Louis, home to the largest concentration of Bosnian refugees in the United States.

The International Commission on Missing Persons came to St. Louis and a dozen other U.S. cities this month, on a forensic blood drive. Elma Karic was among 300 Bosnian refugees who came to an immigrant services center in the city to give a sample of their blood. Like the others here, she hopes her DNA will match information in a computer database of genetic samples taken from unidentified war victims. That could help identify her father's remains, she says, so he could be given a proper burial.

Edin Jasaragic is with the International Commission on Missing Persons. He says of the 40,000 people who disappeared during the Yugoslav wars, his group has identified nearly 8,700.

He says this the first time DNA testing has been done on such a large scale. "So far we have collected over 75,000 blood samples from family members, meaning that we have collected more than one blood sample for one missing individual."

Mr. Jasaragic says DNA testing works well where it's difficult to collect conventional forensic evidence. He says that's the case in Bosnia, where bodies were often moved from one mass grave to another. "People who were killed and buried at the primary location were moved over to two or three different locations," he explains. "Anthropologically, it is not possible to put together the skeleton."

Forensic methods developed by the ICMP have also been used to identify victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and last year's South Asian tsunami. But DNA technology can only work if a victim's remains have been found.

Near the end of the Bosnian war, Serbian soldiers in the city of Prijedor pushed Kemal Ceric into a green Mercedes and drove off. He was never seen again. His son Jasmin now lives in St. Louis. He gave a blood sample to the ICMP four years ago, but still hasn't learned anything about what happened to his father. "Even 10 years after the war I don't have closure. I don't know where my father is. There has been no day after September 22, 1995 that I haven't thought where might he be."

ICMP staff will soon analyze and catalog the hundreds of DNA samples they gathered in the United States. Like the many other Bosnian Americans who've participated in the effort, Mr. Ceric hopes a few drops of his blood will provide some semblance of closure to his nightmarish past.