From Human Being, to Missing Person, to a Number, to a Memory

Laura Yazedjian, Sr. Forensic Anthropologist at the Podrinje Identification Project, at the morgue which stores thousands of remains of those killed in and around Srebrenica.

There is smell I will never forget. It is that of the morgue holding hundreds of bags of decomposed body parts of persons missing after the fall of Srebrenica, lined up from floor to ceiling, wall to wall.  This is the site of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) Podrinje Identification Project in Tuzla. We are warmly greeted by Senior Forensic Anthropologist, Laura Yazedjian, a young Canadian woman of Armenian origin. She has worked here in Tuzla for eight years. Laura has grown accustomed to the smell, nonetheless, she warns us before we enter.

Podrinje is the region around the Drina River – the villages in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina including Srebrenica. Here in Tuzla, the work of the Podrinje Identification Project is to clean, examine and store the remains of exhumed bodies found through the uncovering of mass graves in Podrinje area where Muslim citizens were systematically targeted for execution by Serb forces in 1995.

Let me step back to the work of the ICMP. www.ic-mp.org The Identification Coordination Division, located in a larger office space in Tuzla, is home to the records and database of blood samples – over 88,000 in total – from survivors and their family members in order to conduct DNA matching to exhumed body parts (hair, teeth, bones).

A bone sample of one victim is stored, coded and entered into a massive database at the ICMP.

Edin Jasaragic, the young man who heads the Division, explained the process. The work is impressive, and it has moved from “traditional” methods of identification back in the late ‘90s, to DNA verification from 2000 until the present. Upon the discovery of mass graves in and around Srebrenica, ICMP established a separate facility just for Srebrenica victims. It has helped families channel their anger and frustration toward concrete and better-informed decisions. ICMP has also organized regional conferences in order to build solidarity among survivors.

The small but dedicated staff primarily works at computers that hold intricate data collection software to code blood samples of survivors, victims bodily remains, and clothing and other personal items found at mass gravesites. Everything is coded. Remains have no names and no ethnic or religious reference. Everything is tagged with a number and a bar code. This is very precise work.

Human remains are cleaned, labeled and tested for DNA matches against over 88,000 blood samples provided by surviving family members.

But there is a human element. At both of these facilities, the staff often receives family members for meetings, orientations, and to address survivors’ demands for information. This, for me, seems the most emotionally challenging yet rewarding part of the process.

Laura tells us that the job of the caseworker is the most difficult. Caseworkers notify survivor families of developments in the identification process. They offer suggestions on how to proceed, advising on whether more remains can be found in order to conduct a proper burial, or whether the family has little chance of finding more than a bone or piece of cloth. The caseworker is the one who works in the world between the numbers and the human beings.

Today, we only saw women employees at the center. Laura commented that most people in the field of anthropology, and specifically forensic anthropology, are women. In her graduating class, two thirds of the students were women, she remembers. And a great majority of the Srebrenica survivors are women. This is one observation I made today, and it touched me. I have noticed in the U.S. as well that many social workers are women. My mother was a social worker. These women really do heroic work, often for absurdly low compensation.

A collection of photos of men and boys killed and missing -- a small part of the work of The Women of Srebrenica Association in Tuzla.

The Women of Srebrenica Association

We shifted to the offices of the Women of Srebrenica Association later in the day. Another of my senses was shocked upon entering — my visual sense.  A display of hundreds of photographs of missing and killed family members offer an immediate impact of lives lived and lost. Like the remains in the morgue, the photos line the walls from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Like the morgue, this immense display forces a reality upon you — that a massive crime against humanity has been committed. And these women bear this reality each and every day. Their unique office space is a large and nicely furnished home that has been recently donated by a female Italian human rights activist and philanthropist, an avid supporter of the women and their work.

The Mothers fight to put a human face to every single number. They protest each month in Tuzla on the 11th day to keep the memory alive of Srebrenica’s genocide (July 11, 1995). As well, their protest is for justice – to press for the arrest of all those responsible for war crimes.

Hajra Catic talks about the work of the women in her association.

I asked Hajra Catic, President of the Women of Srebrenica Association, and her colleagues what she thinks her work has accomplished, and what impact the women’s movement has had.

“I cannot say that the Srebrenica Memorial and Cemetery or the work of the ICMP are only because of us. But we organized ourselves in 1996 once we began to realize that the missing had been killed. We wanted justice and truth – what happened to over 8,000 people here?”

The women’s association here has a history of persistence. They have provided many international organizations the names and information of missing persons, accounts of what happened at the UN “safe area,” in order to honestly and transparently reveal events and decisions leading up to  July 11, 1995. They have protested and slept in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross offices, and they begged and demanded that the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) search for the missing men in the woods. They have faced many obstacles and problems, like being denied visits to mass grave sites.

Hajra Catic (right) with colleagues Nura Begovic and Habiba Masic.

How many women are in the association, I asked. They enthusiastically replied:

“There are 300 active women in our association, but we can get thousands when we want!”

When specific actions or events are planned, something specific like a resolution or action for the arrest of a war criminal, they mobilize.

The women continue to protest each month holding pillowcases tied together with embroidered names of men missing and killed in 1995.

Hajra shows us the embroidered pillow cases with names of loves ones used as banners during month protests.

They are modest and have done much more than monthly protests. Their individual testimonials were essential contributions for the publication, “The United Nations on the Srebrenica Pillar of Shame.” It is provocative writing, a document which names and shames soldiers, the UN, the international community, and Serb leaders during that period.

What is striking to me about their work is the numbers-to-names aspect. Not only do they wish to put a human face on every exhumed remain that is initially bar coded and tagged, but they want to put a human face and identity to every individual they feel were complicit in the genocide – whether those individuals be from the UN protection force, international diplomats, special envoys, or local and neighboring war criminals.

But where do they go from here? What is next for them? How does a movement transition from initial anger and protest to concrete, long term goals and diverse actions? I will discuss this part of our conversation in my next posting.

— Vanessa

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One Response to From Human Being, to Missing Person, to a Number, to a Memory

  1. Anne Marie says:

    Vanessa, I wish that people from all around the Balkans, and from all the peoples who have been involved one way or another in what led to this massacre, could see what you have seen today, could walk the walk, smell the smell, watch the faces of all these men who were killed, and call a genocide by its name. I wish we could bring high schoolers from Belgrade there, and in fact from all over Europe. I want to thank you wholeheartedly, and thank your friends and colleagues from Bosnia who are accompanying you in this difficult journey, for this crucial work all of you are doing, for these testimonies of courage and resilience, and for making the struggle of these women known beyond the borders of Bosnia. Take care my friend!

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