Dragana Vucetic, a trained forensic anthropologist, encountered one of the darkest periods in modern European history just as she was emerging from university. Offering her expertise to give identities to the unaccounted victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide during the Bosnian War, she dove headfirst into an unspeakable task.
Fast forward to nearly thirty years after the horrific bloodbath. Vucetic’s commitment to unearthing the identities of the thousands who perished— a task undoubtedly pertinent in the face of mounting Serb denial over the incident— remains unbroken.
Today, the soft-spoken woman in her early forties can usually be found alone in the mortuary at Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia, painstakingly working amongst skeletal remains. Each deliberate maneuver, such as reassembling a fractured leg bone, uncovers fragments of the untold narratives of those brutally murdered during the genocide.
Srebrenica recorded an estimated death toll of 8,000, and roughly 1,000 of these victims still remain unidentified. “A thousand families are waiting on our phone call,” Vucetic, acutely cognizant of the relentless emotional torment these families have been subjected to for decades, confesses. Identifying the remains of a lost son, father, brother or husband offers a reprieve from the cruel anonymity the killers imposed on their victims.
Securing an identification means that a family can finally host a funeral, Vucetic explains. There is a set of remains, a grave where they can mourn.
Back in 1995, Bosnia was grappling with the fallout of the collapse of Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs responded to the emergence of a new independent state, shared with Bosniaks and Croats, by launching a war. A horrifying “ethnic cleansing” campaign resulted in the displacement of over a million Bosniaks and Croats.
Srebrenica, one among six UN-declared safe havens, fell to Bosnian Serb units led by Gen Ratko Mladic. Bosniak women and children were forcefully evacuated, but over 8,000 men and boys were held captive and subsequently executed. The international community turned a cold shoulder to the unfolding catastrophe that would eventually go down in history as Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two.
Vucetic’s tasks extend beyond meticulously comparing the DNA of the victims’ remains with blood samples from living relatives. She has to ensure that the skeletal remains painstakingly pieced together belong to the same person— a tall order considering the chaotic nature of mass graves. Additionally, she must help families recognize their deceased through belongings recovered alongside the body.
The job of examining the grim evidence left behind by a horrifying crime was not what Vucetic had originally set out to do. Fresh out from the aftermath of the Bosnian War, she stepped in when a colleague declined to be part of the teams resolving the identities of victims. Now, with 80% of the Srebrenica cases solved, she’s mostly left on her own in the mortuary.
Even as she works, Vucetic recedes into her own to run or formerly play tennis, to deal with the emotional toll of her job. Her weekends are spent back at home, in Serbia. Vucetic is an anthropologist first, she tells people, not a “Serbian anthropologist.” Nevertheless, her work allows the victims of the Srebrenica genocide to push back against the growing tide of denial of their fate.
The violent past continues to shape present-day Bosnia, with Bosnian Serb leaders threatening to secede from the state they currently share with Muslims and Croats, and dismissing the genocidal acts at Srebrenica as nothing more than a myth— an affront to the painful history the aging white bags containing skeletal remains in the Tuzla mortuary see every day.
For Dragana Vucetic, the mission continues. Her work represents one way in which the thousands who perished in the Srebrenica genocide can reclaim their stolen identities.