In the early days of her career as a freshly qualified forensic anthropologist, Dragana Vucetic was summoned to partake in a grim task – the identification of the unidentified victims from the 1995 Srebrenica genocide during the Bosnian War. Now, decades after the horrifying killings, she remains pledged to tracing the identities of the last remaining victims, a mission that holds an even greater gravity given the escalating denial from the Serb community regarding the horrific events that unfolded.
Now in her early forties, Dragana operates in solitude among the bones in the Tuzla mortuary located in north-eastern Bosnia. Her actions are calculated and meticulous as she reassembles a fractured leg bone. The damage could have occurred at the time of death or prior to the genocide. Bit by bit, the evidence begins painting a picture of who the victim was, where and how they died. Once the identification is confirmed, the victim’s family is informed.
In the town of Srebrenica, of the estimated 8,000 fatalities, nearly 1,000 still await their identification. She speaks with a sense of urgency, acknowledging the untold pressure these families endure, waiting for decades to learn the fate of their missing loved ones. Discovering a lost son, father, brother or husband translates to rescuing their identities from the oblivion the killers forced them into.
From a perspective of providing closure, Dragana acknowledges, “It means families can have a funeral. There is a set of remains and a grave where they can go to mourn.”
Historically, the Bosnian War (1992-95) was triggered by the collapse of Yugoslavia, resulting in Bosnia’s Serbs initiating war against the newly independent state inclusive of the Bosniaks and Croats. This led to over a million Bosniaks and Croats being uprooted from their homes amidst a Serbian “ethnic cleansing” campaign.
In the mortuary, the air is thick with the musty smell of the dead from decades ago. It invokes memories of mass graves and the extent of man’s capacity for cruelty.
As for Dragana, she remains intently focused on the grim task at hand. Her responsibility not only entails validating the victims’ identity but also confirming if all the remains belong to the same person – a challenging ordeal given the number of bodies lumped together in the mass graves.
Along with her colleagues from the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), they use DNA matches with the victims’ remains and blood samples from living relatives. However, the procedure is not without its complications, especially when several male members from the same family are identified as victims, each possessing similar DNA. Such instances may ultimately resort to the relatives identifying the deceased through clothing or personal belongings found with the body.
Despite the emotional toll of her profession, Dragana strives to maintain her physical health through regular exercise. She used to play tennis, but opts for solitary runs since her partner’s departure.
Being Serbian and working on the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims can present its challenges, but Dragana emphasizes that she is a forensic anthropologist first, saying she is “an anthropologist, not a Serbian anthropologist”.
To her friends in Serbia, her work is always a revelation. Their surprise at the gravity of the Srebrenica crimes is testament to the collective denial that has pervaded Serbian society.
Despite tensions and denial, Dragana’s commitment remains undeterred. Her work in identifying the victims continues to speak volumes against the denial of the genocide committed nearly 30 years ago. With 80% of the Srebrenica cases resolved, she continues her solitary endeavor in the Tuzla mortuary.
Her oath is simple but solemn – to see the mission through to its completion. Amidst the cataloged remains in the mortuary, she stands as a beacon of hope and closure, pledging to bestow onto each set of remains the dignity of a name.