Forensic Anthropologist Unravels Secrets of Bosnia’s Forgotten Genocide Victims

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Fresh from her collegiate studies and newly minted as a forensic anthropologist, Dragana Vučetić found herself thrust into the heart of one of Europe’s darkest chapters, tasked with identifying the tragically unnamed victims of 1995’s Srebrenica genocide, a part of the Bosnian War.

Fast-forward several decades, Vučetić, now in her early 40s, remains steadfast in her mission to put names to the last remaining unidentified victims. An undertaking that feels ever more necessary given the growing denial from Serb factions about the horrific occurrences.

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Soft-spoken yet determined, Vučetić traverses the quiet halls of the Tuzla mortuary in north-eastern Bosnia. She meticulously reconstructs a shattered leg bone, piecing together the story of life and death from fragments that might have originated at the time of murder or precede the genocide. Revealing the intricate details of this narrative will bring closure to yet another awaiting family.

Out of the estimated 8,000 casualties in Srebrenica, about 1,000 remain anonymous. “A thousand families are waiting on our phone call,” Vučetić shares solemnly. Her deep sense of urgency stems from an awareness of the emotional turmoil inflicted on the families who’ve spent decades awaiting news of their lost ones. For them, finding a son, father, brother, or husband is about pulling them back from the abyss of anonymity their killers cast them into. “It means the families can have a funeral,” Vučetić says, “There is a set of remains, and a grave where they can go to mourn.”

The journey begins with recalling the tragic past. When the former European land of Yugoslavia disintegrated, Bosnia’s Serbs declared war to break away from the newly independent state shared with Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats. The aftermath saw over one million Bosniaks and Croats displaced amidst a Serbian “ethnic cleansing” campaign. Srebrenica, a protected haven as declared by the United Nations, was overtaken by Bosnian Serb units led by General Ratko Mladić on 11th July 1995. Bosniak women and children were forcibly relocated, while over 8,000 men and boys were taken as prisoners and later executed, marking Europe’s worst outrage since World War II.

Back at the mortuary, the weight of a gruesome past hangs heavy in the air, filling it with a musty odor and chilling memories of mass fatalities and human depravity. Vučetić, however, remains single-mindedly committed to her mission. Ensuring the remains she is dealing with belong to the same individual is a daunting task, considering the monstrosity of the mass graves carrying hundreds of bodies indifferently tossed together.

Vučetić and her team from the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) employ blood samples from living relatives to establish DNA matches with the victims. But this process often becomes complicated when multiple male family members have suffered the same fate, leaving the identification process to hinge on the recognizable clothing or personal belongings found with the bodies.

Chance played a hand in leading Vučetić to her life’s work. In the aftermath of the Bosnian War, when teams of scientists were assembled to identify bodies from the mass graves, she answered a call that was refused by another. Working mostly alone now, with 80% of Srebrenica cases solved, she harbors an unwavering resolve to see her work through to the end. To deal with the emotional pressure, she turns to physical exercise. Formerly tennis, now solitary runs.

On weekends, she returns to her hometown in Serbia, whose leader, Slobodan Milošević, backed the genocidal Serb leadership in Bosnia. When questioned about her ethnic roots and her involvement with the collective annihilation of Bosnian Muslims, Vučetić firmly retorts that she is “an anthropologist, not a Serbian anthropologist”.

Vučetić’s work possesses a deeper significance. Through her labor, the bones can narrate their tales and refute the denial of indiscretions. Her revelations about the truth of Srebrenica often leave her Serbian friends aghast, as they stumble upon the dark truth hidden for over a quarter-century.

However, the whispers of denial continue unabated, with Bosnian Serb leaders decrying the genocide as a mere fabrication. In countering the denial, the UN-appointed High Representative instated a ban on genocide denial in 2021. However, the Bosnian Serb leaders continue to flout the law, amplifying the discord and nurturing a palpable secessionist sentiment among the Serbs.

The narrative in the Serb-dominated world often contradicts the ground reality. Evidence of that can be found in events like a religious fiesta outside the town of Sokolac, where General Ratko Mladić, the architect of the Srebrenica massacre, is celebrated on T-shirts sold as souvenirs.

Meanwhile, Vučetić remains resolute in her quest to lend dignity to the unnamed. The residue of lives lost and brutalized displayed on steel shelves within the mortuary of Tuzla serves as a daily reminder of her mission, to narrate the tale of each preserved set of remains until all victims are dignified with a name.