In the gritty, utilitarian surroundings of a mortuary in north-eastern Bosnia, Dragana Vucetic, an accomplished forensic anthropologist, was reluctantly thrust into a significant chapter of modern Europe’s grim history. Her purpose was to devote her skills and expertise to give voice to the voiceless, giving names to the faceless victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War.
Decades since the horrendous killings, her resolution remains unshaken; to grant identity to the last of the victims, a mission that has assumed greater enormity with the escalating Serb denial about the past’s grim reality.
In her early 40s, the demure Dragana navigates her way through the bone-strewn mortuary, her actions characterized by purpose and caution. With precision and meticulousness, she pieces together fragments of a shelved past and a murdered soul. Behind every grim evidence, there’s a tale of life and tragic death. These artifacts of truth hold the power to assuage the collective grief of families that have domiciled in uncertainty for years. The power to rescue the dead from the abysmal anonymity into which their perpetrators consigned them.
As the solitary artist in this solemn theatre of mortuary science, Dragana grapples with the task of identifying the remaining 1,000 of the estimated 8,000 dead from Srebrenica. Understanding the emotional weight of closure for the bereaved families, she says, “A thousand families are waiting on our phone call.”
Dragana’s saga unfolds in a landscape still burdened by the invisible ghosts of the Bosnian War. Launched amid the collapse of the former European country of Yugoslavia in 1992 by Bosnia’s Serbs, this war was a grim confrontation between the newly independent Bosnia’s Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and Croats. The war witnessed a Serbian “ethnic cleansing” campaign that displaced over a million Bosniaks and Croats and pillaged the peace of Srebrenica’s safety haven, unfolding one of Europe’s gravest atrocities since the Second World War.
Each day in the mortuary is a face-off with the silent reminders of history’s gross injustice. With each pile of bones lies the challenges of multitasking, ensuring that each set of remains belongs to the same individual.
She strings together narratives from scattered pieces found in mass graves using blood samples from living relatives to match DNA with the remains. But the task doesn’t end there; often it extends to families identifying their deceased ones through clothing or personal effects found with the bodies.
Her work extends beyond professional commitment to a personal resolve – to make the silent bones speak and debunk the denial of past crimes. Being of Serbian descent, she experiences overwhelming disbelief from her friends when they learn about Srebrenica’s grim reality. She sadly reflects on how her people have swept history under the carpet and lived in the dark for about 25 or 30 years.
Her work gains further significance with the Bosnian Serb leaders labeling the genocide as a myth and the escalating threats from secessionist Serbs. Amid this mounting discord, even as she witnesses the glorification of war criminals like General Ratko Mladic and Gen Vinko Pandurevic at public events in Bosnia, she forges ahead with her mission in the mortuary at Tuzla.
As the consequences of grave wartime failures lie bagged and shelved in the mortuary, Dragana soldiers on, committed to her mission of bestowing the last vestiges of respect and dignity upon the victims. Providing them with something, the killers didn’t – a name.