Interview 11 Jul 12

'Making a Better Future by Resolving the Past'

In four years working as a forensic anthropologist, Esma Alicehajic has taken part in dozens of Srebrenica exhumations, and says she never allows herself to feel emotional while working on a mass grave.

Denis Dzidic
Photo by ICMP

Alicehajic has taken part in 50 exhumations of mass graves in Bosnia and Herzegovina since she started working for the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, in 2008.

She still recalls the first time she worked on a mass grave in the village of Pusmilici, just south of Srebrenica.

“Before I got there, I remember worrying about whether I would cope with the emotional side of what I was about to embark upon”, says Alicehajic.

“After all, I had spent the previous five months of my job at the ICMP building up to this moment. However, it soon became apparent that once I immersed myself in the work, my desire to do a professional job was the priority”.

Alicehajic reveals that her resolve to be professional is so strong that emotions play no part in her work, even while recovering children's bones found in mass graves near Srebrenica.

“It is only when the families come to visit the graves and the pain-filled eyes of a woman searching for her son, father, husband or brother are looking at me, that I allow myself to empathise with the harrowing events of Srebrenica, but only for a split second. Then I am back into forensic anthropologist and archaeologist mode. Not letting emotions influence my work is the most effective way that I can help the families”, she says.

The ICMP has taken part in the exhumation of over 50 large mass graves sites linked to the fall of Srebrenica. Through a carefully devised approach involving the archaeological excavation of graves, the anthropological analysis of remains and DNA sampling, the ICMP has established the identity of over 6,704 individuals reported missing from the 1995 fall of Srebrenica.

On a typical grave site, Alicehajic says that her job is to enable best practice in forensic archaeology, forensic anthropology and crime scene management, through such tasks as site reconnaissance, the location of graves and the definition of grave boundaries.

In her interview for BIRN, Alicehajic says that she is proud that her work involves locating missing persons, and helping families.

“We are making a better future by resolving the past. My hope is that the families of those who have died will at long last find some comfort in knowing the fate of their loved ones and that our work will prevent something similar ever being repeated again anywhere in the world”, she added.

According to Alicehajic, a distinguishing feature of the Srebrenica mass graves is the fact that many are secondary graves, where bodies were moved months after their initial burial in primary mass graves.

She explains that the attempt by perpetrators to conceal the location of the remains gave rise to extensive fragmentation of the bodies. The mixing together of skeletal elements from different individuals makes this a tremendous forensic challenge for the ICMP.

“The identification process requires the re-association of an individual’s separated body parts, often from different secondary graves, as well as family matching of DNA to establish identity”, says Alicehajic.

According to verdicts by the International criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the International Court of Justice, Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide in July 1995, when they attacked the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, and subsequently killed more then 7,000 men and boys. 

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