Interview 26 Oct 12

Nermin Sarajlic: Hunt for Missing Gets Harder Each Year

It will be extremely hard in future to locate the remaining bodies of those still missing from the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Nermin Sarajlic, a pathologist working on the issue, says.

Denis Dzidic
Nermin Sarajlic, pathologist / Photo by BIRN

Nermin Sarajlic, a forensic pathologist and head of the Forensic Department of the Medical Faculty in Sarajevo - who has worked for the International Commission for Missing Persons, ICMP, in Bosnia for years  - says the search missing persons is becoming harder as time elapses.

According to the ICMP figures, around 30,000 people were missing, presumably dead, at the end of the 1992-5 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. To date, two thirds of those have been found and identified. Around 10,000 people are still missing.

 “A few years after the war we discovered a mass grave with the remains of a wife, mother and two sons,” Sarajlic recalls.

“They were killed near their home but the man managed to escape. He came back the following day and buried them near the house.”

“We came with him and looked for this grave all day. We barely managed to find it. I use this example to show how difficult it can be to find a grave, even when you have all the facts to hand, so imagine what it’s like today, when there are fewer witnesses and the terrain has changed,” Sarajlic told BIRN.

As a forensic pathologist, Sarajlic is the first on the scene when a mass grave is found. He says many problems slow down the identification of remains, ranging from the type of grave to issues of staffing.

If the mass grave is of a secondary or tertiary type, which means that the bodies have been moved from one grave to another, the remains will be mixed up, Sarajlic says. This makes the exhumation difficult, but it is also makes the forensic work and the task of identifying the victims hard as well.

“I am aware that this process seems long and too long to some, but it’s quite common to assemble a single body after conducting as many as eight DNA tests on body parts found in different graves - up to four graves in some cases, where bodies have been moved,” he explains.

Sarajlic says that there are cases when it is impossible to isolate the DNA, for instance when the remains have been burnt.

Another issue slowing the search for missing persons, Sarajlic says, is a combination of poor data about the locations of mass graves and lack of expert forensic pathologists.

“The conditions we work in are poor. The media only cover exhumations, and what comes later, in terms of the identifying and piecing the bodies back together, just isn’t covered. There are only 12 or 13 forensic pathologists in the whole of Bosnia and only seven or eight are working on these issues,” he says.

“It’s not only overall numbers, it’s that we all have other work to do. There is not a single forensic pathologist who is solely dedicated to the work of exhuming and identifying missing persons,” Sarajlic notes.

He blames the Bosnian authorities for not recognizing the need to form centres for forensic pathology.

“I feel that the state has not shown interest. From the very start, the existing forensic departments within medical faculties should have been upgraded. There was an opportunity when the Institute for Missing Persons was formed, to create a forensic division within it, but it wasn’t done. That is why we have such a small number of experts today,” he believes.

Although his job entails engaging with horrific scenes of graves and remains, Sarajlic derives deep satisfaction from the belief that he is helping victims and their families.

“All I can say is that I am trying to do my best,” he says.

“The way I see it, if I do my job well – identifying victims, piecing together bodies – then I am helping people and victims in the only way that they can still be helped. I am trying to focus on getting the job done, but it is never easy,” Sarajlic concludes. 



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