Plan B - Bosanke: Dragana Vučetić

Teaser Image Caption
Dragana at work in Podrinje Identification Project exam room.

The International Commission for Missing Persons’s Podrinje Identification Project (PIP) focuses specifically on identifying remains found within the Drina Valley after the 1992 to 1995 war. The Drina Valley is home to the towns and villages ravaged by the July 1995 genocide, including Srebrenica, Potočari, Bratnuac, Tišća, Kravica, Petkovići, and Branjevo.

Dragana is not your typical, lab-coat clad scientist. She greets me sitting on the PIP’s concrete stoop in washed jeans, a red flannel shirt, and red Converse low-top sneakers, reminiscent of a punk rock album cover. There’s a reason for the casual appearance…she’s got real work to do. Since joining the staff of the Podrinje Identification Project (PIP) in 2004, the remains of over 5,000 of the 8,372 individuals who went missing after the Srebrenica genocide have come across her exam table.

We walk into her lab, and she pulls up a chair for me beside the table, upon which a partial skeleton lies assembled in human form. But, it’s so incomplete that it’s difficult to imagine that it was once a human being. Two femurs, a tibia, a fibula, fractured portions of the upper and lower arms, part of the left hand, a partial mandible with a gold cap on one of its teeth. Green tape snakes between portions of the remains to signify that they were found in different locations and have been reassociated.[1]

The refrigerated storage room, housing 80 sets of remains awaiting identification or burial permissions, smells of death. Some bags are open, and a glance inside reveals what’s left of the men lost in various massacres in and around Srebrenica throughout the war and during the 1995 genocide.

Dragana tells me there are seven to eight people on staff at the PIP, including forensic anthropologists, a forensic pathologist, and a case manager. Dragana works both in the field and in the lab, but the lab, she says, “is the beginning and the end of my world.” She snaps into tour mode, and begins to brief me on the PIP’s work.

Working on mass graves

The PIP and ICD began their work in 1999. “Those first few years, it was very difficult to establish protocols…nobody had much experience with secondary and tertiary mass graves.” It took a few years to establish these protocols, and create a centralized DNA database to check samples against. Until the ICD database was established in 2002, they were only able to identify missing 5o individuals, mostly based on clothing and personal items found with skeletal remains. But, Dragana says, this wasn’t a very accurate method, because families would identify the same clothing.

Mass graves are typically identified via eyewitness testimonies. Once a mass grave is identified, a prosecutor must produce a court order for excavation of the site. If the mass grave is secondary or tertiary, locations of dumps of remains within the site are marked. The Bosnian Serb army moved the contents of primary mass graves to secondary and, sometimes tertiary, mass graves using bulldozers in attempt to evade their detection.[1] These vehicles would make several dumps throughout the secondary and tertiary sites, often splitting individuals’ remains between different locations within the same grave, or between different secondary and tertiary mass grave sites. For example, Dragana recalls, the remains of one man were found between four different mass graves in 15 different locations.  

After locations are marked within mass graves, remains are exhumed and brought to Dragana’s table at the PIP lab for examination. She washes the bones, separates clothing and personal items, reassociates the bones into human form, determines sex and anthropological age (i.e., how long it’s been since the individual died), and then cuts small portions of the bones to collect DNA samples. To ensure all bones found belong to the same individual, Dragana attempts to collect at least seven samples from each set of remains. Then, this information is transferred to a case file and delivered to the ICMP’s nearby Identification Coordination Division (ICD), which physically extracts the samples and them against a database of over 70,000 blood samples provided voluntarily by the families of the missing. This process is not cheap: Each extraction costs $600 USD. Funding, provided by international donors and the Bosnian government, is very limited. Back at the PIP, the bones are bagged, and put into storage until the ICD can complete DNA identification.

There are significant challenges to accurate identification. Dragana says they’ve found 99 cases where skeletal remains did not match any of the samples from within the database. This is often due to blood samples provided by families not being genetically similar enough to the missing individual for an accurate ID. Parents, for instance, have a much closer genetic makeup to their children than siblings. If the missing individual’s parents died in the war, then fewer close matches exist to check DNA samples against. Sometimes, she says, bones found aren’t from the war. It’s a never-ending puzzle.

Identification on the basis of personal artifacts (clothing, possessions, etc.) is problematic because items and portions of individuals’ remains were scattered across multiple sites as the Bosnian Serb army attempted to cover its tracks by re-exhuming and spreading remains across secondary and tertiary graves. However, personal medical records provided by family, such as dental work, severe fractures, certain pathological disorders (ones that are discernable in bones), and facial prosthetics, like glass eyes, make identification easier. Picking up the mandible from her table, Dragana points to a gold crown. If the ICD has records of a missing individual with a crown on that exact tooth, she explains, finding out who he was will be less challenging. She casually places it back onto the table. I’m shocked for a moment, but then I remember that this is routine for her.

“I don’t work with the families. I work with bones. I only think about these cases on the scientific level. It’s interesting to me when I find something I’ve never seen before.” She recalls a time when she found the presence of syphilis in a set of remains, and she was happy, because as a scientist, she found it fascinating. She laughs at herself, recognizing the absurdity of that response.

Due to the age of the remains, it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to identify how victims died. For the families of the missing, this is often a hard pill to swallow. Forensic analysis can typically identify cause of death in soft tissue, but not in bones. Dragana reports that a primary mass grave identified just a month ago, created during the early stages of the war, likely in 1992, and the individuals within were buried in body bags. Since the remains were enclosed, they were mummified, and therefore identification and cause of death will be much easier to determine. She also notes that these cases are more emotionally difficult to deal with, because the remains are more visually human than the bones she typically works with.

The forensic pathologist makes the final ID once Dragana’s and the ICD’s DNA matching is confirmed. The pathologist then decides how they died—or whether it’s impossible to determine, regrettably the conclusion in about half of the PIP’s cases—and then declares the individual legally dead. Families come in groups once multiple individuals are identified, and are discouraged from seeing the remains, as they’re more traumatizing than a provision of closure—especially when they’re incomplete. Dragana explains that since DNA identification is irrefutable, there’s really no need for visual identification. There’s one to two of these group identification sessions per month. When the families arrive, the forensic pathologist, a Missing Persons Institute (MPI) representative, one or more police officers, and a representative from the prosecutor’s office are present. The ICMP then organizes transport and a coffin, all fully funded on the ICMP’s dime. Most families chose to inter their loved ones’ remains at the Potočari memorial; others choose to bury them in ancestral graveyards.

Currently, the PIP has 80 cases in storage that have a positive ID, however, families are waiting for more of their loved ones’ bones to be found and matched to the existing remains at PIP before they are comfortable laying them to rest. The cranium, Dragana explains, is usually what most families are waiting for; somehow, being able to lay their loved ones’ heads to rest provides the most comfort. Sometimes, remains buried are re-exhumed so that new skeletal fragments can be added as they are discovered. On July 25, 65 individuals were disinterred from the Potočari memorial for this purpose.[2]  Some families choose not to re-exhume their loved ones when additional remains are found, but others find more closure in making the missing’s body as complete as possible. “They have to bury that person for the second time,” Dragana says. “It is always difficult.”

Dragana shows a slight sense of humor, but little other emotion. It might be easy for one to conclude from the reserved, formal attitude with which she speaks about her work that she’s apathetic to the painful reality of what happened to the people she examines. That’s not the case. In her head, she says, she’s seen several thousand cases throughout her time at the PIP, and at least ten cases per day: “I’m not emotional like that. If you think about everything, how that happened, why that happened, who did it…you can’t work.” If she wasn’t able to maintain this level of separation, would she be able to do the job? If she couldn’t do her job, would the families of Srebrenica’s missing be able to bury their loved ones?

I ask her how one ends up examining and identifying genocide victims for a living. “I graduated college and applied for jobs; this is the one I got,” she says point-blank. “I work here for 12 years.” She chuckles. “It was difficult at the beginning,” she explains, but the ICMP didn’t leave her any time for feelings. She describes being thrown into the field on her first day. You’re in the middle of a mass grave, and there are dozens of people scrutinizing your every move: the forensic pathologist, the prosecutor, police officers, sometimes families of the presumed missing individuals being exhumed. “20 people stare at you and you’re measuring bones…it is always better not to think.”

She explains that she doesn’t have to notify the families or see them when they come in to the PIP for identity confirmation. That is the case manager’s job, and for him, she says, it’s much harder. She points to the remains on the table. “I know this is a male and his approximate age, but that’s about it.” She doesn’t know their names, and can’t imagine what their faces looked like, how they lived their lives, and who they cared for. She could find out their personal details, she says; it’s in the case file. “For me, it’s better not to know. My job is only connected with this anthropological examination.”

The future

The methods Dragana and the ICMP staff at both Tuzla facilities have developed have gone global. Not only has the ICMP’s innovative forensic and DNA identification process led to the successful identification of over 80 percent of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide, but since its launch in 2002 has provided training to those identifying remains of individuals who went missing during the wars in Kosovo and Iraq, the 2005 Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the July 2014 Malaysia Air plane crash in Ukraine, and most recently, victims of maritime smuggling accidents off the coast of Libya.

This week, Dragana and her team have been given the federal prosecutor’s permission to excavate the site. They will spend five days exhuming remains and collecting personal artifacts present, and then begin the painstaking process of finding out who these individuals were so that their families can finally, 21 years later, lay them to rest.

The search is not over, but international interest and funding are dwindling. Over 800 individuals from Srebrenica are still missing. A large portion of missing persons in Bosnia have been accounted for—about 70 percent—so international donors, who provide funding for DNA testing, are gradually shifting their focus to regions where the issue is more urgent.[3] Additionally, most of the ICMP’s major DNA laboratory operations have been moved to The Hague. But, as long as the money keeps coming, she’ll keep digging. This is her job.

[1] International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, “Facts About Srebrenica,” 2. Retrieved from….

[2] “Re-exhumation of the Remains of 65 victims in Potočari,” Sarajevo Times, July 22, 2016.

[3]  Nihad Brankovic, Political Affairs Officer, Western Balkans Programme, International Commission on Missing Persons.


[1] “Reassociation” refers to the process of reassociating skeletal fragments into a complete set of human remains.