Friday, July 16, 2010

July 13

Today we visited the International Commission of Missing Persons. This organization was established at the initiative of former President Bill Clinton following the 1997 G-7 summit (the G-7 nations are France, Germany, US, UK, Canada, Japan, and Italy). Funding comes from countries and foundations around the world.

The purpose was to get governments’ cooperation in locating and identifying people who disappeared during armed conflict or as a result of human rights violations. In recent years, ICMP has extended its work to include disaster victim identification.
ICMP works in Bosnia to identify the exhumed remains of those who were killed during the 1990s war. Their techniques and methods are now being used for bodies found in Argentina, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

In addition, ICMP provided DNA analysis after the September 11th tragedy, Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, and to identify victims of the ferry disaster in the Philippines.

What does ICMP do in Bosnia?
One of the necessary steps to post-conflict justice is the identification of those who disappeared or who were murdered. Until this step is taken, uncertainty about the fate of these missing persons obstructs the path to peace, weakens the rule of law, and leads to a lack of confidence in a country’s political institutions.

I wrote about visiting Srebrenica and the burial of 775 genocide victims on July 11. This was possible only because of the work of ICMP.

In a very over-simplified explanation, the process works as follows.

1- Remains are exhumed and coded for identification. In photos I posted from Srebrenica, you’ll see a large mass grave. Bones and other remains from this site, like at many, many others throughout the country, will be uncovered, detritus from the surface will be removed through a scientific process, and DNA samples will be drawn.

2- A registry of missing persons has to be created. The ICMP staff works with family associations throughout the region to collect the names of the missing people. This means going out into the villages, creating trust, and getting the names of loved ones who have not returned since the conflict ended 15 years ago. ICMP is non-ethnic; that is, it is a mix of Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, and internationals, which makes it possible for them to be received in all communities.

3- DNA samples have to be collected from the family members. ICMP staff travels widely throughout the country, meeting with families and local organizations, to gather names, explain what they're doing, explain the DNA testing procedure, and get informed consent to draw blood from the relatives to determine if there is a match with the DNA in any of the exhumed remains.

4- The DNA blood samples are tested against the DNA drawn from the exhumed remains to determine identification.
The results have been astounding in this region since ICMP went online in 2001. The first match was made for a 15-year-old boy from Srebrenica.
Some of the numbers:
88,185 number of blood samples drawn and put into the ICMP database
29,020 number of missing persons represented by the blood samples
33,404 number of bone samples for which ICMP has been able to draw DNA profiles
13,124 number of accurate identifications made throughout Bosnia
At Srebrenica alone, ICMP has made positive identifications of 6,481 people missing since July 1995. Of this number, 775 of them were buried last Sunday.

ICMP’s director said, “The lack of information on clandestine mass graves remains a huge problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I call on authorities to make more efforts to locate these sites so more families could give their missing loved ones a dignified burial.” Her statement illustrates the link between the government, families and communities, and reconciliation through transitional justice.

ICMP has created a state-level office in Tuzla, north of Sarajevo. Much of the work will be turned over to this office in a process of creating capacity-building on a more local level.

After this meeting we went to see something much different but also a step in the crucial process of transitional justice – a gardening project. The Community Gardens Association was formed in 2007 by a small group of individuals who believed that Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats cannot truly reconcile only through talk; they must work together in meaningful and shared efforts that will improve their own lives and the lives of their communities.

And so the gardens began! There are more than 300 people, of all ethnic backgrounds, who are growing vegetables in seven of Bosnia’s major cities. As the director says, these gardens “are a space for recovery and restoration of trust into other human beings as well as a space for learning new skills and meeting new aspects of life.”

Faculty from the University of Washington, Seattle and the American Friends Service Committee have provided financial and educational support. The first garden was planted on what had been one of the most contentious and violent divides during the war – and now there are tomatoes, cucumbers, and every other type of vegetable one can imagine. More than growing vegetables, however, is the fact that these gardens grow friendships across divides that had once created only enmity.

In a wonderful extension of this work, the Association has developed garden projects for those who struggle with mental disabilities such as autism, schizophrenia, etc. Those who have these challenges are shunned in this society and are hidden away. The director realized that gardening, essentially horticultural therapy, can open these lives that had been closed. Remarkable changes have occurred in people who were essentially closeted away.

There is one final extension of this work. Landmines were planted throughout the country, and of course there are thousands of people who lost limbs because of the mines. Although these people can’t move easily on land, they can move freely in the water. The Association has a small program for SCUBA activities on the coast, designed for landmine victims.

Again, a small group of people are making a difference.

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