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One of the most common reasons for misidentification is down to the use of classical methods, which were used in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war until 2001, when the DNA laboratory of the International Commission on Missing Persons began with its work. Some 8,300 victims were identified through the classical method.
The classical method involves the recognition of the remains by the victim’s family, and on the basis of external indicators – identification documents which were found with the victim, clothing, an external examination of the remains by expert of forensic medicine and by the identification of significant parameters in terms of the victim’s gender, height or age.
Experts believe that this method of identification is not reliable and the only solution to overcome mistakes is a DNA blood test.
While the families of victims consider mistakes made by using the classic method as “huge”, on the other hand there are those who do not blame anyone, explaining that this was just the beginning of the identification process in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that mistakes happen.
Nevertheless, families of victims are living with the huge shock of knowing that they mourned the wrong person for years, and that they lived under the delusion that they could go to the place where their loved ones are buried. Some of them have difficulties in coping with these findings and do not want to go through the new trauma by searching and looking for the bones of their loved ones again.
Often, the errors occurred during the autopsy the bodies because they were in secondary graves, in other words, they were already transferred from one grave. One body was transferred five times from graves.
The Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia-Herzegovina notes that not a large number of mistakes were made using the classical method.
“About 0.5 per cent of the victims were incorrectly identified, out of about 8,000. Those are minimal errors in the conventional method of identification, ” said spokeswoman for the Institute, Lejla Cengic.
Milan Mandic, president of the Association of Missing Persons of the Sarajevo-Romanija region said that the wrong identification of the bodies creates a major problem for families. He argues that mistakes happen even with the DNA analysis.
“There were thousands of errors here in Sarajevo and in Krajina. (…) In East Sarajevo, we had a false identification. It was the body of Dragoslav Kulina,” said Mandic.
For 12 years, mother of Dragoslav Kulina was bringing flowers, lit candles and put up a monument to someone else’s child.
As Milena Kulina told BIRN – Justice Report, the body arrived from Tuzla with supporting documents featuring the name of Dragoslav Kulina. Her son was killed on July 14, 1995 on Mount Igman, and the body was exchanged three months later.
“As his name and surname was on the bag, and the body was decomposed, uniform, mud in the bag, no electricity. (…) When they started to take off the boots, the skin was falling, it was hot,” Kulin anxiously said, adding that she simply accepted that it was her son.
She added that she saw traces of torture on the body, there were no teeth or hair.
Several years later, Kulina gave blood seeking whilst her missing husband Andjelko, and thus learned the painful truth. The son of Milena Kulin had in fact been replaced with the body of a young man from Bratunac.
“It is too heavy of a burden for me, believe me,” said Milena.
Nedeljko Mitrovic, from the Organization of Families of Captured and Killed Soldiers and Missing Civilians of Republika Srpska (RS) believes that there have not been as many errors as it is thought in some circles, although these individual cases are very important, too.
“I know about ten cases. We informed the families, but they just do not want to go through all of that again,” said Mitrovic.
Burned and then killed
According to the Association of Families of Dead and Missing War Veterans in the municipality of Bugojno, there were no cases of misidentification of Croat victims in this municipality.
“There was a misidentification based on the classical method of identifying victims in the area of Gorazde. The family obtained the body through exchange. It is a matter of five Bosniak victims who were, according to the witnesses, killed and then burned,” said Cengic, a spokeswomen of Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
According to Cengic, one of those five families of the victims recognized their son. However, 20 years later, the DNA findings came and established that there was an error and that their son’s remains had been found in Perucac in 2010.
“In fact, the mother later gave blood in search of her three brothers, and on the basis of that blood the error became known. If she had not given blood, this misidentification would never be found. This case is not over yet,” explained Cengic, adding that the body was buried in 1992, and that it should now be exhumed, after which identification will be carried out.
Forensic experts Hamza Zujo and Rifat Kesetovic consider that classic method of recognising the bodies is not reliable, and that the only solution is the DNA analysis.
“Simply, family says he’s the one, and then it turns out that it is not. However, there were not so many such cases”. Zujo said.
Kesetovic believes that there is a 30 percent possibility of error when the family identify the body.
“If someone has wrongly identified the victim, it means that another family will never find their loved ones, if the first family had not given blood,” said Lejla Cengic.
Cengic warns that some persons may forever remain buried under another name.
“The problem is the fact that many relatives who were able to give blood for some of the missing persons are no longer alive,” added Nedeljko Mitrovic.
According to Sudbin Music from the Prijedor ’92 Association of Detainees, mistakes were happening even during the autopsy of the bodies. One example is Hrastova glavica, a primary mass grave were 124 citizens of Prijedor were found. The bodies were assembled incorrectly, so it happened that a certain person had been buried three times.
“Samir Music is an example, he was found Hrastova glavica. That grave is a pioneering work and I am trying to understand it. I do not blame anyone, but we cannot expect the same from the families of victims.” said Music.
After a second re-exhumation, Samir Music’s father suffered a stroke and was paralyzed for six to seven years.