They are the unquiet dead. Laid out in rows across the interior space of a former industrial building on the edge of the Bosnian town of Sanski Most, the remains of human beings, in various degrees of integration. Some of the skeletons are almost complete, others just a pelvic bone and some assorted ribs, arranged as though to await the arrival of more, towards the whole. The eye-sockets of their skulls seem almost to tell the violent story of execution with a terrible silence; all sound in this space is dulled, muted, by a pale light cast through high windows. There’s a single bullet hole through the crown of each one.

This place was used to process wood before Bosnia’s war of the early 1990s, and now it processes – it endeavours to assemble – the dead. The remains are laid out on raised trays, and at the foot of each lie possessions and clothing found with the body when it was exhumed, invariably from a mass grave. So to walk through this hall of death is also to walk through these people’s lives and last moments. A pair of trainers here, a checked shirt there, a watch or wallet. What made this person choose a yellow sweater rather than another on a market rail, and chance to be wearing it when taken out to be murdered? Why striped socks beneath this half-assembly of bones, plain ones to accompany the next? Who were these people? That is the question.

Because in addition to the spectral presence in this building, run by the Krajina Identification Project, there is diligent purpose. These dead people had been missing for 24 years, along with tens of thousands of others, while their families – survivors of the hurricane of violence that blew through this corner of Europe in 1992 – searched, wondered, feared the worst. Now they have been found – but who are they?

This facility is one in a chain that seeks to answer that question, the work of which is the most remarkable entwinement of science, human rights and justice in the world today. The task of that chain is to locate and exhume the 40,000 people who went missing after the western Balkan wars – the worst carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich – then to assemble their remains insofar as they can be found, identify them, give them names, and return these dead back to the living for burial. It is scientific work at its most committed and advanced, helping to meet humankind’s most primal need: to bury or in some way ritualise the remains of our dead.

Painful quest

The belongings of the dead are laid at the foot of each table holding a skeleton at the Krajina Identification Project in Sanski Most.

Beside a rough road that climbs a remote mountainside, between the towns of Prijedor and Sanski Most, lies the house that Zijad Bačić has rebuilt in the hamlet of Čarakovo, from the ashes to which it was charred in 1992, and where he now plays football with his son, Adin. Beside it a modest marble monument has been raised, on which are carved the names of 38 people, many of them members of Zijad’s extended family. Some of them were killed on the night of July 25, 1992; others vanished. Zijad was 15 years old on the night that – after his father and most other men had been taken away to concentration camps – Serbian death squads came back to “mop up” the women and children. He recalls it vividly:

“We were at home when we heard the soldiers’ voices. ‘Come on out! Come on out!’ My mother gestured to us: we must. As soon as they went out, and the other families around us, machine guns began firing. I recognised one of the men, the others wore balaclavas. They were about five years older than me. I watched my mother hit first and fall down, then my brother and sister – and I ran behind a bush to hide. I stayed there until they had finished shooting and shouting – I recognised another of the balaclava men from his voice; they came from just down in the valley, they were neighbours. I saw their arms shooting pistols at those who were still living, until they stopped screaming.

“The killers went, and slowly I emerged. I saw two other children, a boy of 10, a girl of 13. We looked at each other as though we were ghosts. We were the only ones of 32 in the hamlet to survive. I saw a man sitting on that bench there – he looked as though he was asleep, but he was shot dead. I saw my mother – Šida, she was born in 1946 – and my brother Sabahudin and sister Zikreta dead in the garden.

“But I survived. I can still hear their voices, the shooting. I was deported on the convoys, and went to a refugee camp in Germany. And I never thought I’d come back here, but I couldn’t sleep without knowing… what happened? Where were they? I had to find my missing father, all my uncles, and to find where they had buried my mother, younger brother and sister.”

It is mid-afternoon, the rain of morning banished by a breeze from the west, and sunlight strokes the beauty of the hillside. Blue and yellow summer flowers are scattered across the meadows. Adin swings his scooter around. “I reported everything I knew,” said Zijad. “I gave blood [to help investigators find DNA matches], and started digging where I thought they might be. A Serbian lady came: ‘Why are you digging here?’ I said I’m looking for my family. She said: ‘They’re not here. Try somewhere else.’ I believe that 99% of the people here know exactly where they are. Only they don’t care to tell me, or they’re too afraid of the people who did it. But I need to know where. I need funerals. I need trials.”

There have been seven arrests in connection with the extermination of the Čarakovo villagers. Two of the accused have been released on bail under house arrest, and Zijad thinks they are the men he recognised on the night of the massacre. “That’s one of their houses right there,” he said, pointing towards a white building on the valley floor. “We’re hoping that these trials will reveal where my family is. I’m going to testify. Even though we’re surrounded by them, I have no fear of anyone or anything any more. All I have is my wife and son, and my only need in life – which is to find those I have lost.”

Digging for answers

Where Zijad’s mountain lane meets a tarmac byway, there stands a little shop kept by Zijad’s uncle, Fikret Bačić, who takes my notebook and writes a list of the names of his extended family who went missing during the last week of July 1992. It takes him a long time; there are 29 of them, including his mother Sehriša, his wife Ninka, son Nermin, who was 12, daughter Nermina, who was six, four brothers including Zijad’s father, three sisters, several aunts, uncles and cousins. Of the 29, 19 are children; the youngest was two.

Fikret’s eyes are the saddest imaginable, as unfathomable as his loss is inconsolable. “They were taken and killed by the viaduct, just there, by the main road,” he said, pointing to a railway bridge beneath which we’d just driven. “For years, I’ve had no idea where they were buried.

“I was working in Germany when it happened; of course I couldn’t believe it.”

The first thing Fikret did was to tour refugee camps across Europe: Holland, France, Austria, Croatia. “I hardly knew what I was doing, like a wild hunter-dog. But nothing. So there was only one thing to do: come back, and I never thought I’d do that, back to the destroyed house. But I did, in 1998, only to start looking, for I had nothing else to do with my life but find the bodies and the people who did this.

Fikret added, ”I asked a Serb, who had been the best man at my wedding, raised by my grandmother: where are they? There are not many people I can ask, I pleaded with him, I just need to know who did this, and where they are buried. He just said: ‘I don’t know, I was not there.’ I could tell he was lying. I went to the police in Prijedor, but everyone knew it had been the police who organised the hiding of the bodies. Two men knew – I had a feeling. I went to the house of one, but he had guests and would not talk. Then the other, but he had died. Then I realised the only thing to do was to start digging. I dug everywhere. I helped wherever there was a dig.”

Fikret went to the mass grave found at the village of Kevljani in 1999, next to a concentration camp established by the Bosnian Serbs at Omarska; it had been found when villagers spotted strange vegetation growing in his field, of a kind the soil beneath it would not normally nurture. There was no sign of Fikret’s family.

Then, in 2004, work began at a second mass grave, also near Omarska, at Tomašica. Fikret was there, digging, but the bodies found there still did not include his family. “None of us knew,” he said, that “we were only 100 metres from the biggest mass grave of them all.”

We sit in Fikret’s yard, beside the shop, roses climbing the fence, neighbours passing by, saluting him. He sips a glass of Nektar beer, a Bosnian Serb brew. “The pain doesn’t go away, it gets worse, stronger, the longer it lasts,” he said. “I went to the state court, and an American prosecutor showed an interest for a while, but then said he had to leave and take another job. After a while, I gave up, I couldn’t go on any more.” Then, in 2013, there was a bigger, macabre discovery at Tomašica: hundreds more bodies, buried, hidden – but now revealed. Fikret Bačić was there moments after the first earth was broken and news sent abroad.

“Whenever I could go, I was there,” he said. “It seemed that they had buried them village by village, in order of where they’d been killed along the road from Prijedor. Go deeper, go deeper, we all said. We had all given blood by now, and first, they started to find my neighbours, the Tatarević brothers, up the lane there. Then a cousin of mine. And then my brother Refik – no documents, but the DNA matched.”

“It’s hard to say what I felt,” he added. “It was like someone who belongs to me coming back from 10 metres deep. He’s my family. And then another body comes out, and it’s not one of mine, and you feel so bad. I did that for three months, until the last body was found and either identified or not. Now we must wait for another grave to contain the women and children: two were found at Tomašica, but still 17 kids are missing, aged two to 16. You know, I can’t believe I’m saying this; it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and in this lovely evening, for me to have to tell you that all this is true, that this is what people do to each other.”

Body watch

The driving force behind this search for the missing dead in the blood-drenched Balkans is the International Commission on Missing Persons, founded in 1996 on the basis of an initiative by President Bill Clinton at a G7 summit in Lyon, France. International Commission on Missing Persons arrived to urge the location and identification of 30,000 people in Bosnia (and 10,000 more across the region), “missing” in mass graves. Over two decades, this it has done, both physically and scientifically, spearheading a battle against what appeared to be all odds. Most have been found and their remains returned to their families – but 8,000 in Bosnia are still missing.

The scope of what International Commission on Missing Persons has been doing here in Bosnia since its foundation is almost beyond comprehension. Originally a non-governmental organisation, it was recently given full international legal status, covered by treaty. So now, from these benches holding their skeletons in Bosnia’s rural reaches, International Commission on Missing Persons takes on the world. This work addresses the existentially offensive limbo suffered by tens of millions of families around the planet – the state of not knowing, not having so much as the remains of a child, husband, wife or parent, to do what humans have always done: bury them.

Already the object of International Commission on Missing Persons’ attention have been the site of the World Trade Center in New York, advising on how to identify those killed on 9/11; Guatemala and El Salvador, searching for the missing from US-led “dirty wars” of the 1980s; and South-east Asia, identifying victims of the tsunami in 2004. The organisation, said its director-general, Kathryne Bomberger, is thinking about future work that might include searching for victims of not only conflict but natural disaster, enforced disappearance, human trafficking and migration. Detailed country programmes are devised for Iraq, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Albania and Ukraine. It is even preparing to address the as yet unquantifiable missing of the Syrian conflict – and the 10,000 missing children from the migration crisis in Europe.

“We do this from a premise that all missing persons have rights, the same rights,” said Bomberger. “But in addition to the humanitarian principles, this is also about the rule of law – it is an obligation of states under international law to find missing persons.”

The money this work will require is minuscule in comparison to corporate or even aid budgets – and yet, “this is an increasingly mean world when it comes to funding,” said Bomberger, and the missing are easily overlooked. “We need a strong capacity for the sake of rich and poor countries alike; ours is an appeal to the self-interest of governments, as well as their better nature. It’s of benefit to the world, to find its missing people.”

“The world out there is one big NN mass grave,” sai Ian Hanson, the man who broke the very first ground here in Bosnia in search of the 8,100 victims of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. “NN” is the abbreviation used on graves; it stands for “No Name”.

So this is now a global project. But it all began here, in the earth beneath the plains of Croatia, and amid the mountains and rivers of Bosnia.

Without a grave to visit

Over the summer of 1991, the break-up of Yugoslavia began to turn bloody, first in Slovenia, then Croatia, then Bosnia, as Yugoslav republics sought independence and Slobodan Milošević’s government in Belgrade sought to establish borders for a “Greater Serbia”, which spread into both Croatia and Bosnia and entailed the elimination, through death or deportation, of every non-Serb on the territory.

In Bosnia, a savage pogrom was unleashed in spring 1992, mainly at first against Slavic Muslims in the east and against Bosniak Muslims and Catholic Croats in the north-west Krajina; the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was subjected to relentless siege and the stillborn republic torn apart.

It was my accursed honour to report on this war, and in August 1992 to uncover concentration camps, established by the Serbs for Muslim and Croat inmates, near the town of Prijedor in Krajina. The carnage dragged on until soon after the Srebrenica massacre three bloody years later.

I have kept in touch with the survivors of, and those bereaved by, those camps, and come to understand how the outrage of “disappearance” inflicts an immeasurable pain on those who remain. I return to Bosnia every year for commemorations at the camp, and hear how, in so many ways, those words “Missing” and “Disappeared” are crueller than “Dead”; they leave the mothers, fathers and family without so much as an interment, a grave to visit, an account of what happened and why.

By the time Bosnia’s war ended, in 1995, the discipline of forensic anthropology in pursuit of the missing had been advanced significantly: in theory by an American called Clyde Snow, and in practice by a bold and radical group, the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team, established in 1986 to trace and identify the thousands forcibly “disappeared” during that country’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.

“For the first time in the history of human rights investigations,” wrote Snow, “we began to use a scientific method to investigate violations. Although we started out small, it led to a genuine revolution in how human rights violations are investigated.” The scale of the catastrophe in Bosnia meant that the search needed to draw on that revolution, to which International Commission on Missing Persons would in time add a second revolution: the introduction of DNA matching.

When investigators from the war crimes tribunal in the Hague first arrived in 1996 to build a case against the perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacre, their first preposterous task was to search for the evidence: its victims, 8,100 murdered men and boys ploughed into the ground.

They were led by a French investigator called Jean-René Ruez, an anthropologist called Richard Wright, who had worked on World War II graves in Ukraine, and a former archaeologist of ancient and medieval London, Ian Hanson – who is now deputy director of forensic sciences, anthropology and archaeology at International Commission on Missing Persons.

Buried evidence

The modern discipline of finding and identifying the hidden dead, Hanson said, has its roots in World War II: a famous case was the identification of 27,000 Polish officers massacred at Katyń in spring 1940. The USSR insisted they had been killed by the Germans, but a German investigation disproved this, forensically demonstrating that they had been murdered by the Russian political police, NKVD. “For once,” conceded Hanson, “I’m afraid the Nazis were right.”

Work at Srebrenica began on what were thought to be the five mass burial sites – each containing many separate graves – in which the dead had been buried and left hidden. Then a macabre truth emerged: testing showed that body parts from what became called the primary graves had been moved to secondary ones, to hide evidence. Sometimes, they had even been disinterred and reinterred again, into tertiary graves. With two implications: firstly, that more than a million and a half bones and body parts from 8,100 people were scattered across innumerable sites; and secondly, that the few byways of rural eastern Bosnia had for weeks, months, been heaving with trucks carrying the rotting, stinking remains of these people – some 3.2 tonnes of “putrefactive material” – hither and thither. Yet no one said a thing.

“We call this ‘grave-robbing’,” said Hanson. Enquiries by him and others found that the Serbs had arranged secondary graves “to be located in places where there had been armed confrontations, so that they could plead that massacre victims were killed in combat. It was all very carefully worked out.”

The search for the missing was initially regarded as a humanitarian affair. But the war crimes tribunal’s motivation was prosecutorial. When International Commission on Missing Persons arrived in 1996, it dovetailed into that notion, so that its approach was altogether new, and tougher: finding the hidden dead for human reasons, but also seeking evidence to establish what happened and uphold the rule of law. The victims clearly approve: of the relatives of the missing who gave blood samples in pursuit of a DNA match, 90 per cent agreed to allow any results to be used in evidence at trial.

From the outset, the process of finding and identifying the dead was hampered by a toxic atmosphere of denial, non-cooperation and sectarian structures that dealt with their own side’s losses and no one else’s – markedly among the main perpetrators responsible for more than 80 per cent of the missing, the Bosnian Serbs.

“When we first arrived,” said Hanson, who was then with the war crimes tribunal, “the people with the information we needed were not nice guys; they were guys with guns not wanting us to do what we had come to do. We used to go into the police stations that were supposed to be helping us, and see pictures of ourselves on the wall: “Do Not Cooperate with These People’!”

To that end, International Commission on Missing Persons stepped in, not just to help look for bodies and nurture the expertise to do so, but to “assist” the Bosnian government in turning a haphazard, sectarian search into a systematised, centralised operation. Hanson uses the word “assist” but moves his flattened palms against thin air making as if to push it.

The initial search focused mainly on Srebrenica. Identification both there and in Krajina was at first done using classical anthropological methods: identifying possessions, dental treatment, clothing etc. But from 2000, International Commission on Missing Persons began using DNA samples from blood given by relatives of the dead, matching them with those gleaned meticulously from samples of excavated bone. This was the second revolution in forensic anthropology and the figures speak for themselves: in 1997, seven positive identifications; in 2001, 52; in 2004, 522.

Srebrenica has become iconic of Bosnia’s carnage, yet it tends to detract from other atrocities over the three years of the war. Bosnia is a country without a reckoning, a call to account. And nowhere is this more brutal than in Krajina, with the second biggest concentration of mass graves, the first of which was found in 1999 at Kevljani. Near what had been the iron ore mine of Omarska, it contained 143 bodies of men murdered in the camp.

Horrific sights

A second grave was found at Kevljani, this one with 456 victims of camp Omarska, and others around a mining facility at Ljubija. But only in 2013 did Bosnia’s single largest mass grave away from Srebrenica come to light, a few kilometres away down a dirt track from Omarska, by which time the site of the camp had been re-opened as a mine: the grave at Tomašica in which Fikret Bačić found his brother. The site looks like a pond now, water settled in the sunken earth, from which reeds grow. A family from the nearby Serbian village walk up the track towards it, carrying fishing rods. But for more than a year, this was a scene unlike almost any other in Bosnia since the war.

“They arrived here, all of them,” recalls Dijana Sarzinski, mortuary manager at the Krajina Identification Project facility on the edge of Sanski Most. “It’s one thing to exhume bodies from a grave of 11 people, as many of them are. But here were 434, possibly more.” The figure would later rise to nearly 600. “They had been preserved in clay for 20 years, tightly packed together, glued by decaying tissue.” Here was the Krajina Identification Project’s extreme exposure to a science called taphonomy – that of the decomposition of organisms, known by the initials FBAAD: fresh, bloat, active, advanced, dry. “It’s a bit different when you see people staring at you from the earth: their eyelashes, lips, fingerprints. You get used to the smell of bodies, but not like they were at Tomašica. We all had PTSD after Tomašica.”

Working on the Tomašica inventory at Krajina was Victoria-Amina Dautović, who in September 1992 had been the first baby born to Bosnian refugee parents in the UK – her father Enver survived Omarska and her mother Kelima carried her in utero while held in Trnopolje. Victoria-Amina studied forensic science at West London University specifically so as to be able to return and look for her friends’ parents and parents’ friends. After the discovery of Tomašica, International Commission on Missing Persons offered her an internship. “On the first day, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I knew the names of these people coming across the desk, and I knew the families crying in the next room, when their relatives had been identified. They were from Kozarac, where we spend every summer, our neighbours. I cried, I didn’t think I’d be able to cope. Then I told myself: this is what you have to do, this is the job – and I managed.”

Incomplete remains

Investigators at Tomašica found a terrible echo of the grave-robbing that they had discovered at the other end of the country: evidence of matching body parts in different graves. The practice of disinterring and reinterring bodies, by now so perturbingly familiar from work around Srebrenica, had actually begun here three years earlier than it had there.

One of the human agonies of this separation of body parts is that some people are identified on the basis of just a few bones, and it is up to the families to decide whether they have enough to bury or whether to wait for more.

“People find their missing, but not complete,” said Amor Mašovic, who set up the Muslim-Croat Federation Missing Persons Commission after the war. “They don’t know if they have peace or not. They may bury a few fingers and a leg, and five years later there’s a knock at the door, it’s the left leg now, two years later a piece of skull. It’s part of that awful limbo.” At one point, Islamic spiritual authorities decreed it irreligious to bury less than 40% of a body, further exacerbating the trauma for those believers trying to deal with fragments.

“During the siege of Sarajevo,” recalled Mašovic, the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić “told his gunners: ‘drive them to the edge of madness’. Well, this was the same principle, but for the madness to remain after the war. The madness of relatives of the missing, which will remain until their own deaths. They appear as statistics, all 40,000 of them. But each number is a horror story that people are going through, every one of them like a novel you could read for the rest of your life.”

There are organisations that form a bridge between the mechanisms of search and the families of the missing. Mirsad Duratović, a survivor of Omarska, is president of the Association of Camp Detainees of Prijedor 1992. He is also, as he puts it, “a messenger of death” to families he knows well, with news of mainly men he knew from Omarska, where prisoners would be called each night from their crammed quarters for routine torture, rape, mutilation and death.

After Tomašica, Mirsad said, “everyone was asking the same thing: is it my husband, is it my son? And I’ve had every kind of encounter. I ring the bell, and for 20 seconds we embrace, because no words are necessary. They already know what news I bring. You can’t explain or describe the feelings, nor would I wish them on anyone else. In a strange way, it’s the best kind of feeling, and the worst, at once.”

We talk at the site of the Tomašica mass grave after yet another day of commemoration at Omarska, women laying flowers at the now-locked doors of rooms where they were kept, hardened men cracking up at the reliving of cruel memory. “The question of the missing is what made me come back,” said Mirsad. He had been living in Germany until 1999. “I had myself lost 47 members of my extended family.”

Mirsad is elegant. He wears pressed shirts and occasionally a suit, which is rare around here. His hair is groomed, he drinks little. He sits as an independent on a local authority dominated by a party which alternately justifies and denies the “Greater Serbia” pogrom. This is one of the weirdnesses of postwar politics in Bosnia: are they crazy, or just pretending to be?

When Mirsad talks about “the feelings”, he speaks from experience. “The hardest of all,” he said, “was to knock on my own mother’s door, and tell her that her own husband, my father, and her other two sons, my brothers, had been found. On one hand, it was the news we had all been waiting for; on the other, it is the beginning of a different grief. My mother always said that when her husband and my brothers were found, things will be easier. The pain of the wait was killing her, it had been so long. Now we have buried them, and we can at last start to go through the bereavement. That day I had to be both a messenger and a son.”

For Mirsad, there is a wider purpose in this work: “to prove that there was genocide in an area where there has been no conviction for genocide”. The war crimes tribunal in the Hague has ruled in serial cases that genocide was committed at Srebrenica and adjacent Zepa, but not yet anywhere else in Bosnia. “To prove systematic killings and prove systematic hiding of bodies. Systematic and premeditated. It wasn’t enough to kill all these people and their families and children, burn their towns and villages, blow up their mosques and Catholic churches, burn their files and papers and history, take the men to concentration camps and either kill or deport them, so these people never existed – and then to systematically hide their dead. If that is not genocide, I don’t know what is.”

Profiling bodies

The bodies from Tomašica, like those from all around Krajina, come first to that facility on the edge of Sanski Most. Forensic anthropologist Dijana Sarzinski’s role here is testimony to Bosnia’s global leadership in this expertise: from Sarajevo, she studied at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and then at the University of Central Lancashire in England, before coming home to join International Commission on Missing Persons as an intern.

The standard operating practice here is the world’s “gold standard,” said Sarzinski. Remains are meticulously washed, and a biological profile established. Scientists and technicians work in silence, clad in blue tunics and masks, washing body matter, cleaning bones with toothbrushes. The bones are subject to a physical decontamination, followed by removal of any exogenous DNA that may have attached itself. A small sample of bone – a “bone window” – is then extracted with precision blades, to be passed on to the laboratories. “We’re not allowed, as anthropologists, to determine a cause of death – that’s for the pathologists,” said Sarzinski. “But we can prepare the cases and point out possible causes.” The single bullet holes through the skulls of these men from Hozica Kamen are articulate enough.

The numbers arriving from Tomašica were so overwhelming that the bodies “had to be treated with salt, basically mummified, using a method thousands of years old, preferred by the ancient Egyptians,” she says. “They had been preserved in clay for so long, and very quickly decompose – through desiccation of tissue, bugs and maggots.”

The bodies from Hrastova Glavica, a desolate mountain hamlet near Sanski Most, presented a different challenge. In August 1992, the Serbs brought 125 prisoners here by bus from the camps at Kereterm and Omarkska. They took them off the buses bound in groups of three, gave each man a cigarette, shot them and slotted them individually down a crevice in the rocks. (The grave was found because one man broke free and survived to tell the tale.) “Body parts had been squashed together for so long, they were all co-mingled, tissue stuck together, tissue and bone from one body all mixed up with another,” Sarzinski says.

Once the bones are ready, they have to be re-associated with others from the same skeleton; this is crucial to establish what grave-robbing has taken place. “It became very quickly clear that of the 434 bodies we received from Tomašica, 56 cases of body parts needed re-associating with cases which had been previously identified at Jakorina Kosa,” says Sarzinski. But others enter into the category of NN, no name.

International Commission on Missing Persons started an NN Project in 2013, explained Sarzinski, “to give names to associated skeletons that had none”. The project is “all-encompassing,” she said. “It throws together everything we have and can get, from the police, the families, the prosecutor’s office, seeking out new areas of investigation and pushing for them, trying to fit any and every tiny part in a huge jigsaw puzzle.”

I asked whether Sarzinski would like to come to this year’s commemoration at Omarska – put faces to the bones, as it were. “I can’t,” she replied. “I have to do this job for what it is. I can’t afford to cross that line.”

DNA identification

One of the reasons that so many of the dead in Tomašica have been identified is that many relatives from around Prijedor had given blood samples. International Commission on Missing Persons’ revolutionary DNA-matching process proceeds from Sanski Most and the other mortuaries to the organisation’s core, in Sarajevo. The kernel of this entire operation is the DNA lab, a small, unprepossessing room on the first floor of a modern office block.

Ana Bilić is deputy head of International Commission on Missing Persons’ laboratories division. Like Sarzinski, she is young, and testimony to this singularly strange speciality Bosnia’s tribulation has produced: born in Sarajevo, she trained at the university here before completing a Master’s at Halifax, Canada, and returned to do this work. There is a logic to Bosnia’s becoming a world leader in this grisly expertise, in addition to the experience of war: medical science was practised in communist Yugoslavia to a markedly high standard, and science now serves as some kind of absolute that transgresses the bitter divide of war, and might even transcend it. The Sarajevo facility is the hub of a network of laboratories in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia – politically balanced.

It takes three weeks for DNA-matching to take place. On one side of the process, there are the reference samples of blood from relatives of the dead, collected during exhaustive drives in Bosnia and among the scattered, shattered diaspora across Europe and America. Bilić shows me one of the so-called IsoCode cards on which blood arrives from the relatives: six drops from the right index finger, air-locked in a plastic bag. The blood is valid for DNA testing for 20 years, explains Bilić. The DNA in the blood is then bar-coded, given a digital existence that may or may not help it find its match.

On the other side are the bone samples from places like Sanski Most. The scoured bone windows are “ground into a fine powder, to increase the surface available for testing,” says Bilić, and 0.5–1 g of the bone powder is, like the blood, bar-coded inside a small plastic bag. Bilić produces one: “Some of these people have been dead a long time, stacked up in clay, rivers and canyons, and it’s a challenge to extract the DNA.” She shows a chart demonstrating that some bones are easier than others – teeth, vertebrae and talus bones (in the ankle) are best, she says, for extraction of osteocytes, a variety of cell in which DNA is more likely to be preserved.

The method of DNA identification preferred by International Commission on Missing Persons , explains Bilić, is nuclear short tandem repeat. It concerns the number of times a nucleotide is repeated consecutively on the DNA strand. She says that this method has a “higher discriminatory power” than any other, “and a certainty threshold of 99.95 per cent, sometimes higher, often 99.999 recurring. As close to certain as it is possible to get.”

And into the computer they go: bar codes from the bone, and those from the blood samples – sorted by a specially devised “blind” programme – blind, not least, to political rhetoric, manipulation, denial. Cold, clean science to enact, says Bilić, “blind searches of kinship analysis, so that the possible identification of the person can be made. Without the use of DNA, there would be no way to put these parts of the puzzle together again.”

The system’s near-perfection produces many matches, but also leads to a new set of problems: the discovery of mis-identifications using earlier, less accurate methods. As Amor Mašovic explains: “About 8,000 were identified through classical methods, of which some are completely wrong – they have two left legs, they are part one person, part another.

“With DNA testing, some families realise the person they buried 15 years ago was a mistake. They will know that their son has been identified, but is in a mortuary in Sanski Most, or Banja Luka, not in the ground. And this agony begins: of disinterring the misidentified body, and replacing it with the correct remains.” But the Muslim-Croat Federation Missing Persons Commission has a policy, Mašovic says: “We will not disturb people in the ground – because it only disturbs the families – unless we have found another body to replace it. We can correct a mistake, but we can’t take a body from a family if there is none to replace it.”

Down the corridor from Bilić’s lab, Ian Hanson’s depth of commitment allows him no respite; he almost corrodes himself with his own questions. “When I moved here from the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the Hague] in 2009, we’d found 70 per cent of the missing. Why are we not finding more? Why are there are still 8,000 people missing? There are reasons for that.”

The cruellest, most effective, impediment to their work is the rule of silence – observed when body parts were being moved along lanes near Srebrenica and Omarska, and observed still. “One of the constant issues we face,” says Hanson, “is that someone knows where the graves are, but everyone gets on with their business. People know, without giving us the information. It’s an issue among the Serbs in Krajina, the Bosniaks in Sarajevo, the Croats in Mostar. They’re reluctant to come forward, or scared of intimidation.”

A series of US government cables from 2008 – posted by WikiLeaks – show how much the Serb administration, Republika Srpska, has impeded efforts to find the missing. One says that “authorities have taken a series of steps to undermine the ability of the state-level Missing Persons Institute to locate, exhume and identity victims”. A further cable says that a separate Serb-only missing persons agency has taken “increasingly bold steps to undermine” the central, non-sectarian MPI. This Serb agency is empowered to “withhold information from MPI,” the cable says, and has even engaged in “confiscation of MPI material”.

“What is the incentive for people to help us when the risk is so high?” asked Hanson. “They all keep quiet, not even wanting to implicate the others, in case they implicate themselves. But they all want an outcome. We can go into a room full of people who do not want to work with each other – but they all know that we are the ones who do the DNA tests that lead to bodies being found. So the question to them all is: do you want these people found or not?”

‘The wait is over’

Hava Tatarević’s garden is ablaze with the palette of summer. Scarlet begonias, white marguerite daisies with yellow suns at their core, deep pink climbing roses – and smoky blue forget-me-nots, for that Mrs Tatarević could never do, whether before her husband and six sons were found, or after.

She is the older sister of Zijad Bačić’s murdered mother, and she survived – “if you can call this survival,” she said – to tell the story of the night she lost her family, some weeks before the murder of Zijad’s. “It was one of the first days of the war. Men came to the house, and took them all away. They took my husband, Murharem. And six of my sons: Senad, Sead, Nihad, Zijad, Nidzad and Zilhad. All apart from my youngest, Semir. They said he was too young. They came to the house with guns, and balaclavas, and just said: ‘You’re coming with us, if not we’ll kill you all, here and now.’ I started to cry, and they said: ‘Don’t worry old lady, they’ll be back.’ And marched them down the hill.

“I never saw my sons again, but a few days after that, the same men came back and ravaged everything. They stole what they wanted from the house, ate and drank what was here, and smashed the rest. They killed all our animals. They said there was a restaurant down on the road by the viaduct, where I was supposed to go. But they said: ‘Don’t go there, it’ll upset you. It’s full of children hungry and crying’ – I think many of them were killed. So I was taken instead to the camp at Trnopolje, then on the convoys to Travnik. From there, after a long time, my sister came and took me to Croatia, and then Germany.”

Mrs Tatarević pauses. The only sounds audible are bees across the flowerbeds and the hum of a tractor in mid-distance. She offers coffee, but it seems too much trouble. “I started looking for them all right away,” she continues after a while. “First of all I looked around the refugee camps. I wrote letters. People would come to Germany from all over the diaspora, and I’d ask them: have you seen my children? Have you seen my husband? I started coming back in summer to rebuild the house, and plant things. And I asked everyone, even the Serbian neighbours: have you seen them? Do you know where they are?

“I went to the police in Sanski Most to register them. I gave my blood sample to the people from Sarajevo. I went to Trnopolje where the concentration camp had been, and asked people there. I don’t know how I survived the pain. I don’t know if I did survive the pain. I just wanted to know – how did they die? Are they still alive? Might they come back to the village while I am in Germany? If they were dead, all I wanted to do was to hold their bones in my hands, and find a place of green grass under which to bury them, and say my prayers and say: there they are, my dead sons.”

Then, after almost a quarter-century of this purgatory, she learned about the new mass grave found in 2013. “I think I knew, I had a sense, something told me this was it. We went to Bosnia on the Sunday, to the grave site, to Tomašica. There was a grave full of children and young people from our village. And there was one of my sons, Senad, still with his wedding ring on. And I knew, even before they took the others to the laboratory, a voice told me it was them, the other five. And yes, later, a woman came: ‘We have your husband, we have your sons,’ she said.”

Dusk falls across the heat haze. The sound of the evening muezzin drifts across the valley – once intended never to be heard here again. Insects buzz across the flowerbeds as the cool of evening descends. The brutal bedlam of those days and nights 24 years ago seems unimaginable, but Mrs Tatarević’s gracious presence, and falling tear, make it only too cruelly real. “It is hard enough to lose a child, I think. But to lose them all? What can I say? What can I do? I cannot jump out of my skin into another. I just have to do what I can with my own. And they are buried now. The wait is over.”

Additional research by Elsa Vulliamy and Victoria-Amina Dautović.

This article first appeared on Mosaic.