New forensic techniques aid efforts to find Bosnia's war-crimes victims
researchers are using satellite pictures, vegetation analysis, and other methods to uncover hidden mass graves.
CANCARI, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — This small plot of land looks at first glance like a harmless patch of wildflowers sandwiched between a country road and a cornfield. But under the wildflowers, say researchers, is a mass grave, one of 13 along this eastern Bosnian country road.
The site, known as Cancari 10, has been a proving ground for new combined technology - of satellite pictures, vegetation analysis, and soil conductivity tests - that researchers say will help them find what could be dozens of mass graves here, graves still hidden 10 years after the 1992-1995 war ended.
Researchers say the advanced forensic techniques could also help find graves hidden in the deserts of Iraq, where as many as one million people went missing during Saddam Hussein's 24-year rule.
"You can find graves in many ways: You can dig large holes with machines, or you can be more sensitive and sensible," says Professor John Hunter of Britain's University of Birmingham, the project's chief researcher. He led a team of British and America researchers called in by Bosnia's International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).
In the past three years, it has identified more than 6,000 of Bosnia's 20,000 to 30,000 missing by matching DNA from bone samples excavated from graves to that of blood samples given by living relatives. But matching is impossible without bone samples from graves. Now, thanks to the team's research, Bosnia's grave hunters are optimistic.
They'll identify areas thought to contain graves and compare satellite pictures from 1995 with ones today, looking for vegetation patches that don't match the surrounding areas.
Once spotted, they'll send in a field team to take a closer look at the plants growing there and to run electricity through the ground to measure its resistance to the current.
Sites with remains are usually wetter than sites without, and they are therefore less resistant to the electric current. Finally, the team will do a physical probe to check for remains.
This less-invasive method, says Hunter, means both less intrusiveness in what he calls Bosnia's sensitive areas, and means that missing-persons commissions will be able to better plan excavations.
Though the Cancari site was already a known grave, researchers say that the new forensic approach will enable them to find many more graves in this area. Most of the bodies recovered so far in eastern Bosnia were victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb troops.
Many of the graves being exhumed now are so-called secondary gravesites, the locations where bodies were moved to hide evidence of the murders. In the past, secondary sites were found only after tip-offs from locals.
"People's memories are fading and it's becoming more and more difficult to locate these mass graves," says John Sterenberg, ICMP's head of excavations and examinations.
The new techniques can be exported outside Bosnia to find graves in other post-conflict countries.
"The electrical resistivity technology and vegetation analysis currently being used in Bosnia could potentially be used in Iraq to help locate buried materials," writes Mark Karaska, a satellite-imagery analyst with Applied Analysis Inc, a Boston-area firm.
The discovery of additional graves in Bosnia could help prosecutors at The Hague war crimes tribunal build better cases against war-crimes suspects, since Hunter notes that the new methods allow for less destruction of evidence.
"The more invasive we become the more evidence we tend to lose, whether we're recovering our victims for forensic purpose or for humanitarian purpose," he says. "So the system we've been trying to put together is one which maximizes finding graves but minimizes loss of evidence and integrity of evidence."