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Book Excerpt: Bosnia’s Million Bones

Mon, 11/25/2013 - 4:01pm
Christian Jennings

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Bosnia’s Million Bones
First Stop—DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the key to human identity and inheritance, is something that everybody nowadays has heard of and, in some cases, understands. It has been made massively accessible by popular science, films, books, and above all, television shows. DNA is the molecule that contains the biological instructions making each species unique. It, along with the instructions it contains, is passed from adult organisms to their offspring during reproduction as the human blueprint that allows inheritance, developmental and evolutionary traits, to be passed along the human reproductive line. It is each person’s map of existence, and each map is unique.4

A biochemist named Frederich Miescher discovered DNA. He was a partially deaf Swiss medical student who wanted to become an ophthamologist, but his hearing did not allow him to be able to use a stethoscope, which effectively banned him from conventional medicine in the 1860s. While working in the laboratory of Dr. Felix Hoppe-Seyler in Tubingen in 1868, isolating nucleic acids from white blood cells, Miescher began to concentrate on the physiological aspects of the makeup of human blood. While studying blood cells, he succeeded in isolating pure nuclei from leukocytes. He then extracted an acid-insoluble, alkali-soluble, high-phosphorus substance from the nuclei. He called this a nuclein, or nucleic acid—this was DNA.

However, nearly a century passed from that discovery until researchers unraveled the structure of the DNA molecule and realized its central importance to biology. Miescher had argued that his discovery contained the secret of heredity, but nobody could quite figure out why. Scientists in the European academic community, some of them jealous of Miescher’s achievements, argued that in fact the work of heredity, as it was known, was performed by strong and complex proteins. The importance of DNA only became clear in 1953 thanks to the work of four extremely bright and diligent Cambridge University researchers—James Watson, Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, and Francis Crick—who, by studying X-ray diffraction patterns and building models, figured out the double-helix structure of DNA, a structure that enables it to carry biological information from one generation to the next. Watson, Wilkins, and Crick went on to win the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Franklin did not live to see her work recognized by the prize, as she died of ovarian cancer in 1958, aged 37.

The process of matching two people through comparing repetitive sequences of markers in different sets of human DNA, particularly the sequences called number tandem repeats, or, more precisely, short tandem repeats, is the basis of the most commonly used form of DNA typing or profiling. Scientists compare the information they find at different loci, or points on a chromosome—a structure of DNA and proteins found in cells—where a DNA sequence or genome is located. Closely related people—like Kada Hotic and her father or her son—would share very similar short tandem repeat sequences, statistically extremely unlikely to be replicated in any other human being and passed between generations following well-characterized rules of meiotic inheritance that can be detected among relatives. This technique is known as DNA fingerprinting.

The most high-profile use of these fingerprinting methods came in 1992, when a German court requested that DNA fingerprinting be used to establish the identity of SS Captain Doctor Josef Mengele, who was wanted by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal for his deathly medical experiments carried out in Nazi concentration camps. After being wounded in action on the Eastern Front while serving as a doctor with the SS Wiking Division, Mengele was posted in 1943 as the camp physician to Auschwitz. He was a geneticist, and many of the excruciating and lethal experiments he carried out on Jewish and gypsy patients in Auschwitz focused on heredity, the DNA makeup of zygotic twins, and the condition known as heterochromia, in which the color of each iris in one human being is different. Ironically, it was DNA that led to his identification. A sample was extracted from his femur following the exhumation of his skeleton in 1985 from a grave in a suburb of São Paulo, and, after comparing it to DNA taken from his wife and son, it confirmed his identity to Brazilian investigators.

The ICMP’s laboratory staff would be trying to isolate nuclear DNA in the nucleus of each cell from the blood and bone samples. They would then compare the DNA extracted to the database of DNA samples collected from living relatives. A positive identification, or match, was when DNA base pairs from a sample from an exhumed body could be matched with a sample from a living relative.

It was decided that to make the forensic science and human rights sectors of the ICMP’s activities work properly and prove acceptable to all sides of the political and ethnic coin, five laboratory facilities were needed. They were rented or built in the Croatian capital, Zagreb; in Tuzla; in the capital of the Republika Srpska, Banja Luka; in Sarajevo; and in Belgrade. An Identification Coordination Division, which would handle the organization’s database, records, and forensic data management system, would be set up in Tuzla. The main laboratory and headquarters were already in Sarajevo, and a mortuary and a forensic reassociation facility specifically for Srebrenica victims would also be built in Tuzla. For handling the very high number of missing persons’ remains from the mass killings around Prijedor in northwestern Bosnia in 1992–1993 and from the Krajina, a mortuary was set up in the town of Sanski Most, which lay in the beautiful, rolling countryside of the Una and Sava rivers, in the top left-hand corner of the country. Staff was recruited, facilities arranged, and the protocols of human resources and finance set up; good reporting to the donors was emphasized; and all available information was entered into databases.

The ICMP was now committed to the task of sifting through the pieces of the world’s largest forensic puzzle. Thousands of bodies had been exhumed from mass graves in Bosnia, families and relatives of the missing had formed themselves into loose associations, massive campaigns to collect blood samples from the living relatives of missing persons had begun, The Hague Tribunal had continued chasing its suspects, and secondary mass graves were continually being discovered. Everything was happening at once. By the time spring 2001 rolled around and the snow started to melt, it was time for digging season again. Then four things happened in succession that shaped the boundaries and the outline of the puzzle into a much more recognizable and precise shape and changed the Balkans, the ICMP, and the world at large: a new conflict broke out in the Balkans; Slobodan Milošević was arrested and transferred to The Hague; the events of 9/11 occurred in the United States; and, perhaps the least reported, the International Commission on Missing Persons made its first DNA match. The four events were all, ultimately, linked to each other.

From Bosnia’s Million Bones by Christian Jennings. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

 

 

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