Accessibility links

Bosnia: New DNA Technology Aids U.S. Identification Efforts

By Jen Tracy and Anes Alic

A breakthrough DNA computer program developed in Sarajevo and designed to identify human remains in under a second is finally bringing closure to families of the estimated 40,000 people missing since the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Jen Tracy and Anes Alic report from Sarajevo on the recent success of this new DNA technology and its use in identifying the remains of victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York.

Sarajevo, 7 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has often come to the aid of Bosnia and Herzegovina since the end of the four-year war there in 1996. Now, Bosnia is coming to America's aid in its time of need with the creation of a breakthrough DNA computer program that is helping identify the victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

The new DNA technology was developed at the Sarajevo-based International Committee on Missing Persons (ICMP). American scientist Edwin Huffine, together with a Bosnian computer programmer and a team of Bosnian experts, created the program, which has brought hope to thousands of anguished Bosnian families still waiting to identify the bodies of their missing loved ones.

The success of the new DNA technology surprised even Huffine and his team. On 16 November, they first used the program to identify the remains of two Bosnian teenage boys. The program, which took less than one second to identify the remains, brought the much-needed sense of closure the boys' families had sought for nearly six years.

It was a major victory for the ICMP, an organization created in 1996 by the G-7 group of the world's leading industrialized nations to help identify missing persons after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Huffine says the program advances DNA technology to an entirely new level.

"The DNA technology that has been developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina to help identify the families is among the most advanced in the world. The reason for this is because never before have tens of thousands of individuals tried to be identified through DNA testing, so new technologies and new methodologies of doing this had to be incorporated into what already existed in DNA testing."

Huffine says Bosnia was an obvious choice for developing such technology for a number of reasons -- not least of which are the sheer numbers of bodies in the country still waiting to be identified. The program is also easier to create in Bosnia, where operation and labor costs are relatively low. The United States has donated $4.5 million to the project so far, and Huffine says it will take a total of $10.5 million to run the program for five years.

"Bosnia has tens of thousands of missing persons, and it is possible that DNA technology can lead to the identification of many of these. In addition, they've already recovered between 5,000 and 6,000 bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina that can't be identified without DNA testing."

Amor Masovic, president of the Bosnian State Commission for Missing Persons -- the state agency charged with exhumations -- says he welcomes the work of Huffine and ICMP. Masovic says the new program will ease the work of his own team considerably. He adds that many families of missing persons say that they will not find peace until they identify and bury their loved ones.

The most impressive aspect of the new DNA technology is what Huffine calls "kinship analysis" -- an ability to make mass identifications when there are no DNA records for most of the victims.

Huffine's program looks for DNA profiles to a probability of one in 10 million, and can identify a victim using a blood sample from even a very distant relative. Once the program breaks into that family circle, Huffine says the identification process can take less than one second. He says the program is a marked advance over previous DNA technologies that relied on blood samples from the mother and father. In Bosnia, only 5 percent of unresolved cases have a living father to provide a blood sample. In many cases, entire families were killed.

Classic forensics has failed in Bosnia. Bodies have proved difficult to find and are often missing clothing, documents, and other identifying objects once they are.

The process has been especially frustrating in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where in two days in 1995 Serbs massacred some 7,000 men, women, and children. Today, there are an estimated 50 mass graves and many single graves in the forests surrounding Srebrenica. Identifying the bodies has been nearly impossible up until now. But the speed and accuracy of the new program will radically change identification procedures and bring relief and reconciliation to many Bosnian families.

The timing of the ICMP program has proved significant for the United States as well. With a few modifications, the program is now being used to identify the remains of bodies recovered from the site of the 11 September World Trade Center collapse.

The U.S. Justice Department summoned Huffine to New York shortly after the terrorist attacks to present his new technology and to discuss its use in U.S. recovery efforts.

On 8 November, ICMP Chairman James Kimsey -- who is also the founding CEO of America Online -- together with Queen Noor of Jordan, also an ICMP member, visited the World Trade Center site to see how the new technology could best be used.

The New York medical examiner's office says the Bosnian program has proved useful in the slow work of recovering and identifying victims. "The New York Times" reports today that of the approximately 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center, some 492 have been identified, about 60 exclusively through DNA testing. Huffine's technology has been part of those efforts.

In Sarajevo, the ICMP is working steadily, with nearly 100 forensic scientists on staff. Canadian Jon Davoren, the lab's senior science director, says he was skeptical at first of the ICMP's chances of success. But the results, he says, have been "amazing."

The ICMP is beginning to receive inquiries from other countries as well. Huffine says that Russia, Iran, and Cyprus have all expressed interest in his new technology. He says he hopes the program will eventually become standard throughout the world.

The ICMP's work, Huffine says, is a good example of science serving humanitarian interests. "What the ICMP tries to do, and what our mission is, is to bring answers to the families. The program that's been developed here is an example of science serving the families."

The next step, Huffine says, is to present the ICMP's findings throughout Bosnia in town hall-style meetings to increase awareness of the new technology and give more families hope that their missing relatives can finally be identified.