Precisely rendered, grueling account of how the 1995 Srebrenica massacre propelled a scientific revolution in missing persons identification.
Sarajevo-based journalist Jennings creates an ambitious narrative divided between the Bosnian War’s horrific endgame and the prominent role of forensic science in its aftermath. He argues that the massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of several thousand Bosnian Muslim males—“the only incidence of genocide to have taken place in Europe since the Holocaust”—provoked the creation of the International Commission on Missing Persons. Since then, the ICMP has grown into an effective clearinghouse for the science of forensic pathology, particularly regarding mass graves and natural disasters. Jennings seems equally fascinated by the difficult scientific advances made since then and by the war narrative of ethnic conflict that preceded the massacre. He authoritatively describes how Yugoslavia’s breakup created a brutal civil war, depicting the repugnant actions of the Bosnian Serb military with cool detachment. The massacre was quickly detected by American surveillance, and key figures like the notorious Ratko Mladic were soon indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The Serbs then dispersed the large mass graves to numerous secondary burial sites, dismembering the bodies in the process. As a result, the initial forensic investigations following the war presented unique challenges, which Jennings discusses in grotesque detail. Yet the ICMP responded by building a scientific facility in Sarajevo and developing an enormous DNA repository of both survivors and unidentified remains, ultimately identifying many of Srebrenica’s victims, thus providing evidence for the ICTY war-crimes trials and some closure to the Bosnian people. Since then, the organization has become a worldwide scientific force, aiding in recovery efforts following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, among other traumatic events.
An inspirational but disturbing story of science as counterweight to evil—not for the squeamish.