Bosnia, writes Christian Jennings at the beginning of his new book, is “still struggling to come to terms with the events that took place from 1992 to 1995.” Central to the attempts to deal with the legacy of the war in the Balkans is the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), an organisation that, in 1999, took on the job of identifying the remains of the victims of that bloody conflict. In its mandate, the ICMP assumed the task of helping governments in the region “deal with the enormous problem of persons who had been killed or had gone missing as a result of wars, ethnic conflicts [and] human-rights abuses…”
In Bosnia’s Million Bones, Jennings examines the scale and complexity of the ICMP’s work, especially its attempt to identify the scattered remains of the victims of the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995, in which several thousand Bosnian Muslim men were shot by Bosnian Serb troops under the command of General Ratko Mladic. Given the way the Serbs disposed of the bodies (burying them, exhuming them, moving the remains and then reburying them), this was, Jennings reports one scientist as saying, “the world’s greatest forensic puzzle”.
Jennings, who has covered the Balkans as a journalist since 1999, responded to my questions by email.
JD: Do you see forensic work of the kind you describe in the book as part of the process of truth and reconciliation or as a pre-condition of it?
CJ: Quite often, in the singular, traumatised and psycho-socially idiosyncratic world of missing persons, the two vital concepts of truth and reconciliation do not always travel hand in hand. For such people as the mothers, sisters and daughters of men who went missing and were executed in countries such as Iraq, Bosnia and Libya, only to be exhumed years later from the mud or sand of a mass grave, the first thing they want is the truth. The truth of what happened, where and when, how and why their menfolk ended up in a mass grave with their hands bound behind their back, blindfolded, with bullets from…