May 31, 2005

Experts Seek Ways to Find Bosnia Graves

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- International experts in satellite imagery, geology and forensic archaeology have completed a research visit to Bosnia to investigate new methods of locating and mapping mass graves, a Bosnia-based agency dealing with missing persons and DNA identification said Monday.

The experts from Britain's University of Birmingham and Applied Analysis Incorporated, a U.S. private company specializing in processing satellite images, were part of a multidisciplinary project organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, based in Sarajevo.

The initial research phase of the project was completed on Monday and will be followed by further analyses and cost-benefit estimates, said Doune Porter, a spokeswoman for the ICMP.

The ICMP was established after Bosnia's 1992-95 war to help reveal the fate of tens of thousands of people missing after conflicts that erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

It developed into one of the most sophisticated laboratories for DNA identification in the world and its experts are able to extract DNA profiles from bone samples even if they are highly deteriorated.

However, one of the most difficult aspects of finding and identifying victims of conflict or human rights abuses is locating the graves, which have frequently been hidden by the perpetrators.

In many cases in Bosnia, the bodies have also been moved from one location to another in order to cover-up evidence of the crime. Most mass graves found here so far have been located based on information supplied by survivors or other witnesses.

Now experts are trying to use satellite imagery and spectral analysis, which measures changes in the composition of the surface of the ground, to locate the mass graves.

Such methods have recently been used to locate mass graves in Iraq but the ICMP seeks to improve and expand upon the techniques through means such as plant and vegetation analysis, testing of the conductivity of soil and computer mapping analysis.

Spectral analysis is more effective in the desert environment of Iraq than in countries with more vegetation, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. Therefore, satellite imagery techniques will be more useful if patterns of plant growth associated with mass graves are better understood, she explained.

"Also testing the conductivity of the earth can pinpoint a mass grave where an approximate site is already known since mass graves tend to be more moist than the surrounding earth, and therefore more able to conduct electricity," Porter explained.

This technique is also useful for mapping the depth and composition of a mass grave before exhumation, she said.

The joint team used some already documented sites near the eastern Bosnian town of Zvornik for their research. Porter said that all the methods being investigated in this project are noninvasive, which means the earth does not have to be moved in order to carry out the research and therefore no remains are disturbed before exhumation.

"We are not looking to replace the intelligence-based method of finding mass graves," said Dr. Mark Skinner, ICMP Director of Forensic Sciences, in a statement. "But we are seeking techniques that can add to the information we have. The perpetrators of these crimes went to great efforts to hide what they did and we need to do everything we can to find the graves."