SARAJEVO: One of the cleaning ladies in the building won’t enter the room where the vials are stored because she can feel the restless souls inside them.
But for 33-year-old biologist Amela Jamakovic, the 11 vials, each containing a few grains of bone powder that look like sand, are her daily assignment.
She’s part of a team of six at the laboratory of the International Commission for Missing Persons in Sarajevo that’s on a daunting mission: analyzing DNA from bones found in mass graves from atrocities or natural disasters around the world and matching it to lost lives.
The researchers try to restore identity to nameless remains by comparing the DNA to genetic material collected from living relatives. The detective work has been carried out on remains of victims from the 1990s Balkan wars, the Pinochet regime in Chile, Typhoon Frank in the Philippines, Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, and Asia’s December 2004 tsunami.
Those efforts have been dwarfed by the commission’s latest mission: helping Iraqis find and identify the victims of the Saddam Hussein regime and its aftermath.
Officials in Baghdad estimate that 350,000 human remains are hidden in mass graves throughout the country. Human rights groups say it could be close to a million.
When Jamakovic adds liquid to the grains of bone to form a solution ready for analysis, she likes to think she is performing a kind of alchemy that will conjure up an identity from dust and lead to peace and closure for a bereaved family.
"While I work with it, I handle it with care because any mistake and I have prolonged their agony," she says.
For the past two years, the team has been bringing Iraqi forensic archaeologists, anthropologists, nurses and other experts to Bosnia for training on collecting blood samples, excavating mass graves and setting up labs in Iraq.
Some of the dead were killed in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Others were Kurds, killed because of their ethnicity, or Shiites, massacred because of their religion, or Sunnis, eliminated because of their political views.
If the estimates of human rights groups prove accurate, "they represent a crime against humanity surpassed only by the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Pol Pot’s Cambodian killing fields in the 1970s, and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II," says a 2004 report from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Building on the Iraq numbers are the unknown number of mass graves filled by victims of post-Saddam revenge killings as Sunnis, Shiites and rival political factions used the turmoil to settle scores.
It could take decades to find names for the bones from Iraq, but it will contribute to peace, said Adam Boys, the deputy head of the commission, who sees his work as "not for the dead but for the living."
"We see the issue of missing persons as something that stops reconciliation, which contributes to conflict," he said.
In Bosnia, two-thirds of the victims — a total of some 20,000 sets of remains — have been found and identified. Some 10,000 remain missing.
Munira Subasic, a Bosniak woman who lost her son, describes the effect this way: "Multiply that number by at least four family members and that’s how many people are crying every day in Bosnia."
In Iraq, there are likely to be millions enduring that fate.
The current situation "has a catastrophic effect on Iraqi society and politics," said Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jallu. "The missing people are from Iraqi sects, and unless this problem is solved these sects will still continue to mistrust and still seek revenge from each other."
Jonathan McCaskill, the International Commission for Missing Persons chief in Iraq, said locals are being taught about forensic archaeology, anthropology, and databases created to store genetic information and match it with living relatives.
Iraqi archaeologists, anthropologists, forensic experts, nurses, doctors and lawyers have been visiting Sarajevo for courses on excavating bones, DNA extraction, and taking blood samples. Software the commission has developed is being translated into Arabic and Kurdish.
In Baghdad, thousands of remains have been collected at the morgues of the Medical Legal Institute, brought in during the months after the April 2003 invasion. Iraqi experts have extracted DNA from many of the remains but so far have nothing with which to match them.
Dr. Munqith al-Dezali, the head of the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad, said each set of remains needs blood samples from three or four relatives to yield a positive identification.
Boys said much education is needed before the work of collecting those samples can even start. He cited the case of a Kurdish village where some villagers had reservations about the procedure.
When an International Commission for Missing Persons representative told them that DNA extraction was necessary to help find missing loved ones, they asked how long one can live without DNA, thinking it was an organ.
"It is a monumental task," Boys said.
Additional reporting by George Jahn, Kim Gamel and Sameer N. Yacoub