Durham Global Security Institute (DGSI) students, taking either the Masters in Diplomacy, Defence and Development, or the Masters in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding, visited Bosnia Herzegovina for a full week. They met non-governmental organizations, international organizations and citizens in order to get a comprehensive picture of what post-conflict peacebuilding looks like on the ground. This two-part blog describes their experience of visiting Srebrenica where more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, were massacred in and around the town during the Bosnian War.
The International Commission for Missing Persons
Today we left the office and travelled up to Tuzla, in Northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. There we met with the forensic department of ICMP – the International Commission for Missing Persons – and afterwards headed to Srebrenica – the location of the infamous massacre of over 8,000 Bosniak Muslims.
Our visit to the ICMP challenged us with a mixture of emotions; shocking yet interesting whilst being surreal. The anthropologist who guided us around the facility detailed the processes they undertake to identify missing persons. This included the recovery of bones in mass graves, cleaning them, sorting them, preparing DNA sampling and trying to recreate the bodies of the missing. She explained the different role of staff members, and the difficulties identifying bodies. As DNA testing is very expensive, it is only undertaken on one sample from a body – and so identifying and ensuring a body is complete is incredibly complex. As a result, there are scores of unidentified small bones, which anthropologists have been unable to identify and therefore bury.
Walking into the ICMP we were all initially shocked at the look of the building. It reminded us of containers – seemingly a quickly put together and temporary building – which was not what we expected of a facility of this nature.
Inside, however, the smell is something you can never forget. The building houses the bones and belongings of the missing, although most of those missing at Srebrenica have been identified, it still houses hundreds of bodies. Some of these bodies have been identified but are incomplete and so families are unwilling to bury them, whilst others remain unidentified.
Seeing this provoked a mixture of emotions within our group. In many ways, its haphazard nature – with bones laid out on the floor – seemed very disrespectful, and it was hard for us to understand how you can work with bones every day like any other objects on your desk. However, we understand that within the nature of this work, building a distance between yourself and the dead is necessary for your own well-being. Moreover, with limited space and funding, we understood a prioritization of the work they do over the layout of their building.
Listening to the anthropologist, we were concerned that there is a lack of emotional support for the staff at the ICMP, who have to deal with a heavy psychological impact, and distressing work identifying the dead.
Our experience here resonated with some of our studies at Durham. Although in our class we have focused on the politicization of this process, our discussions raised questions about the nature of such a program and the difficulties in providing funding. The international community is heavily criticized for its intervention in Bosnia, yet it is vital that this process is undertaken by an internationally funded body. In terms of our studies, it made us question how the international community can play a role in the process of rebuilding a state.
The views expressed in this blog reflect the experience of the DGSI students on this trip, they do not necessarily represent the views of the DGSI.