The International Commission on Missing Persons

Written by the participants of the TIPSY field study trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina

The International Commission on Missing Persons

It is not uncommon that an armed conflict is followed by an unimaginable number of missing
persons. Not only is the task of searching for the missing difficult in many ways, their fate also
poses a problem: often those who are searching for their family members cannot move on and over
the long run this lack of closure can contribute to the lack of reconciliation and affect the post-war
stability. While the bodies of two-thirds of those who went missing during the war in Bosnia and
Herzegovina have been found and identified, the issue of missing persons remains controversial and
is one of the ways Bosnia and Herzegovina is struggling to deal with its past. We explored some of
these themes during our visit at the Sarajevo Headquarters of the International Commission of
Missing Persons.

We visited the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP) on the third day of our trip,
and we learned a lot about the ICMP and their work both in the Balkans as well as in different parts
of the world. Founded in 1996, the ICMP has helped state authorities in the Balkan region with the
excavation and identification of missing persons for over 20 years now, and Nihad Branković,
ICMP’s Western Balkans program officer, gave us a comprehensive presentation on the process of
accounting for the missing as part of post-conflict recovery in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

TIPSY visits the ICMP in Sarajevo © ICMP

The task of finding those missing following the war has not been easy. After the war, more than
30,000 people were reported missing, most of them presumed dead and buried in mass graves. The
largest mass grave, found in 2013, contained nearly 600 bodies. In addition to locating the bodies,
identification has also posed its own difficulties. Often IDs and personal belongings were removed
before burial, and so the bodies were at first identified with a variety of means, including visual
identification by family members, and later with DNA. Identification has been made more difficult
by the fact that in many instances bodies were moved from the original places of burial to
secondary and sometimes tertiary graves, and this has meant that bodies are rarely in one piece and
in one place. However, the ICMP has managed to identify some 23,000 people who went missing; a
remarkable achievement, all things considered. Obviously the rate of finding missing persons has
slowed down in the past years, but the issue is not over: currently around 8,000 are still missing,
and, for example, the latest mass grave with nearly 100 bodies was located in the autumn of 2017.
However, this should not be seen as diminishing the value of the work of the ICMP.

In addition to the difficulties posed by the more technical realities of the missing persons issue in
Bosnia and Herzegovina, the issue has been further complicated by the politicisation of the issue.
During our visit at the ICMP, it was emphasised that besides the technical assistance they offer, the
ICMP has also worked on developing the country’s own capacities of addressing and dealing with
the issue of missing persons. Immediately after the war, the three different groups in Bosnia, Croats,
Serbs, and Bosniaks, all established of their own commissions to search for the missing of their own
ethnicity. However, in 2005, the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina was
established under the Bosnian government, and it was to search for the missing of all citizens of
Bosnia and Herzegovina, regardless of their ethnicity. The Missing Persons Institute has been
slowly taking over some of the responsibilities of the ICMP. However, while both the ICMP and
the MPI emphasise their focus on finding and identifying missing persons from all three ethnicities,
their impartiality has been challenged. Especially strong have been Serb voices in claiming that
both institutions ignore missing Serbs and only focus on Bosniaks, as well as the refusals of the
Republika Srpska’s missing persons body to cooperate with the other institutions. Like in many
similar cases, official data and numbers have been used as political weapons, with death tolls acting
as alleged proof of different groups’ actions during the war, further complicating solving the issue.
This is also tied to, for example, the question of EU membership, a topic further discussed in the
blog post on Monday, since meaningful regional cooperation and progress on the missing persons
issue is a precondition for the membership.

 

TIPSY visits the ICMP in Sarajevo © ICMP

This politicisation of the missing persons issue is only another way the interethnic tensions are
manifested in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Just like the two schools under one roof system described in
the post about the UWC on Thursday, the difficulty with teaching history and the war in schools
mentioned in the final blog post on Tuesday, as well as the issues surrounding the constitutional
structure of the country and the recognition of the Srebrenica genocide, the dispute over the missing
highlights the immense divides in post-war Bosnia. It should, however, be noted that these
problems are acknowledged and were eagerly discussed during our many visits in Sarajevo, and
therefore they are definitely not something we only observed as outsiders. Instead, while the issues
are difficult and the divisions seemingly deep, most of the people we spoke to were cautiously
optimistic about their country’s future and willing to leave the past behind.

Reading advice:
“The appalling reality of Bosnia’s Missing Dead” (BBC – 12.12.2018)
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161212-the-appalling-reality-of-bosnias-missing-dead

 

TIPSY goes Bosnia October 14 – 21, 2018
In October 2018, nine students of TIPSY – Tampere International Global Society Students travelled
to Sarajevo for a week-long excursion. The trip was organised with the intent to provide students
the opportunity to experience and learn about the post-war reconstruction and democratization
efforts of the Western Balkans. We met with local as well as international institutions responsible
for the development in the region and visited places of uttermost importance such as Mostar and
Srebrenica. The complex and frustrating situation in the country gave us a lot of food for thought
and reflection. For the following week, we will publish short reports written by the participants. The
students will present a few of the impressions and thoughts that developed during and after the trip.
This will include reflections on visits to some local as well as international organisations and
historically highly important places or thoughts on other aspects of present-day Bosnia.