The Search for Bosnia’s Missing, Twenty Years On

By Jasmine Horsey

Sarajevo may be famous for its Roses, but memorializing the missing is a different matter. During the 1992-5 Bosnian war, an estimated 30,000 people were disappeared—taken from their homes, presumably executed, and buried without trace. Their treatment constitutes a human rights violation legally known as enforced disappearances.

Twenty years later, 70 percent of the 30,000 have been accounted for—an unusually high number that places Bosnia at the pinnacle of global work locating the disappeared. This statistic is largely due to individuals and organizations in Sarajevo that continue to speak for the missing. Mirna Buljogic, acting director at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), explained that learning about and dealing with the violation is a prerequisite for reconciliation in Bosnia. “Students are pretty confused,” she said. “They’re listening to subjective stories about Bosnia, but they want information about what really happened.”

In an attempt both to promote the case of the disappeared and disseminate an objective history to Bosnian youth, BIRN produced a documentary last year titled Missing You. One of the men profiled in the documentary is from Prijedor, the site of the second largest massacre of the war. He lost his wife and two children in a shooting. While he has since remarried and started a new family, he has never been able to locate the bodies of his first. “It seems like he’s living parallel lives,” Buljogic said. “He is stuck in this past.” After the release of Missing You, the Prosecutor’s Office was able to get information on the shooting, leading to a case in a state court about the Serb group that committed the crime.

Buljogic credits the Sarajevo-based International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) for being a big part of such documentary reportage, in terms of explaining DNA analysis and the scientific techniques used to establish the missing. To identify mass graves, the ICMP relies on aerial photography, which monitors disturbances in the earth, interviewing family members or witnesses who might have information about burial sites, and speaking to perpetrators—something that is contingent on these perpetrators first being convicted for their war crimes. Once graves are detected, the ICMP excavates and exhumes the site. Bosnia has something unique in the ICMP: its work has been applied to conflicts beyond the Balkans, and to situations including migration, trafficking, and even the Thai tsunami of 2004. In recent years, countries including Iraq, Libya, Chile, and Syria have turned to Sarajevo and the ICMP for help.

Two years ago, it was thought that most of Bosnia’s mass graves had been found, but the subsequent discovery of 1800 bodies in a single grave made “the gruesome point that this is not a finished business,” Kevin Sullivan, Senior Communicating Officer at the ICMP, said. For the relatives of the disappeared, without knowledge of where their loved ones are, the grieving process is indefinitely prolonged. But with the global search for the missing centered in Bosnia, the world is looking to the country for future strides in the field.

Jasmine Horsey ’16 is in Silliman College. She can be reached at