Bosnia’s Million Bones : Solving the world’s greatest forensic science puzzle
Christian Jennings

Bosnia’s Million Bones :  Solving the world’s greatest forensic science puzzle

What it would be like to be tasked with finding, exhuming from dozens of mass graves, and then identifying, using DNA technology, the intermingled human remains and mangled body-parts of the estimated 8,100 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in eastern Bosnia? One leading forensic scientist commented that it would be like “solving the world’s greatest forensic science puzzle.”

And in 1999 one DNA laboratory, run by one small international organisation in Sarajevo, the International Commission on Missing Persons, set themselves the task of doing just that. And this is the story of that laboratory, that technology, and that organisation.

Twelve years later, the ICMP are the world’s acknowledged leaders in the extraordinary, rarified world of using DNA-assisted technology and forensic science to assist in finding, and identifying, thousands and thousands of persons missing from wars, genocides, human-rights abuses and natural disasters. These range from Bosnia to Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami, to being INTERPOL’s on-call agency for DVI, or Disaster Victim Identification, to identifying victims of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and to providing advice in the aftermath of 9/11. ICMP have also identified victims of apartheid in South Africa and of war crimes committed in Chile in the ‘seventies. They have helped scientists and governments from countries like the UK, Germany, Russia, Norway, Libya, Colombia and Iraq on improving their DNA identification skills and finding missing persons. Their forensic science techniques have, as a result, become the latest weapon in the armoury of international justice and human rights.

The ICMP sprung out of the massacre at Srebrenica. There are 206 bones in the human body post-puberty, and in 1995 an estimated 8,100 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred at Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces lead by former General Ratko Mladic, now on trial for genocide and war-crimes at the UN Tribunal in The Hague. 206 multiplied by 8,100 makes 1,668,600, and this was the number of potential body-parts and bones, mangled and scattered across dozens of mass graves in the mountainous wilds of eastern Bosnia, that forensic investigators from the ICMP and the Hague Tribunal were looking for. This year, eighteen years after the massacre, the ICMP has found and identified, using DNA, more than 80% of the exhumed bodies and body-parts, their remains returned to their families for proper and dignified burial.

The story of how they did it, becoming in the process the world’s leader in their field, is set against the story of the sixteen-year manhunt for Ratko Mladic, the most high-profile war-crimes suspect to stand trial since the Nazis, indicted on the first charges of genocide to have taken place in Europe since the Holocaust. Mladic  vanished in 1997 in Bosnia after the end of the war, as British and NATO special forces started arresting his deputies. He was next seen in a tiny rural village in central Serbia in 2011, arrested by two dozen Serbian intelligence agents, and then transferred to face trial in The Hague. Where had one of the world’s most-wanted men been for sixteen years? Despite a manhunt across south-eastern Europe involving investigators from the Hague Tribunal, police officers, special forces and intelligence operators from Britain, the United States, Canada and EU countries such as France and Germany, Mladic had evaded capture.

This book is the story of real-life CSI, and the anatomy of a manhunt. It draws on inside access to world-class forensic scientists from ICMP, war-crimes investigators from The Hague, as well as police officers, soldiers, intelligence agents, diplomats and humanitarians from sixteen different countries. It is written by an author who is a widely-published investigative foreign correspondent who has worked as a staffer for ICMP, and followed the hunt for Mladic across the Balkans for more than a decade, reporting for British publications ranging from The Economist and The Scotsman to Wired magazine.

Book Details:

  • Author: Christian Jennings
  • On Submission
  • Rights Sold
    • US: Palgrave

Christian Jennings

Christian Jennings is a British freelance foreign correspondent and the author of five works of non-fiction. Since 1988, across twenty-three countries, he has been writing books and journalism on international current affairs, history, science and such areas as war crimes investigations, for publications ranging from The Economist and Reuters to Wired, The Daily Telegraph, and The Scotsman.  He has been based variously in Sarajevo, Pristina, Belgrade, Kigali, Bujumbura,  Skopje, Nairobi and Geneva. He now lives in Turin. His fifth work of non-fiction was published in the U.S and ...
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Book Reviews

  • "A terrific piece of work: an important story which is told compellingly but soberly."
    Edward Stourton, BBC broadcaster
  • "The International Commission on Missing Persons' work done with DNA is, without doubt, the single most important achievement within the field of human identification with DNA. The story of their very important, almost incredible, work must be told to the world. In this necessary book,  foreign correspondent Christian Jennings has done just that. This book makes a difference."
    Professor Niels Morling, Vice-President of the International Society for Forensic Genetics
  • "Christian Jennings is a lucid and compassionate writer.  His research, attention to detail, and storytelling skills make Bosnia’s Million Bones an engrossing exploration of the techniques that forensic scientists use to unravel the crimes of war and bring those responsible to justice.  This book is a poignant tribute to every parent who has moved heaven and earth to find his or her disappeared child—and to the scientists who have come to their aid."
    Eric Stover, author of The Witnesses: War Crimes and the Promise of Justice in The Hague and Faculty Director, The Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law
  • "Until now, the issue of the millions of persons missing due to armed conflict and human rights abuses has been a silent one. When people disappear, particularly through violent crimes by state authorities, family members left behind are often terrified to seek answers about the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. ICMP has helped end that silence. This important and timely book on the groundbreaking efforts of ICMP demonstrates that the missing can be located and those responsible brought to account."
    Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan
  • "Jennings stunningly renders the process of exhuming and testing the bodies, while highlighting the ICMP’s dogged determination to link the victims to the murderers. "
    Publishers Weekly
  • "    an ambitious narrative divided between the Bosnian War’s horrific endgame and the prominent role of forensic science in its aftermath ....An inspirational but disturbing story of science as counterweight to evil—not for the squeamish."
    Kirkus
  • "A scientific success story, this is also a powerful account of how the ICMP used DNA technology to map a human genocide....a comprehensive and up-to-date work for scholars of international relations, human rights and forensic science."
    Library Journal
  • "In his detailed portrait of the bestial war crime that took place in Srebrenica that July, Mr. Jennings doesn't shy away from the stomach-churning details contained in the eyewitness testimonies he draws from. He previously worked as a communications officer for the ICMP, and deftly tracks commission investigators in action around the globe, whether in the aftermath of a typhoon in the Philippines or probing the remains of Saddam Hussein's victims in Iraq. The real value of this book, though, lies in Mr. Jennings's reporting of what occurred following the (Srebrenica) massacre. ...Ultimately, Mr. Jennings's vivid portrait of the commission's noble but tragic mission will have its greatest value as reading for Western policy makers, who shouldn't assume that the existence of the ICMP obviates the responsibility to protect target populations before the horror of mass murder descends."
    The Wall Street Journal
  • "Bosnia’s Million Bones is not always comfortable reading, but the story…is utterly compelling."
    Northern Echo
  • "Utterly compelling."
    The Press Association
  • "An important book…those who make it through  will emerge shaken but educated."
    Nature
  • "  The development of the ICMP’s operation is a wonderful success story of an NGO that responded to a specific local need, trained local staff, and found a way for its expertise and knowledge to be shared internationally. Jennings’ enthusiasm for the organisation is understandable, justified, and inspirational….Jennings’ excellent journalistic writing shines throughout and gives the reader many lasting insights into some important historical events."
    London School of Economics Review of Books