New Forensic Techniques Aid Efforts to Find Bosnia's War-Crimes Victims ; Researchers Are Using Satellite Pictures, Vegetation Analysis, and Other Methods to Uncover Hidden Mass Graves

Article excerpt

This small plot of land looks at first glance like a harmless patch of wildflowers sandwiched between a country road and a cornfield. But under the wildflowers, say researchers, is a mass grave, one of 13 along this eastern Bosnian country road.

The site, known as Cancari 10, has been a proving ground for new combined technology - of satellite pictures, vegetation analysis, and soil conductivity tests - that researchers say will help them find what could be dozens of mass graves here, graves still hidden 10 years after the 1992-1995 war ended.

Researchers say the advanced forensic techniques could also help find graves hidden in the deserts of Iraq, where as many as one million people went missing during Saddam Hussein's 24-year rule.

"You can find graves in many ways: You can dig large holes with machines, or you can be more sensitive and sensible," says Professor John Hunter of Britain's University of Birmingham, the project's chief researcher. He led a team of British and America researchers called in by Bosnia's International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

In the past three years, it has identified more than 6,000 of Bosnia's 20,000 to 30,000 missing by matching DNA from bone samples excavated from graves to that of blood samples given by living relatives. But matching is impossible without bone samples from graves. Now, thanks to the team's research, Bosnia's grave hunters are optimistic.

They'll identify areas thought to contain graves and compare satellite pictures from 1995 with ones today, looking for vegetation patches that don't match the surrounding areas.

Once spotted, they'll send in a field team to take a closer look at the plants growing there and to run electricity through the ground to measure its resistance to the current.

Sites with remains are usually wetter than sites without, and they are therefore less resistant to the electric current. Finally, the team will do a physical probe to check for remains. …