Working in the Killing Fields: Forensic Science in Bosnia

Working in the Killing Fields: Forensic Science in Bosnia

Working in the Killing Fields: Forensic Science in Bosnia

Working in the Killing Fields: Forensic Science in Bosnia


While the specifics of individual wars vary, they share a common epilogue: the task of finding and identifying the "disappeared." The Bosnian war of the early 1990s, which destroyed the sovereign state of Yugoslavia, is no exception. In Working in the Killing Fields, Howard Ball focuses on recent developments in the technology of forensic science and on the work of forensic professionals in Bosnia following that conflict. Ball balances the examination of complex features of new forensic technology with insights into the lives of the men and women from around the globe who are tasked with finding and excavating bodies and conducting pathological examinations. Having found the disappeared, however, these same pathologists must then also explain the cause of death to international-court criminal prosecutors and surviving families of the victims. Ball considers the physical dangers these professionals regularly confront while performing their site excavations, as well as the emotional pain, including post-traumatic stress disorder, they contend with while in Bosnia and after they leave the killing fields.

Working in the Killing Fields integrates discussion of cutting-edge forensic technology into a wider view of what these searches mean, the damage they do to people, and the healing and good they bring to those in search of answers. Even though the Balkan wars took place two decades ago, the fields where so many men, women, and children died still have gruesome and disturbing stories to tell. Ball puts the spotlight on the forensic professionals tasked with telling that story and on what their work means to them as individuals and to the wider world's understanding of genocide and war.


Sixty-nine-year-old retired Yugoslav Army General Radko Mladic is presently before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He is charged under international law for the many orders he issued as military commander of all Bosnian Serb military forces between 1992 and 1995. the icty prosecutor’s argument before the court is that these orders led to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocidal actions against Bosnian Muslim (Bosniaks) and Croatian civilians. He is being held in the International Criminal Court’s prison in the Hague. His trial began in the summer of 2012 and continues in 2015.

On May 10th, 1992, based on one of Mladic’s orders, Bosnian Serb paramilitary units swept into the Bosnian town of Bratunac, about 90 kilometers northeast of Sarajevo. the town was home for more than forty-five hundred Bosniaks and not too far from the town of Srebrenica where, in July 1995, a similar fate befell more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men—young and old—who lived or had sought protection in that UN-designated “safe haven.”

Like General Mladic, who was living freely in Serbia for more than a decade before his capture, many of those Bosnian Serb leaders who ordered the Bratunac, Sarajevo, and other genocidal actions are still at large and unpunished. Some, as Emir Suljagic noted in a New York Times op-ed . . .

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