Questions and Answers with IFM and EULEX on the Work to Identify Missing Persons

30 August 2023

Questions and Answers with IFM and EULEX on the Work to Identify Missing Persons

On the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, the Acting Director General of the Kosovo’s Institute of Forensic Medicine (IFM), Dr. Ditor Haliti, and the EULEX’s Forensic Anthropologist and Acting Head of Forensic Medicine Team, Dr. Luísa Marinho, answered to a series of questions regarding the complex process of identification of missing persons from the Kosovo war and its aftermath.
Some of the questions were raised during information sessions with family members of missing persons organized in the past months by EULEX and the NGO Missing Persons Resource Center (MPRC).

What are the objectives of the ongoing review process of the remains at the IFM’s morgue?

“The ongoing review of the cases in the IFM’s morgue has two main objectives: to review each set of remains and to review the respective case files,” explains Haliti.
“The revision of both the remains and the case files will allow us to assess if all information available to date on each case has been considered and, for example, whether new sampling for DNA analysis is required or possible.”

Are there cases in the IFM’s morgue for which you still need to obtain a DNA profile?

“Yes. There are indeed cases in the IFM’s morgue from which it was not possible to obtain a DNA profile in the past,” confirms Marinho. “In some cases, samples have been formerly collected and sent for analysis, however, due to the condition of preservation of the remains, the process of extraction of a complete DNA profile failed. Nevertheless, due to advancements in the DNA technology over the recent years, it may be possible to obtain nowadays a complete profile that might lead to a new identification; thus, where the condition of those remains allows, we are in the process of collecting and re-submitting samples for DNA profiling.”

Do you expect to be able to identify all the remains once the review will be completed?

“Unfortunately,” - says Marinho - “even after a review is completed, not all the remains will be identified, and there are several different reasons for that. One has to do with the already mentioned condition of preservation of some remains which, in some cases, will most likely never allow for a sample to be collected or for a complete DNA profile to be extracted, such as in the case of highly fragmented and commingled, or severely burnt remains.”

“Another reason,” adds Marinho, “is that, in some cases, the deaths were most likely or de facto known to be not directly related to the conflict, and, therefore, as these persons were never reported missing, families never donated reference samples. As a result, even if a DNA profile has been obtained from the remains, it continues to be unmatched, and, consequently, unidentified (the so-called “NN” remains). The same applies to a smaller number of cases for which a presumptive identification exists that matches individuals reported as missing, but, since the families have not yet donated reference samples, these cases also remain unidentified to date.
This is why our message to all the families whose loved ones are missing is to come forward and give blood to help the identification process through DNA.”
“Finally, one more reason that will determine whether or not some cases will ever be identified is the issue of the so-called misidentifications,” points out Marinho.

Regarding the issue of misidentifications of missing persons, were all ‘traditional identifications’ wrongful identifications?

“The answer is absolutely not,” reassures Marinho. “Over the years, there have been several cases of ‘traditional identifications’ re-examined either at the request of the families or of the authorities with the purpose of confirming identification, which were later confirmed through DNA to be the correct identification.
In addition, research conducted by EULEX at the beginning of the Mission’s mandate, showed that cases of misidentifications would have corresponded to a small percentage of the over 2,000 traditional identifications exhumed by The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1999-2000,” confirms Marinho, adding that: “When there is the suspicion that one or more bodies were misidentified in connection to a certain event, by requesting the families who then buried those bodies to donate blood now, we can verify the hypothesis, and potentially obtain new identifications.”

Haliti also points out that: “If, following an exhaustive analysis, it is concluded that one or more unidentified bodies in the IFM’s morgue are likely connected to that same event, and that they might correspond to a misidentification, after the families who had buried those bodies agree and donate reference samples, the misidentification can be corrected and each family will have their loved ones handed over to them for a proper burial.”

Have you recently done any progress in correcting misidentifications?

“The ongoing review of the remains and respective case files at IFM, in conjunction with the continued investment in accessing and analysing of international archives, namely through the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the several analytical reports which look into cases of potential misidentifications among traditional identifications, led - last year only -to resolving three such cases. And at least one more has been identified so far this year, with DNA results pending that potentially correspond to more cases of misidentifications,” tells Marinho. “As soon as DNA results are confirmed, families will be informed, and the appropriate procedures will take place to correct the misidentification and handover the right body to the respective family.”

“We, at IFM, are optimists that more cases which are now being analysed and reviewed will soon lead to more cases being resolved and new identifications will be obtained,” concludes Haliti.

Is there a need to donate blood again if family members have already done it a long time ago?

“A priori, the answer is clearly no,” states Haliti. “A DNA profile was obtained and saved for all the donated reference samples - no matter when. If family members of a missing person have at some point donated reference samples and their missing relative has not been identified yet, the most likely explanation is that the remains have not been discovered and exhumed to this date. If, from the point of view of the DNA analysis, the existing reference sample is considered insufficient, the International Commission on Missing Persons, which conducts all DNA analysis at their laboratory in The Hague, is responsible for identifying those families. Nonetheless,” emphasises Haliti, “if a family member directly related to the missing person (sibling, children or parent) who has never donated blood is now available or willing to donate, even if other more distant relatives have done so, he or she can contact the IFM or the Government Commission on Missing Persons, as their samples may help narrow down the DNA matching process, potentially facilitating an identification.”

How can the families of missing persons help the process and whom do they need to contact to get more answers to their questions?

“The families of missing persons can help the work of IFM by donating reference samples if they haven’t done so, and by coming forward with information related to the person missing or the event of disappearance. They can contact the Kosovo Institute of Forensic Medicine (IFM) for any question,” states Haliti.

“Families can feel confident that, for as long as their relatives are among those listed as missing persons, the responsible Kosovo institutions, with the support of our international partners including EULEX, will not stop searching for them until all possible leads have been exhausted,” Haliti reassures.

EULEX reaffirms its commitment to continue supporting its local counterparts at IFM in its efforts to shed light on the fate of 1616 persons, who are still unaccounted for, and EULEX experts continue to work together with IFM by offering expertise and advice in the search for clandestine graves, the exhumation and the identification of victims from the Kosovo conflict.
From the beginning of EULEX’s mandate until today, EULEX has supported Kosovo counterparts in 746 field operations to locate missing persons, including 200 exhumations. The remains of 492 individuals have been identified, including 339 missing persons.

Useful contacts:
Institute of Forensic Medicine
Tel: +38 (0)38 200 18 555

Tel: +383 (0)38 28 2000