Forensics expert leads missing persons search in Kosovo

May 21, 2018

Training effort: Associate Professor James Speers (centre) is working in Kosovo to help identify missing persons (Professor Speers is pictured with IFM Kosovo doctors Dr Valon Hyseni (left) and Dr Ditir Haliti)

A Murdoch University forensic scientist has been helping to find human remains in Kosovo as part of efforts to identify missing persons from the 1998-99 war.

Associate Professor James Speers has been in the Balkan state training staff from the National Institute of Forensic Medicine (IFM) Kosovo in forensic anthropology and archaeology. The team will continue the difficult task of exhuming and identifying human remains resulting from horrific acts of genocide in the war.

The Kosovo war was fought by the forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, resulting in the deaths of more than 13,000 people. In August 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that more than 1,600 people remain missing.

Utilising intelligence reports from NATO, the Kosovo Liberation Army and police forces during the conflict, as well as local knowledge, a potential grave site was recently identified near the Kosovo-Albanian border.

Professor Speers has been working with forensic experts from the European Union and staff from IFM Kosovo to painstakingly excavate the site over the last four weeks. The group has been able to identify a number of human bones ranging from an adolescent boy to a number of old men.

“Although it is a difficult process, it is critical for families to recover their loved ones,” Professor Speers said.

“Sadly in some cases, whole families have been killed and it may not be possible to reconcile the victims. But it is important to know for sure.

“The Kosovo government sees this as vital to the reconciliation process and so I have met with them a number of times to accelerate the project.”

Professor Speers said the process of finding the mass graves was long and complex, and since 2014, only two have been found and excavated so far in Kosovo.

“It is suspected that to hide alleged ‘war crimes’, Serbian and Albanian forces removed bodies from Kosovo for reburial in unmarked graves in their respective countries,” he said. “So it might be that there are only a few grave sites in Kosovo.”

In the recent excavation, the task was made more difficult because the bunker was contaminated with hundreds of animal bones from a mixture of dead dogs and cows.

The human bones found by the IFM team have been sent to the International Commission on Missing Persons in The Hague, Holland, for DNA analysis to identify the victims and reconnect the missing with their families.

The project is part of an initiative to transfer the missing person’s mandate from the European Union to the IFM.

Professor Speers was head hunted to lead the project to advance the IFM Kosovo to international standards because of his previous experience investigating terrorism in Northern Ireland and his work on similar tasks in other post conflict areas like Jordan and Palestine.

Professor Speers will be working in Kosovo for up to three years on a FIFO basis, and is hoping to bring Master of Forensic Science students from Murdoch across for internships.

A team from IFM Kosovo sifts through materials from the excavated site

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