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“They are trying to silence us”: the long fight to identify Bosnia's war dead

More than 30,000 people were missing at the end of the Bosnian conflict in 1995. Scientists are making a last-ditch attempt to identify and bury the 8,000 for whom the search continues.

D Sarzinski does not have a normal job. That becomes obvious in a warehouse smelling of dirt and dust, next to a cement factory on the outskirts of Sanski Most, a small town in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Inside, lying on collapsible tables – the sort you might find at a village cake sale – are the bones of people killed in the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict. Arranged on metal shelves around the walls, body bags are filled with thousands more teeth, skulls and human bones.

This is the Krajina Identification Project (KIP) facility, one of the centres where Sarzinski works as a forensic anthropologist for the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Since 1996, the organisation has assisted state authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina with excavation and identification of war victims’ bodies.

Some of them were found in the mud and slush of mass graves. Other bodies were buried in forests or gardens. In the 1992-1995 conflict, in which the death toll reached 100,000, people died everywhere.

Photo: Lizzie Porter

By pushing for legislation to seek out and recognise the dead, the ICMP has helped to identify some 23,000 of the 30,000-plus people who went missing during the war. Most of them – some 15,000 individuals – have been identified using DNA matches with surviving relatives.  

But for the past four years, Sarzinski and her colleagues have been painstakingly going through more than 3,000 sets of remains – piles of bones, skulls, teeth, clothes and other belongings – from graves which were exhumed years ago, but that somehow slipped through the system. The skeletons in Sanski Most are among these remains. In ten mortuaries around the country, Sarzinski’s team has found 101 new people.

“I am very proud of that number”, says Sarzinski. “That is 101 people who would otherwise not have been identified.”

It is not her job to pinpoint the cause of death – that is up to pathologists. Rather, she and her team develop profiles of who these piles of bones once were.

“You have these families who insist on coming [here] and seeing the remains,” she says. “You cannot prevent them from doing so because it’s their legal right. For some of them, it’s their closure.”

Once identified, victims are given dignified burials in proper graves, the latest of which happened on July 20, in the northern town of Prijedor.

Mirsad Duratović, president of the Prijedor '92 association of detainees, has his own experience of burying missing relatives, after a decades-long search. He lost 47 family members before being taken to the Serb-run Omarska concentration camp, where 700 Bosnian Muslims were killed over three months in summer 1992.

“There were periods where they gave us no food or water for two days”, he told the New Statesman.

Through DNA matching, Duratović later found the bodies of three uncles who had been killed at Omarska in mass graves.

Photo: Lizzie Porter

“The search for them lasted 21 years”, he says. “I felt that finding them was more painful then losing them. Don’t get me wrong – losing your family hurts a lot – but trying to find them, just to know where they are, and not succeeding, hurts even more.”

Ethnic and nationalistic tensions have stood in the way of identifying the Bosnian conflict’s dead and missing. It took three years for the ICMP to obtain permission to operate in the Republika Srpska entity, a Serb-dominated region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Authorities in the area claimed they already had mechanisms for identifying the missing, and did not need the help of a state-level institution.

“The argument was that the facilities are a very nice condition – which is completely true,” explains Nihad Branković, ICMP’s Western Balkans program officer, in an interview in his Sarajevo office. “But once we opened the body bags, then the main problem [of unidentified cases] is there.”

Critics have accused the ICMP of bias. According to Branković, death tolls are used as political tools to try to prove various actors’ roles in the Balkans conflict, which was characterised by sectarian and nationalistic divisions.

But the organisation takes what staff call an “ethnicity-blind” approach.

“The process of exhumation, the DNA- led identification are done under barcode, so in the lab we do not know at all [the victim’s ethnicity]”, says Branković. “Once we do have a match, once we do have a name, our forms do not indicate ethnicity because we don’t care and we don’t know. Names in Bosnian are fluid things, so someone with a Bosniak [Muslim] name could easily be another ethnicity.”

For the 8,000 people who remain missing, the future is uncertain.

Some are undoubtedly still under the earth, perhaps buried unfound in the folds of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s beautiful mountains. In June the ICMP launched an online application to tackle the lack of quality information on remaining clandestine or mass graves. Members of the public can submit information on possible locations anonymously, in the hope that it will lead to the identification of more missing persons.

There are also cases of mistaken identity. Before the introduction of DNA testing in 2001, thousands of people were identified visually: families would be invited to confirm a dead relative by way of clothes, features, size, and so on.

But the approach proved unreliable. In the moments before their deaths, people exchanged clothes and even ID cards. Families buried the remains of people they falsely believed to be their relatives.

Photo: Lizzie Porter

A blood collection drive will begin this September, in the hope of identifying mistaken burials through DNA matching. But it will have to be approached with the utmost delicacy.

“It’s an extremely difficult issue for the families who have thought that they’ve closed that chapter of their lives 20 years ago”, says Branković. “If you think that you’ve buried him or her and you think that you've found some sort of closure, and then someone knocks at your door and asks you for a blood sample. You say ‘Why? I’ve identified and buried my relative, why are you doing this?’ So we are afraid of this retraumatisation of the families once again.”

The other issue is physically tracking families down. Many Bosnians fled abroad during the war – according to the Bosnian Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, the diaspora consists of 2 million people.

Funds are a perennial issue, although Branković insists that on an annual budget of around $4m, the ICMP can afford to finish projects underway.

Still, they are stretched: work at the Krajina Identification Project (KIP) facility in Sanski Most is on hold while Sarzinski’s team works in a mortuary elsewhere. The building is gathering dust and dirt, as the bones of the missing who lie here age.

Photo: Lizzie Porter

In Prijedor, Duratović says the local Serb-led authorities stifle efforts to support war survivors and families of the missing.

“They cut off our financing from the town budget in 2012,” he says. “We are being ignored. They are trying to silence us.”

There is also a question mark over what will happen to the rest of the missing when ICMP staff leave Bosnia-Herzegovina – a timeframe itself dependent on future donations. So far, 80 percent of the organisation’s funding comes from the EU, with Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland other major contributors.

Training in the fields of forensic anthropology, pathology and DNA testing is almost non-existent in Bosnia-Herzegovina – a bitter irony in a country that needs it so badly. Sarzinski herself went abroad for her higher education, gaining a BA from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and an MSc in Forensic Anthropology from the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.

If Bosnia-Herzegovina is to ascend to the EU, authorities will have to support home-grown efforts to uncover the missing war dead. As Branković puts it: “The EU does not want to have Balkan states joining which still literally have skeletons in the closet.”

Yet issues slowing down the identification of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s missing remain immensely complex.

“While I was looking for my family every new piece of information gave me hope”, says Duratović, the Omarska concentration camp survivor. “For some, the search is still going.”

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March