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Srebrenica victim DNA experts sequence genetic code of COVID-19

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Visitors pray at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Bosnia, Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Writing on stone translates "8372 victims, number is not final'.
Visitors pray at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Bosnia, Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Writing on stone translates "8372 victims, number is not final'.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Kemal Softic
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A quarter of a century after Europe's worst massacre since World War II, the remains of nine men and boys killed in Srebrenica in 1995 will finally be laid to rest on Saturday 11 July 2020 next to 6,610 previously found victims.

The service - at a memorial cemetery outside the ill-fated eastern Bosnian town - takes place on the anniversary of the date in 1995 when the Serb killing spree in Srebrenica begun.

Some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1995 siege. More than 1,000 are still considered missing.

That the massacre victims are being returned to their families decades after being brutally murdered and thrown into clandestine mass graves is a testament to the dedication of Bosnian and international scientists who in 1996 embarked on a seemingly impossible task of unearthing the secrets of gruesome death pits, especially around Srebrenica.

Identifying victims is our 'mission'

Damir Marjanovic lived through the war. Today he is a professor of genetics and anthropology at the International Burch University in Sarajevo.

In 1996, Marjanovic and other young Bosnian scholars joined the team of the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, and participated in the design of a DNA-based system to find and identify the remains of some 40,000 persons reported missing as a result of the 1990s conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the vast majority of them in Bosnia.

"For us, from the Institute of Genetic Engineering, finding and identifying the missing victims of war was a mission, because many of us fought in or had otherwise experienced the (1992-95) war," he says.

"As a result, all the people (from Bosnia) who worked on the (ICMP's missing) project, are now successful university professors who have been sharing their knowledge with generations of students."

Set up at the urging of the former US president Bill Clinton and envisioned as an ad hoc body devoted to the former Yugoslavia, the ICMP moved its headquarters from Sarajevo to The Hague in 2014, becoming a permanent global body.

But not before contributing to the unprecedented achievement of accounting for more than 70 per cent of all the missing victims of the 1990s Balkan wars.

The ICMP continues its activities in former Yugoslavia, where mass graves are still being unearthed, but it is also helping track down millions of people who disappeared in conflicts and natural disasters around the world.

'Biggest forensic puzzle'

One of the greatest ICMP's achievements was identifying nearly 7,000 of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys who perished in 10 days of slaughter after Srebrenica was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995, in the closing months of Bosnia's fratricidal conflict.

In an attempt to hide the scale of the crime, Serb troops rushed to the killing sites with bulldozers and moved the victims to other locations. As the machines ploughed up bodies, they ripped them apart, leaving fragments of the same person scattered among several different mass grave sites, creating what was once described as the "biggest forensic puzzle" in the world.

"Before the identification project in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the success rate in obtaining the DNA profiles from skeletal remains was very low, bellow 40 or 50 per cent," says Marjanovic.

"But after we, mostly Bosnian scientists with the assistance of their American colleagues, optimised the procedures, here in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it now stands at between 97 and 98 per cent. We have been very happy to share our methodology, our ideas and our experiences with other (genetic) laboratories around the world and they were used to identify victims of the (2004 Asian) tsunami and another international conflict. Here, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we were even identifying the victims of World War II and so on."

The Srebrenica massacre is the only episode of Bosnia's 95 war to be defined as genocide by two U.N. courts, in part thanks to the ICMP scientific data, including DNA records, that have been admitted as evidence at trials before the UN war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia and courts in Bosnia.

Rijad Konjhodzic, now a highly respected Bosnian molecular biologist and forensic medicine specialist, was also part of the team that helped design the ICMP's system.

Konjhodzic, currently the chief operating officer of a private molecular biology centre in Sarajevo, insists that he owes his career to a host of his missing countrymen whose tragedy "was both a motivation and obligation" for his scientific endeavour.

Most Bosnian scientists who were the early members of the ICMP's team in the country, have since become university professors and have been sharing their expertise with generations of Bosnian students.

As the result, the impoverished Balkan country, that allocates a negligible share of its GDP for scientific research and development, has been punching far above its weight in the field of molecular biology and genetics.

From Srebrenica to COVID-19

Most recently, a multidisciplinary team of the country's scientists, including several ICMP veterans, have pooled their resources to isolate the Bosnian strain of the novel coronavirus and sequence its genome.

"People outside of our scientific field would probably assume that the sequencing of the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and identification of the war missing are completely unrelated. However, when we reduce an organism, regardless of whether it is a human or a virus, we use the same instrumental methods," explains Konjhodzic.

"That experience, or should I say practical expertise that we acquired in order to identify such a huge number of missing persons; designing of procedures and protocols and the use of instrumental methods for (sample) analysis that we had to come up for the purpose of identification, gave us both theoretical and practical knowledge to reduce any genetic problem to its essence, which is a nucleic acid that we can sequence, and that is something we are used to doing."

Lana Salihefendic, a 29-year-old geneticist who worked on the genome sequencing of the Bosnian strain of the new coronavirus, says the requested expertise was born out of the struggle to help families of the war missing to find and bury their dead.

"The tragedy that befell us in this region some 30 years ago has left us with numerous (genetics) experts who played a crucial role (in finding the war missing)," she says.

"My colleagues and I had a chance to learn from them and that is why we are equipped to work on major projects such as the genome sequencing of the new virus."

The team plans to study the virus further, following its mutation in the country and any correlation with different country-specific health factors.

The current findings on the Bosnian genome sequence have been added to a central European database that will help inform scientists globally working towards finding a vaccine.