Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The issue of missing persons demands a global solution

Well over 2,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015 and untold numbers have perished crossing the Sahara en route to ports in Libya and elsewhere. The statistics on missing migrants constitute a horrific backdrop to activities organized to mark the International Day of the Disappeared.

And the numbers of those who go missing on dangerous migration routes – across the Mexican-US border, for example, or south from the Bay of Bengal – are dwarfed by the numbers of those who are disappearing in parts of Central Africa, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other conflict zones, not to mention the thousands who are victims of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings as a result of repressive government or paramilitary policies.

“The International Day of the Disappeared is an appropriate occasion on which to recall that the issue of missing persons represents a global challenge that requires a global solution,” ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger said in a statement issued today. “As governments around the world struggle to come to terms with missing persons crises it is essential that the issue is addressed in a way that focuses on strategic and institutional solutions.”

Ms Bomberger stressed that “whether a person is missing from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters or other causes, it is a complex issue that entails securing the rights of families of the missing,” and she added that as the only international organization exclusively dedicated to accounting for the missing, ICMP is working with governments, civil society organizations, justice institutions, international organizations and others throughout the world to tackle the problem in a comprehensive way, including through legal and political initiatives.

Established in 1996 to help the relevant authorities account for the 40,000 people reported missing at the end of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, ICMP has led an effort that has resulted in more than 70 percent of these missing persons being accounted for. This is an achievement unsurpassed anywhere.

Since 2003 ICMP has been active beyond the Western Balkans, and today it is working to develop institutions and civil society capacity, promote legislation, foster social and political advocacy, and develop and provide technical expertise to locate and identify the missing in every part of the world.

Since moving its headquarters from Sarajevo to The Hague this summer, ICMP has begun preparations for a Global Forum on Missing Persons, which will bring together policymakers, legal experts, academics, civil society activists and others to share expertise and coordinate activities. It is also establishing an Interagency Committee on Missing Persons in The Hague that will include representatives from international organizations and others, to facilitate cooperation in addressing missing persons cases from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters and other causes.

“The Mediterranean migration crisis has clearly demonstrated the need for effective coordination by multiple agencies,” Ms Bomberger said. “This will be a key step forward in resolving some of the challenges that have been highlighted today in events to mark the International Day of the Disappeared.”

Tuesday 1 September 2015


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At least 37 migrants feared dead in Libya shipwreck

At least 37 migrants are thought to have died following a weekend shipwreck off the Libyan coast, the Libyan Red Cross said Monday, capping a month during which more than 400 migrants died on what has become the world’s deadliest people-smuggling route.

If confirmed, Sunday’s disaster would be the third sinking in four days in the waters off the North African country.

On Thursday, Libyan officials said 150 bodies had been recovered from two sunken boats off the coast. Three men were arrested, accused of running the smuggling operation that launched the doomed vessels.

Mohamad Al Misrati, a spokesman for the Red Crescent in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, said seven bodies were discovered floating Sunday near the port of Khoms, a town about 60 miles east of the capital. Hours later, he said, fishermen found another 30 bodies in the water.

Mr. Misrati said his organization, the Libyan arm of the International Federation of the Red Cross, was working with the country’s coast guard to verify the number and identities of the victims.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many people were on the boat, which has yet to be located.

In August alone, about 18,000 migrants have reached Italy from Libya. But more than 2,400 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, the International Organization for Migration said, up from 2,081 for the same period in 2014.

Political chaos and an economic collapse have engulfed Libya since the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The ensuing security vacuum has facilitated a people-smuggling trade that has flourished along the Libyan coast, making it the gateway to Europe for migrants from the Middle East and sub-saharan Africa.

Tuesday 1 September 2015


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Working to identify the sailors on the USS Oklahoma

The fuel-stained bones, hundreds of them, are laid out neatly on Carrie Brown’s exam tables at Offutt Air Force Base, carefully tagged and logged in her database.

In the clinical setting of Brown’s lab it’s easy to forget these are the last remains of the first American victims of World War II. These sailors and Marines from the battleship USS Oklahoma partied and danced and played cards on a Hawaiian Saturday night in December 1941. The next morning they died for their country in a cauldron of fire and oily water when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and sank their ship.

They have rested for decades in graves marked “Unknown, Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.”

“All these families were told bodies were never recovered — and they were,” said Ray Emory, 94, of Honolulu, a Pearl Harbor survivor who has long lobbied for the identifications of the Oklahoma unknowns. “I never thought they’d dig them all up.”

After several years of internal debate, the Pentagon decided this spring to disinter 61 caskets holding the remains of up to 388 unidentified USS Oklahoma service members — including 17 from Nebraska and western Iowa.

The USS Oklahoma identifications — which investigators think will take five years — are also likely to spur identifications of many other “unknown” remains resting in military cemeteries around the world. And the Offutt lab, belonging to the newly created Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, is at the center of the effort.

“We are going to move forward on a large scale,” said Brown, 33, a forensic anthropologist at the Offutt lab, which until now has been limited to examining individual remains from European sites.

DPAA emerged earlier this year, restructured from three agencies responsible for finding and identifying the remains of missing U.S. service members from the late-20th century wars.

In recent years those agencies had endured a barrage of criticism for bureaucratic infighting, ID methods and staging fake transfer ceremonies with empty, flag-draped caskets.

Most of all they were criticized for moving too slowly, averaging about 70 MIA identifications a year since 2010 on a budget that has jumped from $65 million to nearly $100 million. Congress has ordered them to boost the number of IDs to 200 a year.

To do so, the new agency has been given authority not only to open the graves of “unknowns” but also to work with private groups that excavate air crash sites in search of the remains of long-lost MIAs.

Since the opening of the Offutt lab two years ago there has been a trickle, not a torrent, of identifications out of Omaha. Most of the 56 exam tables in Brown’s lab have remained empty — until the arrival of the USS Oklahoma unknowns this summer.

That news has cheered a dwindling group of Oklahoma survivors, and families of the dead, who had sought the identifications for years. The Navy had strongly opposed reopening the graves, but the Pentagon finally ruled in favor of the Oklahoma families in April.

When Japanese torpedo bombers swooped in over Pearl Harbor, the men of the Oklahoma stood little chance — especially those below decks at duty stations or in bunks on a Sunday morning.

Several torpedoes struck the battleship as it was moored on Battleship Row. The Oklahoma rolled, and sank in its berth. Most of the 429 victims drowned or were suffocated, some after spending hours or days shouting and banging for rescue from inside the hull.

Thirty-six bodies were recovered and identified soon after the attack. The rest remained entombed in the hull until the battleship was raised a year and a half later. The bones of the dead, encrusted in mud and oil, were removed from the ship and buried in two Hawaiian cemeteries.

In 1947 the Graves Registration Service spent two years trying to identify the remains. Though they matched names to 27 skulls using dental records, authorities decided to rebury all of the remains at Honolulu’s NationalMemorialCemetery of the Pacific as “unknowns,” because no complete bodies could be identified.

They might have stayed there forever if not for Ray Emory’s dogged detective work. After the Navy veteran retired to Hawaii in the mid-1980s he visited the cemetery to pay his respects to Pearl Harbor victims.

“I wanted to know where the Pearl Harbor grave sites were,” he recalled. “They couldn’t tell me.”

Emory set out to change things. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he gathered documents and learned about the 27 identified skulls. He traced some of them to individual graves. In 2003, one casket was exhumed and the remains of five Oklahoma sailors identified.

But the opening of that one coffin showed just how daunting the task of identifying the USS Oklahoma dead will be. DNA evidence showed that the casket contained remains of at least 95 individuals. It’s assumed that remains are equally commingled in every casket.

“We absolutely know they’re mixed up,” Brown said.

Now her job is to solve this puzzle.

Remains began to arrive at Offutt soon after the first caskets were disinterred in Hawaii on June 8. Brown said skulls are being kept at the DPAA lab in Hawaii, which has experts in dental identifications. Other bones are being brought to Offutt in flag-covered caskets aboard military aircraft.

The bones come wrapped in blankets, she said. They are set out neatly on tables, arms and legs on one side of the table, ribs and backbones on the other, each bone or fragment logged into a database for tracking.

The remains are laid out such that the men would be facing an American flag that stands at one end of the room, following a military tradition.

People who have watched “CSI” on television may think identifying a bone is as simple as taking a DNA sample, testing it and matching it in a computer database — and sometimes it is.

But with the bones of people who have been dead for decades it can be more complicated than that, Brown said.

“We don’t have DNA on file for people who served in World War II,” Brown said. “DNA is very powerful if you have something to match it to. Otherwise, it’s just a series of letters.”

The Offutt lab uses traditional anthropological techniques such as comparing bones with medical and dental records while looking at artifacts and other clues. DNA is just part of the mix.

“It’s very multifaceted,” Brown said. “Many lines of evidence come together.”

Brown said DNA testing will be central to identifying the victims from the Oklahoma. The agency has spent years collecting samples from relatives of nearly all the sailors and Marines.

The best DNA samples can be obtained from the largest pieces of bone, such as a thigh bone. Two kinds of DNA are found in human cells. Nuclear DNA allows a specific match, while mitochondrial DNA isn’t as definite. But mitochondrial DNA is easier to extract from older samples such as the Oklahoma remains, because there is more of it.

“The possibility of identifying every single lost bone is not high,” Brown said. “It depends what pieces you have, how quickly you can put the puzzle together.”

When Brown looks at the bones laid out in the lab she maintains a clinical detachment, focusing on measurements and DNA and material evidence.

But occasionally someone will stop by to view the newly identified remains of a loved one. Brown will set up a room for a private viewing — and she is reminded why this work remains so important.

“The most poignant thing is meeting the families,” Brown said. “It’s what gets you up in the morning.”

They are the families of men like 2nd Lt. John W. Herb, a 22-year-old fighter pilot who died April 13, 1945, in the crash-landing of his P-51D Mustang east of Hamburg, Germany. His remains were identified earlier this year through the efforts of Brown and the Offutt lab. Herb was buried at ArlingtonNationalCemetery in June.

“All we ever knew was that John was shot down in Europe, and he was never found,” said Michael Herb, John’s second cousin and closest living relative. That changed last year when members of a private group called the Missing Allied Air Crew Research Team contacted members of Herb’s family and told them the crash site had been found.

They learned a German man named Manfred Roemer had seen the plane crash as a 5-year-old and never forgot it. Years later, he went looking for the crash site.

Roemer found two women who had seen Herb pulled — alive — from the wreckage by two German officers and executed and buried in a shallow grave. He learned another woman had tended the grave for decades. He notified German authorities, and last year led a U.S. military archaeological team there.

“He’s the one who pursued this,” Michael Herb said. “He’s the one who did the right thing.”

John Herb’s remains were unearthed and shipped to the Offutt lab, and he was identified within days.

The Herbs were so grateful they invited Brown to the service at ArlingtonNationalCemetery. She couldn’t make it, but other DPAA employees attended. So did Roemer, who made it possible.

Michael Herb found the ceremony — complete with military band, rifle salute, folded flag and taps — to be a moving experience.

“There were 80 people at the grave site — 80 people who never knew this guy,” he said. “It made you feel like you were part of something that was a real honor.”

If all goes smoothly, that honor soon will be extended to hundreds more families of World War II service members — men whose bones are resting in an Offutt Air Force Base lab, waiting to be taken home.

Tuesday 1 September 2015


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Serbia, Bosnia Mark ‘Day of the Disappeared’

Families of people who went missing during the 1990s conflicts and have not been found marked the annual Day of the Disappeared by urging the authorities to do more to find their relatives’ bodies.

Events and ceremonies were held on Sunday and Monday in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to draw attention to the fact that around 10,000 people still missing from the Yugoslav wars, according to estimates by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Serbian and Kosovo Albanian families whose relatives have been missing since the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999 read out a joint letter at a conference in Belgrade on Monday addressed to the authorities in both Belgrade and Pristina, criticising them for failing to establish the whereabouts of around 1,650 people.

“We are convinced that the number of missing persons would be lower if officials in Belgrade and Pristina had the genuine political will to start dealing with this issue jointly,” the letter said.

Veljko Odalovic, the head of Serbian Commission for Missing Persons, told the conference that the biggest problem in finding those who are still unaccounted for is the lack of the information.

“We need precise, credible information from witnesses who will be able to come with us anywhere in Serbia so we can check together,” Odalovic said.

Matthew Holiday, the head of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) Western Balkans Programme, said that more than 40,000 people went missing as a result of the 1990s conflicts and that 70 per cent of them have been found and identified.

But another problem is the issue of misidentification due to the lack of precise methods used before DNA analysis was introduced, Holiday said.

“With no new secret graves being found, ICMP would call on the responsible institutions, the Serbian Commission on the Missing Persons, Kosovo Commission, EULEX [the EU rule-of-law mission in Kosovo] and the [EULEX] Department for Forensic Medicine to seriously address this issue of misidentifications,” he noted.

The previous day, missing persons associations and relatives of the missing gathered at the Belgrade Assembly to mark the International Day of the Disappeared, then walked to the nearby Tasmajdan Park and laid roses at the memorial dedicated to the Serb victims killed from 1991 to 2000 in the Yugoslav wars.

“We ask the authorities to resolve the destinies of the missing persons so that families can bury them, to punish those responsible and to provide assistance to the families of those killed,” said Dragan Pjevac, the president of Serbia’s Coalition for Missing Persons.

The International Day of the Disappeared was also marked across Bosnia and Herzegovina on Sunday, with ceremonies taking place in Sarajevo, Prijedor, Srebrenica, Bijeljina, Ozren and other cities. Families of missing persons used the day to call on the government to speed up the search for the remaining 8,000 people who have not been found since the 1992-95 conflict.

Bosnia’s human rights minister Semiha Borovac said that issue of missing persons was one of the toughest the county was facing.

“The ministry for human rights and refugees will try to prioritise the issue of missing persons and try to start activities which will solve the problems of families of missing persons,” said Borovac.

In central Sarajevo on Sunday, the International Commission on Missing Persons organised a presentation of sculptures with messages for the authorities like “Demand truth and justice” and “We are still looking for 8,000 citizens”. People also signed a petition which will be sent to the authorities to in a bid to encourage more support for the search for missing persons.

Amnesty International also issued a plea to the Bosnian authorities on Sunday, calling on them to finally start implementing the state-level law on missing persons which was adopted in 2004.

“This law demands that Bosnia and Herzegovina opens a fund to support families of missing persons, which is key for these families to achieve social and economic rights.

These families are often poor and in many cases they lost the head of the family,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

The president of the Women of Srebrenica association, Hatidza Mehmedovic, said at a ceremony in Srebrenica that was is important that the Day of the Disappeared was commemorated in “the place where genocide took place”.

“Everything went well and we sent out nice although sad messages. One of them is that Srebrenica should be a warning so that we build something safer and more just,” Mehmedovic told media.

Tuesday 1 September 2015


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