The Bosnian war ended almost 20 years ago, but even now mass graves are still being discovered. In November, forensic analysts stumbled upon a mass grave near Prijedor, in the northwest of the country, which had been the site of a terrible massacre in 1992, the year the war began. So far, almost 500 bodies have been exhumed; hundreds more still lie amid the debris.
Whenever these gruesome sites are brought to light, an investigative team from the International Commission on Missing Persons isn't far behind. The commission was established at the G-7 Summit in Lyons in 1996, and as Christian Jennings shows in "Bosnia's Million Bones: Solving the World's Greatest Forensic Puzzle," its work has generated a revolution in the methods through which the victims of genocides and other natural and man-made calamities are identified.
Mr. Jennings, who previously worked as a communications officer for the ICMP, deftly tracks commission investigators in action around the globe, whether in the aftermath of a typhoon in the Philippines or probing the remains of Saddam Hussein's victims in Iraq. But Bosnia, where the commission first formulated and refined its scientific approach, is at the heart of the book's narrative.
The range of atrocities committed by Serb forces in Bosnia in 1992-95 hadn't occurred in Europe since World War II: Ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, the use of rape as a weapon—all were part of the daily fabric of life for Bosnia's terrified Muslims. But it was the massacre in the town of Srebrenica during the wilting summer of 1995 that finally awakened the world to the nature of the project undertaken by Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian dictator, to carve out an ethnically pure "Greater Serbia."
In his detailed portrait of the bestial war crime that took place in Srebrenica that July, Mr. Jennings doesn't shy away from the stomach-churning details contained in the eyewitness testimonies he draws from. In one section, he revisits the agonizing scenes in the town as Srebrenica's men were forcibly separated by the Serb conquerors from the women and children—although, given that some of those deemed "men" were actually prepubescent boys, the word "children" applies equally to them. In another, he describes how a Muslim man captured by the Serbs was returned with his ears chopped off and a Serbian Orthodox cross carved into his forehead.
The real value of this book, though, lies in Mr. Jennings's reporting of what occurred following the massacre. Once they'd completed their orgy of murder, the Serbs clumsily attempted to hide their crimes by burying the remains of the dead in five separate sites around Srebrenica. For several years after the massacre, attempts by some foreign investigators to reconstruct what happened yielded little in the way of results, until the ICMP arrived bearing the latest advances in DNA technology. From the year 2000 onward, the trickle of identified Srebrenica victims turned into a flood. By July 2010, of the more than 8,000 men who were murdered at Srebrenica, 6,481 had been properly identified.
On occasion, lack of funding compelled the ICMP to resort to unorthodox methods. Unable to afford a medical-grade machine to stir DNA samples, the commission team visited a Sarajevo market to purchase a chicken rotisserie that did the same job for the sum of $150. This determination to pursue its mission won the commission plaudits from Bosnians, who had often been exasperated with the abstract rhetoric about reconciliation espoused by international officials. Ti prodajes maglu ("You sell fog") was a typical response to these lectures.
As Mr. Jennings correctly notes, the consequence of this marriage of DNA technology with human-rights concerns is enormous, for Bosnia and for other countries ravaged by genocide. In the 20th century, we became accustomed to regarding the millions slaughtered by the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies as nameless, faceless masses. Thanks to the application of DNA-based science, we can now restore to those who are murdered the dignity of their individuality. Additionally, the rigorous methodology pioneered by the commission makes it virtually impossible to refute the bald facts of genocide.
When it comes to the political context around the Srebrenica massacre, though, the book is less sure-footed. Mr. Jennings concedes that both the United Nations Security Council and its peacekeeping mission in Bosnia committed some deadly errors—not least the designation of Srebrenica and five other Bosnian locations as "safe areas," which promptly transformed them into the most dangerous places in the country. But he is too trusting of the U.N.'s excuse that it couldn't possibly have forecast the depths to which the Serbs, under the command of the now incarcerated Gen. Ratko Mladic, would sink. Diego Arria, a senior Venezuelan U.N. official who visited Srebrenica two years before the massacre, had already warned that a "slow-motion genocide" was under way. Indeed, given the Serbs' dismal record over the previous three years, and their desire for one last push into Bosnian territory as the war drew to a close, it is hard to imagine that there might have been a more humane outcome.
Ultimately, Mr. Jennings's vivid portrait of the commission's noble but tragic mission will have its greatest value as reading for Western policy makers, who shouldn't assume that the existence of the ICMP obviates the responsibility to protect target populations before the horror of mass murder descends.