Scars of the Earth

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Forensic anthropologist Amy Mundorff wants to make the search for the missing safer and more successful.

One morning in July 2005, Amy Mundorff rode into the Bosnian countryside, tagging along with a team from the International Commission on Missing Persons. The roads wound past forests, farmland and villages. The group stopped near a filed in a hilly area on the outskirts of a village to meet an informant. From the gestures and the translator’s comments, Mundorff understood that the ground beneath the field might hold bodies.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina had ended 10 years earlier, but thousands of people remained missing, many presumed buried in hidden graves scattered across the country. Mundorff, a forensic anthropologist wanted to learn how the team excavated and exhumed graves, and then sorted and identified the co-mingled human remains–her area of expertise.

Backhoes scraped away the topsoil, peeling back the earth inches at a time. “they just dug and dug and dug,” recalls Mundorff. Once in a while, the machinery operators would stop and call over an investigator. “It was never anything human. There were roots, animal bones, rocks…but there were no graves,” says Mundorff. By the end of the day, the entire hillside had been dug up, and the team found nothing.

Witness and survivor testimonies remain the most reliable way to locate hidden graves, but the approach is not foolproof. Many of the conflicts under investigation occurred years ago. Elderly witnesses may have fading memories that offer incomplete or incorrect accounts of atrocities. Sometimes the geography of a place changes. Roads get rerouted, forest are cleared, and the edges of villages expand.

Mundorff knew from her own searches for buried murder victims in the United States that investigators often fail to locate hidden graves, but she didn’t expect it to be so difficult in Bosnia-Herzegovina: The country is smaller than Louisiana, and the whereabouts of 8,000 people remain unknown.

“Even if we didn’t find that one grave, I thought we would find something because…where are they?” says Mundorff. She was disappointed and frustrated. “I thought, ‘God, there has to be something better out there.'”

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