UF courses aid Bosnians in search of Balkan victims

Arijana Selmanovic, left, and Ana Milos work in Sarajevo to help identify victims of nearly four years of violence in the former Yugoslavia.

Special to The Sun
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Every bone tells a story, and every story ends in tragedy.
For Ana Milos and Arijana Selmanovic, two Bosnian women who recently completed online masters degrees through the University of Florida, unlocking the mysteries behind bones is both a job and a personal passion. After growing up amid nearly four years of violence in the Balkans in the early 1990s, Selmanovic and Milos have returned to their native Sarajevo to make some sense of the region's brutal past. Since 2001, both women have used DNA analysis to help identify bodies dumped in mass graves across the former Yugoslavia.
The International Commission on Missing Persons, which Milos and Selmanovic work for, has made nearly 9,000 positive DNA matches since it was established in 1996. With more than 17,600 missing persons still unidentified in the commission's database, there is much work left to do.
"We want to help every human being that's been affected," said Selmanovic, reached by telephone Wednesday in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Milos, 27, and Selmanovic, 28, count themselves lucky that none of their family members were killed in the conflict. But the two women carry their own scars from the siege of Sarajevo, which spanned from 1992 to 1996. As classmates in the eighth grade, they attended an elementary school called "Miljenko Cvitkovic," named for a war hero credited with fighting Nazi aggression. In a cruel irony, allegations would later surface that Bosnia was the site of the same sort of ethnic cleansing employed by Nazi troops 50 years earlier.
As with so many other young girls, Milos and Selmanovic were torn apart by the Balkan conflict. Their friendship was abruptly severed in the early stages of the violence, when Milos fled to Croatia with her mother and younger sister. Selmanovic stayed behind to face four harsh winters in a city beleaguered with carnage during an ethnically divided civil war.
During the years that passed, Milos and Selmanovic would pursue their love of science on two separate paths. Milos majored in biochemistry at Dalhousie University, Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada. Selmanovic stayed in her home country, completing a bachelor's degree in biology at the University of Sarajevo.
It wasn't until 2001, when both women interviewed for jobs with the International Commission on Missing Persons, that they were reunited. In an interview Wednesday, Milos called her chance meeting with a childhood friend "serendipity." After nine years apart, the two are now "pretty inseparable," Milos said.
The women's involvement with UF had its own serendipitous beginnings.
Ian Tebbett, UF's associate dean for distance education, met them at a conference two years ago. Moved by their story, he encouraged them to pursue master's degrees online, offering them a "two for the price of one" scholarship.
They completed degrees in forensic DNA and serology in December. After two years of study through UF, Milos and Selmanovic say their newfound knowledge of modern DNA analysis techniques is helping the commission identity victims with greater speed and accuracy.
Though the work of identifying victims is personal for Milos and Selmanovic, both say they approach it as objective scientists. When bones or blood are delivered for analysis, the samples are identified with bar codes. If a match is made, the women never meet the families they may have helped.
Every day in the commission's laboratory is a reminder of the painful collective history of the Bosnian people, but Milos and Selmanovic say they never fall into the grip of anger. "It was so sad to see (the violence)," Selmanovic said. "But now we have a chance to make something better . . . We're not really angry, because this is a way to make people smart about what was a big mistake."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@ gvillesun.com.

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