June 2017 Articles

Finding the Lost, Decades Later

D. Sarzinski matches human bones laid out on a study table in Lukavac, Bosnia. (Credit: Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images)

By Molly Petrilla

D. Sarzinski ’05 was nine years old and living in Sarajevo when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992. Suddenly her beloved city was under attack. Her friends were dying. She stayed in the basement, hungry all the time. Her uncle was captured, whisked away from his family, and still hasn’t been found.

But now Sarzinski is helping bring closure to other families who lost people during those years of brutal conflict. Through her work as a forensic anthropologist and project manager with the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), she helps to find and identify the remains of those who are still missing more than 20 years later.

Sarzinski first discovered 
forensic anthropology as a student at Bryn Mawr. She took a course with Melissa Murphy in her junior year and was immediately 
hooked—it combined her long-standing interest in “the morbid,” she says, with a curiosity about “what drives people to do horrible things to each other.”

After she graduated from Bryn Mawr and spent an extra year in the U.S., Sarzinski returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006 and began working with ICMP. Advancing from intern to junior osteologist, she helped identify missing people through their remains: broken bones, teeth, anything that could offer a clue.

Since 2013, she’s been leading ICMP’s No-Name Project, which aims to attach names to so-far-unidentified human remains in 12 mortuaries around Bosnia and Herzegovina. The team’s current site has no running water, no toilet and stays a chilly 41 degrees—conditions that Sarzinski says aren’t unusual in her work.

As of March 2017 her group has identified 92 people, a number she’s proud to report. “I know 
that number by heart and I 
know when each one of them is identified,” she adds. “Even one new name, one new identity means a lot to me. Those are 
92 people who were lying 
in mortuaries for the past 20 
years and nobody knew they 
were there.”

She admits it can be an emotionally draining job, hard to shake off at the end of the day, especially when she finds children with toys in their pockets or Ninja Turtles stickers in their notebooks. Not having direct contact with the families helps—case managers handle that.

“As scientists, we need that separation,” she says. “I’m fine when I see a case as a case. As soon as you start seeing it as a person, that’s when it gets hard to be a good scientist and do 
your work properly.”

But Sarzinski is proud of the closure she’s bringing families, and she says her work extends beyond that, too: ICMP’s discoveries have been included in the Hague Tribunal and trials for war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia.