Krakow Film Festival 2024

When the silent war continues

WAR / We do not only find bones. We find stories. Lives once lived. Keeping an emotional distance is not always easy.
Director: Jan Baumgartner
Producer: Jan Baumgartner
Country: Switzerland

As a result of the armed conflict in former Yugoslavia, more than 40,000 people went missing between 1991 and 1999. A substantial number most likely went into mass graves still being found many years after the war, and many others just disappeared.

To this very day, a painstaking effort continues to locate and identify these victims of a brutal war that shook Europe. You could say that so long time after the grenades and bombs stopped, it became a silent war. But it is no less horrifying. For a mother who has not buried her children, it never ends.

The DNA of Dignity, a film by Jan Baumgartner
The DNA of Dignity, a film by Jan Baumgartner

11,000 still missing

This heavy and heartbreaking situation is the reality for many citizens of the new states that came instead of Yugoslavia, and that is the topic of Jan Baumgartner’s new documentary, The DNA of Dignity.

The mother, who has not yet buried her two sons, has been fictionalized in order to protect her privacy. That only underscores the sensitivity of former enemies trying to clear the rubble of the war in a new and fragile unity. The mother is hesitant to stand out. You get a sense of fear and mistrust still being an important element, which only becomes more outspoken when you touch on the painful past. Too many feelings are still around. Fiction is, by definition, not compatible with a documentary, but in this case, there is a need to use it as a method to tell the story, and this only makes the message stronger.

The documentary is set in a region where 11,000 people are still classified as missing. We follow a small team of experts that collect the bones and other remains as they are found and see how they work to rebuild skeletons and identify them by DNA samples.

The documentary is set in a region where 11,000 people are still classified as missing.

This is an extremely complicated task. As one of the pathologists says, 11,000 people equal more than 2.2 million bones, and they are not always found in an orderly way. On top of this comes a reluctant population. It is of utmost importance to get blood samples from relatives, which is not always possible, and still, the comparison has to be 99.95 % correct to enable the identification of someone.

In most cases, a mass grave is a mess. The perpetrators have typically tried to conceal the evidence. They did it four months after decomposition began and moved the bodies from the primary graves. They destroyed the integrity of the bodies. Nature has contributed as well. Is the soil so acidic? So wet? The composition of the soil affects the condition of the individual corpse and the quality of the information that could be extracted from the bones.

The DNA of Dignity, a film by Jan Baumgartner
The DNA of Dignity, a film by Jan Baumgartner

Personal belongings

This documentary is a dark reminder of what these societies still go through so many years after the war. Very little is being said, and dialogue is sparse. The pictures tell the story; still, with a few words, the reality is unfolding.

The experts depend highly on private persons and volunteers willing to go the extra mile. We meet Ramiz Nukic, a real name and a real identity. He lost his father and two brothers in the war. He is roaming the landscape, and with his bare hands, he is digging in the ground. On his journey to find them, he found bones of others. Thanks to his effort, more than 250 persons have been found and identified, and he continues.

Sometimes personal belongings are a better way to track down a victim. At some point, Ramiz pulls out the remains of a jacket from under piles of earth and dead leaves in a damp forest. It might be a clue, and in some cases, it turns out to be the correct key for starting scientific DNA identification.

This is what happens to the woman. She is Bosnian, living in a town where she works as a librarian. She has always enjoyed walking in the nearby forest but has stopped that part of her life altogether. She is terrified by the thought of what is hiding behind the beautiful landscape. She doesn’t care anymore if the remains in the ground are Bosniak, Serb or Croat. As long as she finds her two sons, she will be able to forgive!

She got a phone call. Some bones had been found, which might match her blood sample DNA. They asked her to come by the warehouse to identify the clothes.

«Then I recognized the jacket and the plastic elephant that I gave to my younger one for his birthday. Now I have a name for the tombstone. I hope they will find my other son soon», she says.

This documentary is a minimalistic and well-done description of these experts’ complicated work. It is about their difficulties in keeping an emotional distance during this nasty task, and first of all, it is a clever insight into the enduring mental and emotional repair work after a brutal war.

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Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.

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