The Woman Trying to Find All the World’s Missing People

The Woman Trying to Find All the World’s Missing People

By Laura Secorun Palet


Because this crisis exists, even though you can’t see it. 

By Laura Secorun Palet

Kathryne Bomberger is a hugger. She has a wide smile, an infectious laugh and the energy of someone on a caffeine IV drip. “Come in, come in!” she calls from behind the piles of paper barricading her desk.  “I just have to write one more email.” As she types away, I can’t help but wonder how she manages to keep her high spirits while surrounded by so much death.

Bosnia, Syria, Libya … conflict kills, we know, but every conflict also leaves behind thousands of missing people. The missing exist in a strange dimension — neither here nor not here, not counted but not counted out — and so long as they are missing, they keep their survivors in a limbo between hope and grief. Widows can’t remarry. Assets remain undisposed. Children grow up aching for someone they never knew. The missing are Kathryne’s people, and so are their loved ones. “People think I work for the dead, but I work for the living,” Bomberger says.

As head of the International Commission on Missing Persons, Bomberger has made it her mission to locate and identify each of those disappeared souls. When we met in the fall, she needed only to look outside her office window, in downtown Sarajevo, to remember the people she’s working for. Across the street from her unassuming headquarters sat a cemetery where most graves marked the same years: 1993, 1994, 1995. According to the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo, about 97,200 people died during the three-year-long war that tore Bosnia apart.

There’s so little storage space that they are building filing cabinets inside walls.

But the Yugoslav wars left another 40,000 missing. And in 1996, former U.S. President Bill Clinton created the ICMP as a task force to help them. Twenty years later, Bomberger’s organization has identified 70 percent of them, something Jeremy Sarkin, ex-chairman of the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, calls “particularly phenomenal,” adding Bomberger is a “strong, forthright leader.” It hasn’t been easy. ICMP’s scientific labs, which are arguably the most advanced in the world, are located inside a sports stadium in the small city of Tuzla, where scientists test DNA and bone samples against the sounds of children playing basketball downstairs. Bomberger is eager to help identify drowned migrants in the Aegean Sea or FARC victims in Colombia, but their fridges are still packed with samples of victims of the Bosnian civil war, and there’s so little storage space that they are building filing cabinets inside walls.

Now she’s getting a “promotion”, and the ICMP will move to The Hague, bumped up to the ranks of powerhouse organizations such as the International Criminal Court and UNICEF. That means more recognition and a better chance to help with the many burgeoning missing persons crises, from the Mexico/U.S. border to the shores of Lesbos, Greece. This comes as a win after years of hustling for attention on behalf of grief-stricken families, but, a week away from moving to her new, swanky offices in the frosty coast of The Hague, she waxes nostalgic for the organization’s early days, when it was just her and three other people trying to figure out how the hell to help. “We were like a Ferrari,” she says, “small but fast and efficient. We could do whatever we wanted because it had never been done before.”

Dressed in a dark skirt suit, Bomberger speaks a hundred miles an hour but rarely stumbles. She has the rehearsed eloquence of someone who has worked both sides of the microphone, first as an idealistic journalist with a fresh degree in political science from Georgetown University and later, working in senators’ offices in Washington, D.C. But she veers off script to mention how boring Bosnian cuisine is (meat is omnipresent, and she’s vegetarian) and talk about why the plea of missing people is so close to her heart: Her parents are bibliophiles who never sheltered her from the crude consequences of war. 

You’d think her move to the Hague, which comes with more responsibility, would mean more funding. Nope. The ICMP’s budget will remain about $9 million yearly (peanuts compared to the Red Cross’ $1.85 billion and UNESCO’s approximate $500 million). It’s hard to raise money for the dead when most Western donors are still recovering from the economic crisis and trembling at the sight of all the living Syrians arriving at their shores. And this is unlikely to change. “Few politicians will lead the charge to identify the missing because the dead do not vote,” explains Lori Baker, associate professor of anthropology at Baylor University and founder and executive director of the International Consortium for Forensic Identification.

But it’s not only lack of funding standing in the way. To get anything done, Bomberger has to navigate a torturous maze of political interests. Working in Syria, for example, would require the ICMP to collaborate with both the Assad government and rebel groups, something even the world’s most experienced diplomats are struggling to pull off. It won’t be easy, Sarkin says, but “if she’s been able to be effective in the Balkans, she can succeed anywhere.”