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American Imago 62.4 (2006) 395-418

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Denial and Dissociation as Coping Strategies in Mothers' Postmortem Identification of Their Sons

Department of Health and Human Rights
Split University School of Medicine
Soltanska 2
Clinic of Psychiatry
Clinical Hospital Split
Split University School of Medicine
Spinciceva 1
Vukasoviceva 10
21000 Split
"The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me; I felt closer to the dead than the living, and felt guilty at being a man, because men had built Auschwitz, and Auschwitz had gulped down millions of human beings, and many of my friends, and a woman who was dear to my heart. It seemed to me that I would be purified if I told its story . . . "
—Primo Levi, The Periodic Table of the Elements


Croatia, a republic in Southeastern Europe, was, until 1991, part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), which was a federation of six states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Like other republics in the federation, Croatia comprised a mixed ethnic population. In the case of Croatia, this population included a majority of Croats (Roman Catholic), along with Hungarian, Serbian (Orthodox), and Bosnian (Muslim) [End Page 395] minorities. One quarter of the second largest ethnic group, the Serbs, lived predominantly in Croatian regions along the borders between Croatia and Serbia and between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the spring of 1990, Croatia and Slovenia held their first democratic elections, rejecting the Communist system. Croatia and the neighboring republic of Slovenia declared independence from the SFRY on May 30, 1991.

The republic was not prepared for war, and the ensuing conflict lasted over four years (1991–95) as a protracted element in the Balkan War. During the war, the Yugoslav Army managed to occupy one third of Croatia and formed the Serbian territory of Krajina. Between May and August 1995, Croatian soldiers reclaimed this territory and, after the military action "Storm," Croatia established its own sovereignty.

According to official records, wartime casualties amounted to 5,858 soldiers killed and 17,802 wounded, while there were 3,024 civilians killed (including 241 children) and 8,646 wounded (Division of Information and Research, Croatian Ministry of Health, 1995), though the actual number of civilian casualties was almost certainly much higher. Out of the 3,052 persons reported missing during the war in Croatia, 2,046 (67%) were murdered and have been exhumed from 136 mass graves found throughout Croatia. Out of those, 1,841 have been identified and 205 remain unidentified. Additionally, 1,211 persons are still classified as missing (Croatian Commission for Detained and Missing Persons, July 2004). The total number of family members who were engaged in the process of searching for missing persons was 6,198. Out of that number, 2,395 families were missing a family member, and 168 families were searching for more than one person (Jurcevic 2005, 1).

Exhumation and Identification

The following steps are essential preconditions to the process of mourning: the recovery of mortal remains, examining the remains to determine the number and biological [End Page 396] profiles of the decedents, using approved scientific methods to compare ante-mortem and post-mortem records to identify individuals, resolving disputes, and preparing the remains to be returned to the loved ones of the deceased.

Forensic pathologists have the responsibility of determining the cause (e.g., gunshot wound to the head), mechanism (e.g., massive hemorrhage), and manner of death (i.e., homicide, suicide, accident, natural, or undetermined). They conduct an extensive examination in order to establish a biological profile of the decedent.

Following the Balkan War, missing persons were exhumed not only at mass graves, but also in underground caves and wells, inside the burnt remnants of homes, and in fields and on hillsides, where they were recovered as surface-scattered remains. Common to all of these sites is the grim reality that most of...


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