HID | Forensics

After the tsunami: Finding answers when loved ones go missing

DNA analyses can sometimes unveil answers for families missing loved ones. But where do you start with such precious samples? And what impact does this have for those left behind wondering what happened?

When an earthquake triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, more than 230,000 people lost their lives. Ingrid Gudmundsson recounts hearing the news at home in Sweden – knowing that her daughter and grandchild were in Thailand at that moment.

According to estimates, 5,000 persons were killed by the catastrophic wave and floods on the beaches of the popular holiday destination alone. “I tried to call my daughter on the phone but there was no answer,” recalls Ingrid.

Convincing herself that it was not possible that something had happened to her daughter, “because she was young, strong and athletic.”

The tsunami of 2004 is just one of many tragic stories of massive loss of life, resulting in hundreds of thousands of unidentified victims. Vietnam, for instance, plans to identify the remains of the 300,000 people missing following the 20 years of war that engulfed the country. More than 40,000 people were missing after the war in former Yugoslavia, as were scores of victims after the 9/11 attacks in the United States or the civil war in Colombia.

Today, more than 100,000 people are listed as missing in Syria. And everywhere, relatives, friends and colleagues have to live without knowing what happened to their loved ones, hoping for the day when their uncertainty comes to an end.

Finding these answers is the task of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). 

More than 900 victims of the 2004 Thailand tsunami have been identified through the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Among them are Linda, her father and her daughter Mira – finally giving Linda’s mother Ingrid Gunmundsson the closure she was looking for.
You can’t cure anything, but it can help alleviate some of the fundamental causes of ongoing trauma.
Thomas Parsons, Ph.D., Director of Science and Technology, ICMP

Changing an experience

Thomas Parsons, Ph.D., ICMP’s director of science and technology, leads the technical processes of identifying missing persons at ICMP’s state-of-the-art DNA laboratory.

Before joining the ICMP, he was chief scientist for the US Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) and served on a National Institute of Justice advisory panel for DNA identification efforts following the 9/11 attacks. He recognizes the value of his work to families.

“Doing our job correctly and getting our work done changes the experience for these traumatized people,” he says. “You can’t cure anything, but it can help alleviate some of the fundamental causes of ongoing trauma.”

In Thailand, the widespread destruction, flooding and decay after the tsunami seemed to make it almost impossible to identify the victims and give certainty to those with missing loved ones. So far more than 900 victims have been identified through the work of the ICMP in Thailand. Among them are Linda, her father and her daughter Mira – finally giving Ingrid the closure she was looking for.

In Ingrid’s case, her genetic material was the link to the DNA of her missing family members, and victims’ DNA samples could be compared to hers. It took seven months until the former school teacher would know for sure that her daughter, grandchild and former husband were killed by the tsunami.

For Ingrid it was “a very long time waiting there, but when they came home, yes, I was thankful, really thankful. And I think it is important for everyone who misses someone, that they get them identified. It means a lot.”

The civil war in Syria has cost an estimated 500,000 lives. Muhanad Abdul Husn, an engineer from Syria, is working with the ICMP to research the social context of genocide. He himself does not know the fate of friends, colleagues and relatives, and wants to help the families of more than 100,000 persons registered as "missing" in Syria.
Doing our job correctly and getting our work done changes the experience for these traumatized people.
Thomas Parsons, Ph.D., Director of Science and Technology, ICMP

Providing answers. Sooner.

Every day of waiting is a day of uncertainty for those who are missing loved ones. The ICMP therefore sought to improve its technology. In October 2017 it opened a brand new DNA identification laboratory in The Hague that uses the GeneReader NGS System from QIAGEN. Keith Elliott, associate director strategic marketing HID at QIAGEN, says: “Next-generation sequencing is much more suitable for highly degraded samples, and GeneReader offers unique capabilities for exactly that kind of analysis.”

QIAGEN’s GeneReader NGS System covers all steps of the laboratory workflow, from sample extraction to the final DNA analysis. Both partners have developed a dedicated testing panel running on the system specifically designed for applications in human identification.  Parsons says: “With this approach we would be able to make an identification with even a single relative as far distant as first cousin. And this is very much a game changer in some complex disaster victim identification cases or other post-conflict events where it is simply not possible to achieve so many reference samples in order to make the identifications.”

First study results support this assumption. While previous technologies required a reference sample from a parent, a child or a sibling to verify DNA identities, now a 1st or potentially even a 2nd degree cousin relationship would do. Parsons calls this a “paradigm shift.” And yet another benefit strikes the experts: With the new test method even the smallest DNA fragments can be analyzed, allowing to finally unveil the identity behind old samples from World War II or the armed conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s.

The work of the ICMP in collaboration with QIAGEN can give certainty and help to hold those who are responsible for political crimes accountable. But most of all, it gives all the relatives of missing people the chance to leave the past behind and carry on with their lives.

In Inga’s words: “For me it meant everything I can say. Because I could leave the thoughts and feelings in my head. And when I heard the fact ‘here they are’ and yes, I was even thankful for that. So it’s a very important job they are doing here at the ICMP.”

Dr. Thomas Parsons, Director of the ICMP laboratory
ICMP was created at the 1996 G-7 Summit to address the issue of persons missing as a consequence of the conflicts in the Western Balkans. Supported by QIAGEN with expertise and equipment since 2001, the ICMP has built a state-of-the-art DNA laboratory system for the sole purpose of identifying missing persons. The director of science and technology at ICMP, Thomas Parsons, Ph.D., leads the technical processes of this lab.

July 2019