Around 1 a.m. on a warm May night — a time when most things are quiet — Dr. Sarah Wagner’s phone started to buzz.

Calls, emails and text messages flowed with a singular announcement: After years of evading capture, indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic had been arrested. He’d stand trial for multiple charges, among them genocide, as the Bosnian Serb general who oversaw the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys in and around the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995.

In an attempt to hide the traces of the crimes, many of the massacre’s victims had been buried and later reburied in mass graves, comingling their remains. Wagner, a social anthropologist, has researched the forensic methods used to identify and return these remains to surviving relatives.

Mladic’s capture was a moment family members had waited for, and news of his detainment spread quickly. “It was extraordinary… people had been waiting for years, 16 years,” says Wagner, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. “It came late but nevertheless was a monumental event for the region, and especially for the victims of his crimes.”

Wagner started her research in the Balkans as a doctoral student at Harvard, drawn by an interest in chronicling the transition of refugees, who, once expelled from a geographic location, later return to that place. But her initial research question differed from what was of utmost importance to the families she encountered. Their focus was the return of their family members’ remains, “having a place to bury them and a grave to tend,” Wagner says. “It was about knowledge — knowing what happened and being able to care for them in a way that’s appropriate.”

Wagner adjusted her research to help the families find the answers. “It’s a fascinating example of the use of science in the investigation of human rights abuses and as a technology for attempted social repair.” Her analysis and conclusions are outlined in her book, “To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing,” which was published in 2008 by the University of California Press.

Now, after 16 years, a man many believe is a mastermind of the deaths and coverup of their loved ones is finally about to stand trial. The news reverberated around the world, including the vibrations to Wager’s phone.

Emotions ran high among survivors. The arrest was a climactic point. Now, there’s a new wait — the wait for justice.

“What’s important about Mladic is not just his capture but the judicial proceedings and their political consequences,” Wagner explains. “What happens in the trial? How does the trial help establish the facts of the crimes? This remains a question, as post-war Bosnia tries to reconcile individual and collective responsibility for the crimes that took place. In the case of Srebrenica, I’m anxious to see how the trial will unfold. Will he be found guilty, especially of the charges relating to genocide?”

Photography by Chris English, University Relations