The University of Barcelona has set up the project L’ADN de la memòria: Banc d’ADN de la UB de víctimes de la Guerra Civil espanyola (The DNA of memory: the UB DNA Bank of Spanish Civil War victims). The initiative emerges from the five-year experience of the Laboratory of Forensic Genetics of the Legal and Forensic Medicine Unit of the University of Barcelona (UB), which has been collecting DNA samples of people who are looking for the bodies of disappeared relatives that could be in any of the 344 mass graves that are in Catalonia. Now, the work carried out by the Faculty of Medicine is consolidated and a bigger project that includes the contributions made by the UB Solidarity Foundation —the organization that coordinates the European Observatory on Memories— and the Bioethics and Law Observatory of the UB starts.
The project was presented yesterday in the Aula Magna of the University of Barcelona. The rector Dídac Ramírez highlighted that the UB is proud to meet the social demand expressed by citizens. “The UB takes this step to save past injustices from the oblivion”, says the Rector. “Political and social institutions must help to answer this kind of social demands. To find and identify victims is not a right. It is an obligation”, concluded Ramírez. Carme Barrot, director of the Laboratory of Forensic Genetics and founder of the DNA Bank of the UB, described the genesis of the project and stressed the importance of recovering historical memory: “In Poland, the process to identify the victims of the Second World War has been set up. We are still on time”.
Roger Heredia, relative of a person who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War and promoter of the Bank, highlighted that the project L’ADN de la memòria “brings hope to families”. He thanked the Rector and the University for developing the project. Albert Royes, secretary of the Bioethics Committee of the UB and member of the Bioethics and Law Observatory, pointed out that the main objective of the bank is “to heal the wounds not to reopen them”. Xavier López, director of the UB Solidarity Foundation, affirmed that Spain, together with Colombia and Cambodia, is one of the three countries with the highest number of mass graves and disappeared people.
Currently, the Laboratory of Forensic Genetics of the UB owns seventy DNA samples of people who are waiting for the opening of Civil War’s mass graves to be able to compare samples with the DNA of the remains found and identify disappeared relatives. To determine family relationships by means of DNA is easier when the relation is direct. Consequently, considering that closest relatives are quite old (sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, or nephews and nieces), it is necessary to preserve this DNA and guarantee that identification will be done when mass graves will be opened. Genetic identity tests have been used to identify a body, but it is not common to create a bank with frozen DNA samples to be used when unidentified bodies can be exhumed. In fact, there is only one similar case in Bosnia and Herzegovina; it is being developed by several organizations involved in the network of the European Observatory on Memories, coordinated by the UB Solidarity Foundation.
Promoters of the DNA Bank of the UB, a project developed together with the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation, estimate that nowadays around 4,600 families are looking for relatives disappeared during the Spanish Civil War. To join the bank, it is necessary to extract a blood sample to the relatives of the disappeared person. The part of the dried blood sample that contains purified DNA is kept at -75 °C at the Laboratory of Forensic Genetics of the UB, led by Dr Manuel Gené. Another part of the sample is given to participants together with all the documents that credit it. The process, managed by the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation, cost 150 euros. “It is important to remember that the polymerase chain reaction technique has been used to amplify DNA since the 1990s; it enables identification by means of a small biological sample”, explains the Carmen Barrot, the coordinator of the DNA Bank. Besides DNA tests, the identification of victims involves the analysis of contextual and anthropological data. New samples are arriving and people from the United States who are looking for the body of a member of the International Brigade who died in Spain while he fought for the Spanish Republic, or a person from Argentina who want to find the body of his death brother, are contacting the Bank.
During the process, the use of samples is restricted to the objective set and samples will not be given to third people without the consent of those concerned. Once the relative will have been identified, DNA samples will be given back to families or eliminated, depending on the decision taken by the family. Since 1975, the Laboratory of Forensic Genetics of UB studies human genetic variability applied to forensic genetics and its main applications: biological paternity determination and forensic identification. It is a pioneering centre in researching and applying the most modern techniques.
The UB Solidarity Foundation emphasizes that L’ADN de la memòria is a social project that meets the need that characterises any memory policy: restorative justice. An example of restorative justice is the event that takes place every July in Srebrenica: the remains found and identified during the year are buried. Universities play a key role in this type of processes: they provide scientific reliability. The Bioethics and Law Observatory of the UB paid special attention to this issue on the 9th International Seminar on the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights of the Unesco which took place on 16 February 2015 and was centred on DNA and enforced disappearances. The Observatory has also coordinated the publication of the bookDesapariciones forzadas de niños en Europa y Latinoamérica, coordinated by Dr María Casado and Dr Juan José López Ortega.
Promoters of the DNA Bank, Marc Antoni Malagarriga and Roger Heredia, who are looking for their uncle and great-grandfather,respectively, request political administrations to open mass graves and facilitate the identification of victims. Last December, the Parliament of Catalonia approved a motion to meet the recommendations of the report published by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) of the United Nations. The motion supports the creation of a human DNA bank for the relatives of disappeared people in Catalonia to facilitate their identification and urges the Government to allocate the resources needed.