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DNA tests link war dead to families

Update: August, 28/2012 - 10:02

by Nguyen Thu Hien

 

A man cleans and repaints graves of unknown soldiers in the National Martyrs' Cemetery on Road No 9 in central Quang Tri Province. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Tung
HA NOI — Le Thi Thanh's fingers tremble while reading a document with the results of a DNA test on the remains of an unknown war martyr.

An expert from the Centre for Genetic Analysis and Technologies has concluded that the remains are from a person that has no biological relationship with Thanh.

Thanh starts crying, as this is the third time she has had a negative result from DNA tests on newly discovered skeletal remains.

"I was completely sure this was my older brother, a war martyr who died in a battle in central Da Nang City in 1974," says the 40-year-old.

"I had asked a telepath about this, nevertheless, it turned out to be wrong once again.

"The search for my brother's remains has cost me and my family a great deal of effort, time, money and most importantly hope."

Thanh said she met with dozens of telepaths to ask for help in finding her brother's grave.

Although each of them had different answers, she believed in all of them and travelled to many cemeteries in the central provinces in her ongoing quest.

Thanh went to a local cemetery in Da Nang City that had three unmarked graves, one of which, she believed, was her brother's.

"This cemetery was in a remote place and I had to stay at the cemetery keeper's deserted hut among the graves," she says. "I was alone with only fire-flies for company. It really scared me at night. I also had nothing to eat. "

However, she still faced the dilemma of having to decide which of the three graves was her brother's. In the end, local authorities allowed her to dig up part of the remains in all three graves for DNA testing. Still, she had no luck in finding her brother.

Thanh says many families of missing war martyrs assume they have brought the remains of their loved ones home, only to have their hopes dashed when DNA tests are completed. For years, families of war martyrs have had to rely on telepaths for guidance, but it's necessary for them to have their skeletal remains tested with DNA, she says.

Statistics from the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs show that more than 5,000 skeletal remains of war martyrs require DNA tests to establish their biological link with their alleged families.

Professor Le Dinh Luong, an expert in genetics, says the ministry has considered this as an urgent task since 2010, as most of the mothers and relatives of war martyrs are getting old and weak.

However, there were no centres for gene analysis and technologies which had the capabilities to carry out DNA typing for such a large number of skeletal remains at once, he says.

Fortunately, director of the Centre for Gene Analysis and Technologies Nguyen Thi Nga has taken on this great challenge.

"Helping people to identify their biological relationship and genetic diseases via DNA paternity tests is useful," she says. "However, it is much more meaningful to help old parents who have spent dozens of years looking for the remains of their children who were war martyrs. These people have tossed and turned for many nights, wondering whether the remains they have found are their children."

Journalist Nguyen Pham Thu Uyen from the Tro Ve Tu Ky Uc (Returning from Memories) programme says the centre contacted her to work together on tracking down the remains of war martyrs. Uyen's TV show is devoted to this very cause, and is now working with the centre to provide easier access to DNA tests.

The centre spent billions of dong to buy new equipment and improve their DNA testing capabilities.

Prof. Luong says DNA testing on remains that have degraded considerably can be a long and complicated process.

He says DNA tests can be carried out on a piece of bone of 2 grams or even one tooth. Control samples are taken from possible maternal relatives to ensure better accuracy in the testing. For nuclear DNA typing, control samples can be taken from brothers or children of the war martyr.

All the labs in Viet Nam are using mtDNA markers, except for Nga's centre which applies both mtDNA and nuclear DNA for typing skeletal samples to ensure better accuracy in testing.

For two years, hundreds of samples of war martyrs' remains located through the Returning from Memories programme and from the poor families of war martyrs themselves who have undergone free mtDNA typing and nuclear DNA typing.

Usually this procedure would cost between VND4-7million (US$190-333).

Nga says many samples have gone through several tests to ensure that the result is completely accurate as some skeletal remains have remained underground and become contaminated with DNA from nearby remains of another person.

"Each of the skeletal remains tells a story of blood, sweat and the limitless efforts of families during their long search for their loved ones. Their happiness is also ours. However, it is rare to see these tears of happiness."

Only 10 cases have had positive matches between the remains of war martyrs and their alleged families.

However, Uyen says that for those who have a positive result, the feeling can be magical.

Nga says most families such as Thanh's are still wasting their efforts in depending on telepaths who have no scientific basis for their claims.

Thanh says help from telepaths has brought her nothing but pain. All telepaths are simply exploiting the hopes of war martyrs' families.

She says those in search of their loved one's remains must rely on official information from relevant government agencies to track down the locations of war martyrs and carry out DNA tests after finding them.

During her long journey to look for her brother's remains, Thanh has kept information on the graves of war martyrs who have full names but never have any families' visit.

"I am trying to link up with relevant local authorities to look for families of these war martyrs and set up a database on this," she says.

Director Nga says she shares Thanh's idea and the centre is also storing the results of DNA tests in a bid to help link families with war martyrs.

She says that if only 10 other scientific centres across the country joined the effort, in five years all unidentified skeletal remains can be tested and be brought back home.

Meanwhile, after dealing with the disappointment, Thanh says she is ready to continue her search.

"The harsh sunshine and winds of the central provinces can sunburn my face but not my determination to look for my brother's remains," she says. "Now, with the support of the centre and official documents, I am more hopeful than ever." — VNS

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