The bodies were found in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany between 1976 and 2019.
The entire Interpol operation was triggered by the unsolved murder of a woman in Amsterdam, found in a trash can in the river.
It is the first time that this international police group has gone public with a list seeking information on unidentified bodies.
The so-called “black announcements”, as part of a campaign known as Operation “Identify Me”, are usually circulated exclusively internally within Interpol’s network of police services from all over the world.
A woman found in a trash can in Amsterdam in 1999 had been shot in the head and chest.
Forensic detective Karina Van Leuven has been trying to solve this mystery since she joined the city’s first cold case team in 2005.
Dutch police say that a case usually goes “cold” when it remains open and unsolved for about three years.
Having exhausted all efforts, she and her colleagues contacted police in neighboring Germany and Belgium and learned of many more possible murder cases with unidentified female victims.
The three countries compiled a list of 22 cases they had problems solving and asked Interpol to release their details.
The Belgian police submitted seven cases, Germany six, and the Netherlands nine.
Most of the victims were between the ages of 15 and 30.
When you don’t know their names or who killed them, police say it’s difficult to determine the exact circumstances of their deaths.
The full list – available on Interpol’s website – contains details of the women, photographs of items that could identify them such as clothing, jewelery and tattoos, and, in some cases, new facial reconstructions and information about the cases themselves.
Van Leuven says finding answers in such cases is vital.
“If you don’t have a name, you don’t have a story. You are just a number. And nobody is just a number,” she explains.
In the Netherlands, almost all of the unidentified bodies of women appear to be homicides, while – police say – the unidentified men died under a wider range of circumstances.
In that part of Europe, people can move between countries very easily because the borders are open.
Increased global migration and human trafficking has led to more people being reported missing outside their national borders, says Dr Susan Hitchin, Coordinator of Interpol’s DNA Unit.
This can make it difficult to identify bodies, and women are “disproportionately affected by gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking,” she says.
“This operation wants to give women back their names.”
Victim number one
The body of a woman found in a garbage can rests today in a cemetery in the center of Amsterdam.
Her grave is tucked away near the railroad tracks and behind rows of graves with personalized inscriptions and freshly picked flowers.
It is in the area for persons whose names are unknown.
Dozens of small plaques emerge from the ground with the words “unidentified deceased.”
The woman was found when local resident Jan Meyer went out in his boat to retrieve a trash can that a neighbor noticed floating in the river near his home on the outskirts of the Dutch capital.
But when he tied the bucket to the boat, he noticed it was heavier than he expected and, as most of it floated to the surface, he could smell a “terrible stench”.
As a firefighter, Jan has encountered dead bodies before.
But this stench was almost animal.
He reminded him of an incident from his childhood, when he found the rotting carcass of a slaughtered sheep.
When he examined it more closely, he saw that the lid of the bucket was nailed.
He dragged her to his pier and called the police.
When the bin was forced open, officers found laundry detergent bags stacked on top of the concrete.
They turned the bucket upside down and a body fell on the ground.
One of the hands was partially cemented.
A police officer who was present tells me that the body was gray and looked like a “sand sculpture”.
It was impossible to tell at first glance whether it was a man or a woman, he says.
At the time, the investigation determined that the woman was probably in her mid-twenties and “part Western European, part Asian.”
More recent forensic investigations, with the help of isotope analysis, have narrowed down her place of birth to the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg or Belgium.
“It all has to do with the food you eat and the water you drink, but also the air you breathe,” Van Leuven says about this technique.
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In the weeks since the discovery, police have released details of her clothing and shoe size and what she was wearing, but have still been unable to identify her.
Her dark lace-up shoes with rubber soles were not on her feet but were placed in the bin with her body.
Interpol has released details of the items found with the body as part of Operation Identify Me.
She was wearing a gold-plated watch on her right hand, and a snakeskin bag was also found in the bin.
Men’s clothing was also found in the bin – police believe it belonged to the perpetrator of the crime.
It includes a jacket with a sewn-on red circular sign.
Efforts to identify the symbol were unsuccessful.
No suspect was ever questioned or arrested in connection with the case, and the initial flurry of media interest soon faded.
But for those who were present the day the body was discovered, it was not easy to forget the woman with no known name.
They still wonder who she was – and who might be missing her.
‘Each of them had someone they missed‘
When detective Karin Van Leuven first visited the victim’s grave in 2007, she felt shocked and saddened by the idea of people falling into oblivion after death.
The owner of the cemetery asked the detective what he intended to do with “everyone else”.
Only then did she realize the extent of the problem with unidentified bodies.
Identifying the dead became her specialty and she eventually identified 41 people who had died of various causes.
All the bodies she identified had one thing in common.
“No matter how long it took them to identify themselves, they all had someone who missed them,” she says.
“Even if it’s 25 years later, people are very happy to have something they can bury and pay respect to.”
Operation “Identify Me”
Only four people whom Karina helped to identify in the Netherlands were people from that country, which is why she believes that cross-border cooperation with the police and greater public knowledge are so important.
One of the cases in Operation “Identify Me” is a woman found in Belgium with a distinctive tattoo of a black flower with green leaves and “R’NICK” written underneath.
She was found lying next to a grate in a river in Antwerp in 1992.
Police say she was killed violently, but have never released her name.
In another case from 2002, the body of a woman was found in a sailing club in the German city of Bremen, wrapped in a carpet and tied with rope.
Interpol says it hopes releasing a public list of these blacklists will help jog memories and encourage people to come forward with any information they may have.
“They may recognize an earring or a recognizable piece of clothing that was found on an unidentified woman,” says Dr. Susan Hitchin from Interpol.
In some of these 22 cases, police departments are using technology that was not available at the time the bodies were discovered to increase the chances of identifying them.
Doctor Christopher Rinne, a forensic illustrator from Scotland, created a new reconstruction of a woman’s face from a garbage can in Amsterdam.
He remembers seeing the original autopsy photos of the woman when he was a student and never forgot them.
He hopes the new image, created with the help of advanced computer software to reconstruct the face around the skull, will help uncover new clues.
Karina says that although she would like to solve the case and find the perpetrator, for her “the most important thing is to reveal the identity of the woman, so that she can return to her family.”
She says she will “never give up” on the trash woman or the others she investigates.
“You are a person, you have a name, you have a history, and that history must be told to the end, even if that end is tragic and terrible.”
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Source: Dnevni list Danas by www.danas.rs.
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