Exhumations of Mass Graves part of the Healing Process in Bosnia

October 23, 2000
Jane Alonso

We drove up the hill near Srebrenica, past houses ripped apart by bullet holes like Swiss cheese, past green pastures untouched due to the infestation of mines, past returnee families examining the hollow shells of what was once their homes. After nearly reaching the top, we walked to the edge of the dirt road and looked down.

Bones. Bones scattered everywhere—femurs in bushes, sculls in trees, ribs strewn across the ground. Wherever you looked along the thickly-wooded ravine, bones could be seen. About twenty experts working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) were at work documenting this horrible scene. They carefully cleaned the dirt off the bones, laid out the clothing and objects found next to the bones, and photographed the ensemble for possible use in a future war crimes trial.

U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes David Scheffer, whom I accompanied for the day, said it was the most remarkable exhumation site he has ever seen in his career. What, he asked the investigators, happened here?

As is often the case with exhumations, the unknown leaves us guessing what unspoken history occurred here. From the evidence uncovered, the investigators believe that hundreds of bodies—most likely those of Bosniak (Muslim) refugees attempting to flee Srebrenica as it was taken over by the Bosnia Serb Army in 1995—were trucked up the hill and dumped over the side on the ravine. Only those bodies directly in view of the roadside were covered, and only with a thin layer of dirt at that. As the bodies decomposed, the bones tumbled down the side of the hill into the bushes and trees. Heads literally rolled.

This scene could be out of a movie, but in Bosnia, it is part of real life. Everyday, investigators from the ICTY or from one of the three Bosnian Commissions for Missing Persons (one each for the Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks) uncover the remains of the victims of Bosnia’s four year war. Since 1995, the commissions have recovered the remains of more than 6,000 persons. Of these, approximately 4,000 are still unidentified. Despite their success, the commissions still have their work cut out for them: the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) list of Bosnian missing currently contains approximately 17,000 names.

The exhumation and identification of missing persons is an important step in the healing process as Bosnia moves beyond its violent past. First, family members are able to bring closure to their losses through acknowledgement and burial. Second, the door is opened for justice to be served through a criminal trial, either locally or in the Hague. All exhumations, whether carried out by the ICTY or the commissions, are documented for this purpose. [Note: The majority of exhumations are carried out by the commissions; the ICTY only exhumes in Srebrenica and other areas designated as war crimes sites.]

Surprisingly, the three commissions have a cooperative relationship. An open agreement to exhume freely anywhere in the country guarantees the Serb commission access to areas under Bosniak or Croat control and vice versa. Each commission exhumes victims from its own ethnic group, based on tips it receives on the locations of mass graves.

Finding the bodies is often the easier part of the process. Identification proves to more difficult, as we found out after leaving the exhumation site for a visit to the Podorinje Project in Tuzla, where the bodies found in Srebrenica are kept. The Project, funded by the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), holds 4,700 "sets of remains"—the term used by investigators to describe the mix of bones and flesh found in a grave. In Srebrenica, victims were buried so quickly and so densely that bones often commingled, making it difficult to determine whether the remains belong to one person or many. Of these 4,700 sets, only 70 have been identified—an astonishing 1.4%.

DNA testing has significantly increased identification rates, but it is expensive and requires the close cooperation of family members, who are sometimes unwilling to come forward. Hats off to former Senator Bob Dole, Chairman of the ICMP, for helping raise the money to make DNA testing available in this part of the world.

The missing persons problem is grim but unavoidable facet of the aftermath of any civil war. It is essential that the international community continue to support the process by which victims are exhumed and identified.

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