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World > Europe
from the September 08, 2003 edition

Grisly clues in Bosnia's largest mass grave
| Special to The Christian Science Monitor
High atop Crni Vrh (Black Peak), in a vast clearing across the road from a garbage dump, an earthmover is scooping. At first glance, it looks like preparations for a large swimming pool. But a closer look reveals men and women working on their hands and knees, and they are not construction laborers.

This site, where excavations began in late July, is 44 yards by 13 yards - and more than 4 yards deep - making it physically the largest grave site found in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the end of the 1992-1995 war here.

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While it is as yet uncertain how many victims it may contain, the site is already significant in another way: The bodies buried here were moved from elsewhere to this remote site - apparently to make evidence of genocide harder to find. "We believe this is a secondary mass grave," says Sasa Stjepanovic, of the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons, which on a recent day had three anthropologists and two archeologists combing the dirt at Crni Vrh.

Cumulatively, this site near the village of Memici and 16 other recent, smaller discoveries in the area demonstrate a coordinated reburial effort that could not have gone on without high-level approval. As such, they could have ramifications in the ongoing trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, and possible future trials of the fugitive Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his general, Ratko Mladic. All three have repeatedly denied personal knowledge or responsibility for such war crimes. That line will now be even tougher to maintain, since the victims come largely from villages that were under control of Milosevic's Yugoslav National Army and their allies under Karadzic and Mladic.

The discoveries also underline the failure, eight years after the war's end, of the Bosnian Serb and Serbian authorities and public to openly acknowledge what happened here. "As has happened in cases before, they will quietly let these dark crimes pass, with silence from institutions - but the public here will also be silent," says Branko Todorovic, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of Republika Srpska.

More than 200,000, most of them civilians, died in the Bosnian war. The majority came from areas that were ethnically "cleansed" of Muslims and are now part of the Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb Republic), the Serbian enclave that shares an uneasy peace with the Muslim-Croat Bosnian Federation. Of 30,000 people reported missing at the war's end, about a quarter have been exhumed, many identified through DNA comparison with surviving relatives.

Many victims' relatives say they won't be at peace until Karadzic and Mladic, thought to be the slaughter's key architects, are in custody. Eight years after being indicted by The Hague war crimes tribunal, they're still on the run, and few observers believe that they'll be captured soon.

Hajrudin Mujanovic, deputy prosecutor of Tuzla area, says that authorities were directed to Crni Vrh by a witness to the reburial operation. Although most of the victims' identity papers had been removed, overlooked documents identified them as being from around Zvornik, once a majority-Muslim city on the banks of the Drina River dividing Bosnia and Serbia.

Every few days, Ahmed Grahic, chairman of the Association for Prisoners and Missing Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, comes to Crni Vrh, hoping to turn up information about his father and two brothers. In May 1992, the Yugoslav army forced the residents of villages near Zvornik into a mass march. The men deemed to be of fighting age were driven to a school workshop, where they were jammed in. Many were killed or died in the crowded, airless quarters. The survivors were put on buses and taken elsewhere. "From that day, we've been looking for them," Grahic says. "The government of Republika Srpska never tried to help us. They just tried to cover up the crimes."

The bodies at Crni Vrh are thought to have been moved from their initial resting places in 1995 or early 1996. Some of the victims reburied there were placed in body bags of the Yugoslav National Army - an efficient solution but a strange choice for those intent on claiming no involvement of Serbia in the atrocities. Because the bags were numbered, "there had to be a list," Mr. Mujanovic says.

One foreign investigator says he expects the site to yield perhaps 300 bodies, but Amor Masovic, co-chair of the Bosnian Federal Commission for Tracing Missing Persons, predicted that more than 500 bodies would be found, thereby topping the largest previous find of 424 victims. Other investigators have said that as many as 700 might be found. Mr. Masovic is scheduled to testify at Milosevic's trial, and says he expects to be asked about Crni Vrh.

The news of such discoveries is being reported by state television and independent media in Republika Srpska. But down the hill, in Zvornik, the townspeople aren't talking. A quick sampling of residents found eerily identical quick responses that "we don't know anything." Zvornik now is virtually all-Serb, although wary Muslim residents are gradually returning to the area with the encouragement and assistance of the international community.

At a local radio station, Radio Osvit, one of the few independent news media in this part of Republika Srpska, director Zorana Petkovic, talked about the difficulty of coming to terms with what went on here. "A lot of people are guilty, and a lot of people feel guilty," she says. "A great number of people didn't have the means to stand up to it."

Ms. Petkovic says, though, that most Serbian civilians didn't know what was being done, and in their frustration tune out such news and focus instead on what they believe is anti-Serb bias in underreporting of atrocities committed by Muslims. That's typical of a continuing problem: an effort to create equivalency out of a conflict in which innocent people of all ethnicities died, but the vast majority were Muslims slaughtered in an organized effort.

"Until the international community defines precisely what happened from 1992-1995, there cannot be an awakening of the Serbian people," says Masovic.


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