ZELENI JADAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina — With each shovel of khaki-green mud, the sickening stench of death grew, finally overwhelming the frigid rain that fell on the hidden grave.
Slowly, with trowels and finally their gloved hands, seven war crimes investigators eased a skull, a leg and a clothed arm bone into view. They cataloged these and other "human remains" buried and scattered over a 40-yard shoulder of deserted rural road here in the mountains of Serb-held eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina.
For the last two weeks, members of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have carried out their first inspection of sites where thousands of Muslim men who tried to flee the Bosnian Serb takeover of the U.N.-designated "safe area" of Srebrenica last year are believed to be buried.
The existence of the graves and the fate of the Srebrenica men have been partially documented through the accounts of witnesses and survivors and through U.S. spy satellite photography. But the tribunal's probe represents the first collection and scientific examination of evidence that may be used to prosecute senior Bosnian Serb leaders and others accused of war crimes.
"You can look at a grave as an echo chamber--it will echo the accounts of witnesses," said William Haglund, a former investigator with the Seattle County medical examiner's office and a member of the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights who is participating in the war crimes probe. "It will give you feedback that will substantiate, or not, the witnesses' accounts of how a person died."
War crimes prosecutions are seen by many Bosnians as the catharsis essential to a lasting peace and the rebuilding of their devastated country. But the investigations also carry the potential for political explosion, especially among Bosnian Serbs who view the process as biased against them.
Moreover, the prospect of anyone ever being brought to justice seems slim. Only four of 57 indicted suspects have actually been detained, and the chief among them--Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic--continue to rule their half of Bosnia from behind the scenes.
The Bosnia Serb army overran Srebrenica in July, driving an estimated 30,000 people into flight. According to human rights organizations, as many as 8,000 Muslim men are unaccounted for--many are believed to have been killed in ambushes or after capture--in what may have been the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
The investigators--among them an FBI agent from Boston, a French police chief and an American pathologist--have conducted their work under the escort of U.S. troops maintaining a watchful distance.
Sequestered on an American military base known as Camp Lisa in the town of Vlasenica, which is under Bosnian Serb control, the team has ventured out each day in a convoy with half a dozen American Humvees or Bradley fighting vehicles fitted with .50-caliber machine guns.
Guided by satellite photos that last autumn pinpointed half a dozen suspected grave sites in a 12-mile stretch of valleys and fields north and west of Srebrenica, the tribunal team has also surveyed a warehouse, an elementary school, a soccer field and other places where Muslim men are thought to have been rounded up, held or executed.
The Zeleni Jadar site, surveyed one day last week, was of special significance because it may bolster the case being made against Bosnian Serbs who are suspected of tampering with the graves in an effort to conceal evidence.
Different colors of dirt showed clearly where a 4-foot-deep layer had been added on top of an unknown number of bodies. Freshly broken tree branches and heavy-vehicle tracks bordered the location.
The one partial skeleton that the investigators exhumed was still clothed, although mud obscured the color of the clothing. Another shattered skull lay nearby, along with dozens of bone fragments and other evidence, samples of which were placed in plastic bags.
The investigators placed numbered yellow markers where they found evidence. No. 2, finger bone. No. 4, upper cranium. No. 5, clothing.
Zeleni Jadar is a previously unknown burial place and appears to be a site to which bodies were moved after having been buried at another location. Asked how the tribunal team discovered it, team leader Jean Rene Ruez would only say, "Technology might be of great help"--suggesting that it was detected through satellite surveillance.
Once they finished surveying, the investigators drove to another suspected mass grave at the town of Glogova and took dirt samples to compare with traces from Zeleni Jadar. Glogova is the largest of the sites, and there is ample evidence that it was disturbed or re-dug in October.
Other signs of more recent tampering have been found at another site, known as Sahanici. The suspected tampering apparently occurred after U.S. officials pledged to maintain aerial surveillance of the graves.