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Unearthed Remains Point to Systematic Killings in Bosnia

Balkans: A concrete case of mass homicide of Srebrenica Muslims is being built, forensic experts say.

August 21, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KALESIJA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Case No. 089 wore green-soled athletic shoes. A polyester jacket covered his frame. Most of his teeth were missing. And seven high-velocity bullets had shattered his pelvis, legs and back.

His skeleton was pulled the other day from the choppy mud of a sloping, roadside mass grave, one of Bosnia's many. Now his bones rest, with 186 other corpses and skeletons, in a refrigerated compartment inside a cavernous, bullet-riddled factory that has become a war crimes morgue.

Forensic pathologists, archeologists and anthropologists from 12 countries are attempting to piece together the circumstances of No. 089's death, as well as those of his companions, and to document the deadliest atrocity of Europe's deadliest conflict since World War II: the fall of Srebrenica.

Four months after the first exhumations began and precious weeks before winter will force them to stop, the investigation is beginning to produce results. A substantial, concrete case of mass homicide is being built, investigators said, and some of the first bodies--out of more than 7,000 missing Muslim men--are likely to be identified within weeks.

In one case, a simple but unique dental bridge is expected to solve the mystery of a dead man's identity.

Srebrenica, a Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina that the West had promised to protect, was overrun by the Bosnian Serb army July 11, 1995. The victorious Bosnian Serbs separated Muslim men and boys from their fleeing and deported families; most were never seen again. Many are believed to have been buried in more than a dozen secret grave sites scattered west and north of Srebrenica in Serb-conquered Bosnia.

Autopsy reports for more than 100 victims exhumed in the past month from two of the mass graves show, in the words of one investigator, a monotonous redundancy of wounds that indicates the men were not killed in combat, as the Bosnian Serbs have claimed. Rather, the young men appear to have been lined up and shot, then covered with dirt where they fell.

Almost all wore civilian clothes--plaid shirts, bluejeans, lightweight jackets, athletic shoes. Several were found with their hands tied behind their backs.

"We always look for obvious evidence of execution-style killings," said Robert H. Kirschner, a prominent expert in mass-grave exploration and one of the leaders of the Bosnia effort. "Hands tied behind the back is sort of the smoking gun. You find that, you've reached the moment of truth."

Other key evidence is the pattern of wounds, Kirschner said. In combat, there are various wounds, from shrapnel as well as gunshots; they occur in a variety of places on the body. But at Cerska, the makeshift grave that has produced, thus far, the largest number of bodies, most of the men had been hit at least half a dozen times in almost identical places by high-velocity gunfire--across the chest, pelvis and legs--according to autopsy reports viewed by The Times. Some bore additional, single shots to the head.

"This does not leave much question about what happened," Kirschner said. "We can tell where and how they were killed. Who is responsible, of course, is someone else's job."

Bullet casings found in the area of the graves have shed light on the type of weapons used. This may help prove who is responsible. The evidence is expected to be part of the case against Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic and political leader Radovan Karadzic at the United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague. The tribunal has indicted both men on charges of genocide as a result of the Srebrenica massacres.

Mladic and Karadzic continue to live freely in Serb-held Bosnia, despite the presence of almost 60,000 NATO-led peacekeeping troops and despite international arrest warrants issued by The Hague. Mladic lives a dozen miles from one of the exhumations.

The mass graves were first pinpointed last year by U.S. spy satellites. In April, teams from the war crimes tribunal, led by pathologist William Haglund of Seattle, began exploratory digs to confirm the presence of bodies. Full exhumations began in July at Cerska, where 154 bodies were found, followed by two sites at Nova Kasaba, where 33 more bodies were retrieved.

Several other sites are to be excavated, all under the watch of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops and private guards.

The investigation has been delayed by difficulties in mine clearing. A Norwegian firm with mine-sniffing dogs began the job but left after a few weeks for another project, in Mozambique. An expensive British firm, without dogs, was this week scouring the next site, a field known as Lazete.

Haglund and Kirschner, a former medical examiner in Cook County, Ill., are sponsored by the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights; they, with other members of the team, have exhumed mass graves in, among other countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina and Rwanda.

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