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How a Serb Massacre Was Exposed

Monitor reporter eluded soldiers and discovered evidence of Serb atrocities

By David RohdeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 1995



BELGRADE

An Aug. 18 Monitor article revealed the first on-the-ground details of a massacre of perhaps thousands of Bosnian Muslims in July after Bosnian Serb forces took the UN ''safe havens'' of Srebrenica and Zepa. The reporter's account confirmed US charges of a massacre based on spy satellite photos. In the following report, the correspondent tells how he got the story.

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NEARING the Serb-held village of Nova Kasaba in Bosnia, I stared at a blurry, faxed copy of a US spy satellite photo. Were there really mass graves in the fields near this road, as US officials alleged from the photo?

Another photo, taken earlier, reportedly showed a soccer field half mile away where Muslim prisoners had been held, just before the alleged graves showed up in the later photos.

I had reached this spot somewhat by happenstance. I was allowed to enter Bosnian Serb territory, but only to travel to Pale and Banja Luka to cover Serbian refugees who had fled Croatia.

Because Serb officials somehow failed to provide me with a military escort and gave me wrong directions, I ended up on the road to the towns of Nova Kasaba and Bratunac. Suddenly, I realized I was near the area shown in the photos.

The soccer field, now filled with grazing cows and horses, rolled by on my right. Bosnian Serb soldiers at a military command post eyed my car warily. I turned back and parked my car on a dirt road where it could not be seen. I left my Serb driver and interpreter in the car.

But something seemed wrong. The Jadran River snaked through the valley of fields and bombed-out houses where the alleged mass graves should be.

But the photo showed no river. Convinced I was in the wrong place, I walked toward the soccer field. As cars passed by, I spotted a 10-foot-by-20-foot hole just off the road. It was empty, but a piece of paper filled with scribbled Muslim names lay in the grass nearby.

A series of Muslim names, the date of March 15, 1995, and the name ''Potocari'' - a village located inside Srebrenica - were legible. I put it in my pocket.

Cars and trucks, some carrying soldiers, whizzed by as I walked the half mile to the soccer field. Three villagers shepherding cows were greeted with hellos and good mornings. They looked at me strangely, but moved on. In the soft early morning light, surrounded by peaceful green fields and wildflowers, massacres seemed impossible.

The soccer field, where two survivors of the alleged massacre say that Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic gave a speech promising the prisoners they would not be harmed, contained nothing but grazing cows and horses. I spent a half hour crisscrossing the field, but found only one pair of abandoned sneakers.

The search

Discouraged and nervous, I headed back toward the car.

The number of villagers on the road was slowly increasing. I saw faint truck tracks heading through a field toward the river, but three to four villagers were walking in the area. A truck pulled up and stopped directly in front of me. The door opened, and an elderly couple, to my relief, got out. We greeted each other, and I moved on.

Seeing another set of faint truck tracks, I followed them. They dead-ended at the river, and appeared to be used by a truck harvesting corn from the surrounding fields. As I headed back to the road, a half-dozen Bosnian Serb soldiers riding in a horse-drawn cart passed by. They stared intently at me and started speaking to each other.

I turned my back and pretended to go to the bathroom. Slowly, the sound of the horse's hoofs disappeared into the distance.

Ignoring land mines

I walked back to where I had found the paper and noticed another faint set of truck tracks leading toward the river. Ignoring the possibility of land mines, I followed the tracks down a slight slope to the river.

A large empty green ammunition box, which appeared relatively new, sat about 50 feet off the road, and a second empty box was found later nearer the road. Closer to the river, a 200 foot-by -200 foot area recently had been dug up. A smooth, earthen ramp leading into the water had recently been bulldozed. Another earthen ramp and fresh truck tracks led up the opposite bank.

The graves must be on the other side of the river, I thought. But the 100-foot-wide river appeared too deep to wade through. I turned back and noticed some papers in the grass.

It was a primary school diploma that had been awarded to a Muslim boy in a village near Srebrenica in 1982. And photos, rendered unrecognizable by rain, were also scattered in the grass. Muslim names were written on the back.

I stuck the diploma in my pocket and crisscrossed the area of fresh dirt. I saw nothing but grass that had begun to spring from some parts of the rich brown soil. A shot rang out from a nearby hill, and I froze. I waited, heard nothing more, then hurried back up to the main road.