How a Serb Massacre Was Exposed

Monitor reporter eluded soldiers and discovered evidence of Serb atrocities

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Convinced the mass graves were on the other side of the river, I walked away from the center of the village hoping to find a bridge. Traffic had increased, and some men cut hay on a hillside

Piles of fresh dirt

About a mile up the road, I crossed over a bridge and followed a dirt track back toward the earthen truck crossing. About a mile farther, two 25-foot-high piles of fresh dirt had been dumped near a stream.

The dirt track narrowed, and I crossed into a field. Shots rang out again from a nearby hill and whizzed overhead.I froze. Crouching in the wide open field, I decided to walk slowly. If I ran, I could be mistaken for one of the hundreds of Muslim men from Srebrenica that Bosnian Serb soldiers said were still hiding in the area. The Muslims were being shot on sight, they said.

As I neared the truck crossing, despair began to set in. I saw no indication of digging in any of the fields;. only a relatively new pitch fork lay in my path.

More shots. The sound of a truck passing and men shouting came from the road. A machine gun fired, but this time farther away. Another burst. I realized a group of Bosnian Serb soldiers were driving by celebrating by shooting their guns in the air.

I crossed another field. Nothing. I reached the truck crossing. Nothing. I looked through two abandoned houses. Nothing. Truck tracks crossed the fields, but I thought it was probably hay harvesters. I again looked at the blurry fax of the satellite photo. Again, no river.

Dejected and nervous, I turned back, amazed and embarrassed that I was unable to find the alleged graves. I had ventured into the surrounding fields and spent two hours in the area, something I swore I would not do.

I started back across the field. Three to four shots rang out from hills to my left. Two shots were fired back from my right. I panicked and crouched. Move or stay still. Run or walk. I waited. Silence.

Pitchfork gone

Slowly, I rose and walked across the open field. The right side of my face tingled. No shots. Nothing. But as I retraced my steps, the pitchfork was gone.

I reached the dirt path and saw what looked like some clothes in the distance. The clothes, and empty cloth bag, some papers, a bullet, and Muslim prayer beads lay scattered across the grass. Dozens of the papers had ''Srebrenica'' stamped on them. I grabbed the prayer beads, bullet, and papers and headed back to the car. Along the path I briefly saw the silhouette of a man on a nearby footpath. No shots rang out

Bones discovered

Back at the car, I headed down the steep embankment to check the small field next to the river where earlier I had spotted an area of fresh digging. I finally realized that if the satellite photo only covered a few hundred square yards, then it was possible the river was just outside the frame of the picture.

I walked toward the dirt. To my left, something white jutted from a 20 foot by 20 foot plot of freshly dug earth. Two long, thin bones, one the size and shape of a human femur, the other of a human tibia, stared up at me.

Pictures from friends' medical books and X-rays of my own once-broken femur raced through my mind. I later visited the Belgrade University veterinarian school, staring at the femurs and tibias of cows, horses, pigs, bears, dogs, deer, and other animals. What I saw was too long, too thin for an animal. Traces of blue cloth surrounded the femur as it entered the ground.

Fresh dig

I turned and crisscrossed the larger area of fresh digging and found nothing. A car passed by. I again stared at the bone. Animals and insects appeared to have eaten away all the flesh. When I heard no cars, I scrambled up the embankment.

With one last field to check, I walked nervously down the main road. A truck rounded the corner. A dozen Bosnian Serb soldiers, armed with assault rifles, stood in the back. An area of fresh digging was clearly visible a few hundred yards to my right. The truck sped toward me.

Soldiers watch

I waved. The soldiers stared. The truck slowed, and I stopped breathing. After what seemed an eternity, the driver - apparently slowing for the turn in the road - hit the accelerator and sped off.

I checked the last field, looked at the bones one last time, picked up some shell casings from the side of the road, and got in the car.

As I sped north toward the border, despair washed over me. He must have been tall, I thought, and he must have died horribly.

It was a diploma awarded to a Muslim boy in a village near Srebrenica. And photos, with Muslim names on the backs, were scattered in the grass.

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