Graves Found That Confirm Bosnia Massacre
Into Bosnia's Killing Fields Series starts tomorrow on how Monitor reporter David Rohde was captured and released by Bosnian Serbs.
SAHANICI, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — FROM 100 yards away, the freshly turned earth of the field appeared to be covered with haphazard dots. Five feet away, the dots became empty shoes, shattered eyeglasses, and decaying clothing.
In the woods nearby, three canes and a crutch jutted from a mildewing heap of more than 100 windbreakers, sweatshirts, and leather jackets. No evidence of battles having been fought was found.
The forlorn debris and areas of fresh digging, discovered by the Monitor on Oct. 29, are the most specific and convincing evidence yet that Bosnian Serb forces massacred thousands of Muslim civilians - including the elderly and crippled - after the fall of the UN ''safe area'' of Srebrenica.
Bosnian Serbs say no massacres occurred and the graves are filled with Muslim soldiers killed in combat. But the crutch that was found is something no combatant would lean on. The three wooden canes are supports no soldiers would need.
The Monitor has visited four of six possible mass grave sites identified by US spy planes and satellites around the fallen Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. At
each site, human remains, documents from Srebrenica, Muslim identity cards, personal photos with Muslim names on them, or civilian clothing have been found (List of grave sites, left).
Europe's worst massacre of civilians since World War II was apparently carried out with brutal efficiency on the nights of July 14, 15, and 16, as nine survivors interviewed by the Monitor in September say it did. Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, whom eyewitnesses place at this and three other execution sites, apparently ordered the cold-blooded executions of as many as 5,000 Muslim prisoners.
The United States has said it will not sign any peace agreement that would allow General Mladic or ''President'' Radovan Karadzic to remain in power, and insists they must be turned over to the war crimes tribunal. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic have reportedly agreed to leave office, but only if they receive immunity from prosecution.
The new evidence found at Sahanici could increase pressure on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who says he was unaware of the massacres, to oust his erstwhile allies, Mladic and Karadzic. The future of the two indicted war criminals is a key issue in US-led talks in Ohio aimed at a comprehensive peace in the Balkans.
The new evidence found in Sahanici also may give the US added leverage to force Mr. Milosevic to finally come through on long-running promises to grant war crimes investigators access to mass graves around Srebrenica. Since the peace talks began, Milosevic has twice promised to grant free access to the sites, but failed to deliver.
But time may be running out. US intelligence officials announced last week that the Bosnian Serbs have already tried to destroy evidence at one of the mass graves last month and could be tampering with others now.
The US has had the photographic evidence of six graves around Srebrenica since late July and US agents may have visited the sites to confirm that they are not the result of agriculture or construction work, according to intelligence officials. US officials estimate that six graves are large enough to hold up to 2,700 bodies.
The Bosnian Serb authorities have repeatedly refused to grant the UN, tribunal investigators, and journalists free access to the area around Srebrenica since the enclave fell. Using pinpoint locations obtained from US-based intelligence sources, the Monitor visited the Sahanici area for three hours on Oct. 29 without the permission of Bosnian Serb authorities.
This correspondent changed the date of issue on a Bosnian Serb press accreditation from 19/12/94 to 29/10/95 and used it to pass through Bosnian Serb checkpoints and reach the area. This correspondent was arrested at the execution site by Bosnian Serb police, stripped of all documents and photos taken of the area, accused of espionage, and jailed for 10 days.
Up to now, reports of the massacres have been primarily based on survivor accounts that could not be independently confirmed. But the evidence found in the Sahanici area corroborates the accounts of five Muslim men who say they survived the execution of as many as 2,000 men from Srebrenica.
The school, the railroad tracks, and the earthen dam that five survivors described were found in the area around Sahanici. Two mass graves found near a school are exactly where three of the survivors say they should be. Ten miles away at the Red Mud Dam, two human femurs were found on a gravel plateau that two survivors say was an execution site.
Bosnian Serb police and civilians vehemently deny that any massacres took place after the fall of Srebrenica and say they are willing to grant access to the area. Any mass graves that exist are filled with Muslim soldiers fleeing Srebrenica who were killed as they tried to fight their way to government-held central Bosnia. Any human remains, documents, or clothes found in the area are either from Muslims who fought their way through the area this summer, they claim, or from heavy fighting that occurred there when war broke out in 1992.
In a possible explanation for what may have motivated the massacres, Bosnian Serbs bitterly accused Srebrenica's Muslim military commander, Nasir Oric, of massacring some 1,300 Serb civilians in fighting in the area in 1992. UN officials say Mr. Oric, who played a videotape of murdered Serb civilians to Western reporters in 1994, did launch a handful of subsequent raids from the theoretically demilitarized UN ''safe area'' of Srebrenica.
But the clothes, documents, and digging at the two sites, which are 10 to 15 miles from the main escape route used by fleeing Muslims and appeared to be no more than a few months old, were overwhelming evidence that civilians were massacred:
r Three canes, a crutch, and some 100 civilian jackets were found in a large pile 100 feet from the two mass graves, indicating that civilians, elderly, and the handicapped were among those executed.
r An identity card from the Muslim safe area of Srebrenica, an identity card with a Muslim name on it, and personal photos with Muslim names - including one from a young girl who had written ''I love you, Meho'' on the back of a small portrait - were found in the jackets.
r The smaller of the two graves near the Sahanici school reeked of rotting flesh.
r Thirty to 40 shoes, a pair of pants, a shirt, a blue civilian beret, socks, and shattered eyeglasses still in their case were found scattered across the top of the graves.
r The two graves near the Sahanici school are adjacent to railroad tracks and a paved road and are in two adjacent fields - details that match the descriptions of three men who say they survived a massacre there.
r The layout of a school a half mile from the graves perfectly matches the descriptions of survivors who say that more than 1,000 Muslim prisoners, including elderly men taken from outside the main UN base in Srebrenica, were gathered before they were executed. Adding credibility to the survivors' accounts, Bosnian Serb police, who confiscated pictures the Monitor took of the school where massacre survivors say they saw Bosnian Serb commander Mladic, said the school is a military installation.
At the second site, evidence of another mass execution was found. Two human femurs were seen on a gravel plateau. A bucket loader had removed a half-dozen scoops of dirt from a nearby hill, possibly using it to bury bodies.
The layout of the dam, the existence of the gravel plateau where the bones were seen, and a nearby drainage ditch, exactly matches the description of two Muslims who say 500 to 1,000 Muslims were massacred there.
Four months after the fall of Srebrenica, the International Committee of the Red Cross says that 8,500 men from Srebrenica are still unaccounted for. At least 3,000 of those men were last seen in Bosnian Serb custody, according to eyewitnesses.
US officials estimate that as many as 6,000 Muslims were executed by the Serbs. War crimes investigators estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 Muslims were massacred.
Each of the six potential graves matches the description of a massacre survivor, a witness of an execution, or a witness of a mass burial interviewed by the Monitor.
A final, accurate accounting of the Srebrenica massacres will only come if Sahanici and the other five sites are dredged for the truth.