AN on-the-spot investigation by The Christian Science Monitor has uncovered strong evidence that a massacre of Bosnian Muslim prisoners took place last month.
A Monitor reporter, traveling without the permission of rebel Bosnian Serbs, looked into charges by American officials that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims were killed by the Serbs after they overran two UN-protected "safe areas."
The Serbs deny the US charges, which were based on spy-satellite photos.
The visit by this reporter was the first by a Western journalist to the sites of the alleged atrocities near the former safe areas of Srebrenica and Zepa. The physical evidence was grim and convincing:
*At one site shown in the spy photos this reporter saw what appeared to be a decomposing human leg protruding from the freshly turned dirt.
*Large, empty ammunition boxes littered the open fields where the ground recently had been dug.
*Diplomas, photos, and other personal effects of Srebrenica Muslims were scattered near the areas of disturbed earth.
*At a soccer stadium in a nearby town, human feces, blood, and other evidence indicated large numbers of persons were confined, and perhaps shot.
UN officials estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 Muslim men are still missing in the wake of the Srebrenica and Zepa assaults. So far there is little indication that these men are being held prisoner. Dozens of local Bosnian Serb civilians and soldiers, most of them unaware they were speaking to a foreign journalist's translator, said they had heard nothing about a large group of captives from the former enclaves.
According to Bosnian Serb troops, all Muslims captured in the area are being summarily executed. One soldier, reporting to his commanding officers in Nova Kasaba, said a group of more than 300 Muslims who were armed with only 50 guns are still hiding in the hills around the village of Cerska, near Zepa.
The soldier proudly declared that his unit had captured seven of these Muslims last Saturday and killed two. "We're going back to catch the group tomorrow," said the soldier. "We just talk to them and then shoot them."
US officials first made public charges about alleged atrocities by Bosnian Serbs in this area on Aug. 10. In a closed session of the UN Security Council, US ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright said that as many as 2,700 Bosnian Muslims might have been hastily executed and buried in shallow graves.
In a dramatic presentation of evidence, Ms. Albright displayed spy plane and satellite photos of an area in the small farming village of Nova Kasaba, about 14 miles west of Srebrenica. "Before" photos showed prisoners crowded into a soccer field and undisturbed earth in an empty field a half mile away. "After" photos from a few days later show no prisoners and three areas of disturbed earth in outlaying fields that resemble mass graves.
In addition, US officials cited the account of an elderly Muslim refugee, who said that he had been one of 600 men held at the Nova Kasaba soccer field. Bosnian Serb soldiers trucked the Muslim men in groups of 20 to a nearby field and machine gunned them, said the refugee, who escaped when he was left for dead among the corpses. The bodies of hundreds of men were then bulldozed into mass graves, according to the refugee's account.
During a reporter's visit to the site this Wednesday, three areas of fresh digging were clearly visible. On the edge of the smallest of the three alleged mass graves, what appeared to be a human femur and tibia surrounded by bits of tattered fabric jutted from rich brown dirt.
One hundred yards from the second-largest grave, handwritten notes from a March 14, 1995, local government meeting in the village of Potocari, located inside the former UN "safe area" of Srebrenica, were found. Twenty feet from the same grave, a 1982 elementary school diploma and what appeared to be washed-out personal photographs of a Muslim youth from the village of Kravice, also near Srebrenica, were found.
Approximately a quarter mile from the three sites, Muslim prayer beads, clothing, and still legible receipts and election ballots from Srebrenica were found.
Two empty ammunition boxes, each of which appeared to hold several hundred rounds, were seen near the three sites. A handful of shell casings was found across the street from one of the sites, but few shell casings were found on the graves themselves. Truck and bulldozer tracks leading to the alleged graves were visible.
The largest alleged grave measured roughly 300 feet by 300 feet, the second 250 feet by 200 feet, and the smallest 100 by 50 feet. And about a half mile from the sites, two large piles of fresh earth had been dumped near a small stream.
No guards were posted in the area, which consists of homes that were destroyed when the village was captured by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992. One group of soldiers questioned why a car was parked in the area, but moved on.
A second charge of Bosnian Serb atrocities involves the village of Bratunac, 10 miles northwest of the Srebrenica area.
In the first few days after the fall of Srebrenica, residents on the Serb side of the Drina River reported hearing gunfire coming from Bratunac.
According to published accounts, Serbs who crossed into Bratunac during the period were told that Muslims were being executed in the local soccer stadium.
During a visit to the site on Saturday, evidence that prisoners were held, tortured, and possibly killed was found in an abandoned building on the stadium grounds.
Dozens of piles of feces line the floor of the three-room, one-story building, and in two places it appeared that someone or something had been repeatedly rubbed through the waste. Several dozen bullet holes pocked the interior walls, and what appeared to be dried blood stains dotted the floor and one wall.
In an interview with a Serbian magazine at the time, Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic said captured men from Srebrenica were being taken to Bratunac for screening as potential war criminals. Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey alleged last month that 1,600 prisoners were killed in the stadium.
What occurred in the building is unclear, but the squalid conditions found there fit what captured Muslims from Srebrenica described in published accounts. Several Muslim prisoners have reported being crammed shoulder-to-shoulder into small rooms and being unable to move or go to the bathroom. Others reported torture, including being rubbed in feces.
An attempt to enter Srebrenica itself from Bratunac was blocked by Bosnian Serb police who said special permission from the party of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was needed.
Bratunac residents interviewed Saturday said they had seen no traces of Muslim refugees or prisoners in the town since the fall of Srebrenica. No prisoners were held in the soccer stadium either.
After interviewing dozens of Bosnian Serb civilians and soldiers over a 300-mile swath of Serb-held territory in Bosnia, the fate of 4,000 to 6,000 men that UN officials say are still missing from the enclaves remains unclear.
Of the 10,000 men believed to be in Srebrenica before its fall, roughly 6,000 are believed to have made it to government lines, leaving 4,000 unaccounted for.
Over 3,000 people, including 1,500 armed men, refused to surrender to the Bosnian Serbs after the July 18 fall of Zepa. Six hundred have crossed into neighboring Serbia, leaving 2,400 people unaccounted for.
Statements by Bosnian Serbs, and limited inspections of Bosnian Serb prisons by the International Red Cross last month, indicate that the 4,000 to 6,000 missing Muslims are not in Bosnian Serb custody. Dozens of soldiers and civilians interviewed gave accurate descriptions of the 30-mile flight of 6,000 Bosnian government soldiers from Srebrenica to government-held Tuzla last month.
But no civilians or soldiers interviewed between the Bosnian Serbs' headquarters in Pale in eastern Bosnia to the city of Banja Luka in western Bosnia said they had even heard rumors of new Muslim prisoners.
Bosnian Serbs vehemently denied that any massacres had occurred and said that once men from Srebrenica were screened for potential war criminals, they were allowed to rejoin their families in government-held territory.
Contradicting this assertion, one Bosnian Serb soldier from the Srebrenica area said over 500 Muslim soldiers were shot by Serb forces after the fall of Srebrenica. He said at least 4,000 Bosnian government soldiers had been captured, and he believed they were imprisoned somewhere near the town of Bijeljina.
But civilians and soldiers in the Bijeljina area said no Muslim prisoners were there except for a few being held in nearby Batkovic. Limited inspections by the ICRC last month of the Batkovic detention center and other prisons in eastern Bosnia resulted in the discovery of only 164 prisoners from Srebrenica and 44 from Zepa.
One possibility is that more Muslims are alive in the hills of eastern Bosnia than believed. Serb soldiers and civilians, a Yugoslav Army soldier, and residents of scattered villages painted menacing pictures of hundreds of armed Muslims still roving the woods around the former safe areas.
Limited fighting, including one brief gunfire exchange in Nova Kasaba Wednesday, were witnessed. Two patrols of a half-dozen men were being conducted outside the town. A larger encampment of about 50 soldiers was observed near Nova Kasaba.