Congress Delegation May Visit Bosnia Grave Sites

FACED with mounting evidence of atrocities committed by Bosnian-Serb forces in the four-year Balkan war, American lawmakers are contemplating direct intervention to help turn the wheels of justice.

Sources on Capitol Hill say that tentative plans have been made to assemble a delegation of US lawmakers, human rights monitors, forensic experts, and journalists to visit mass graves near the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. The graves are said to contain the remains of as many as 3,000 Bosnian Muslims.

The alleged grave sites were first spotted in photographs taken by United States intelligence satellites. Their existence was confirmed in August and October by Monitor reporter David Rohde. He was one of three witnesses who presented testimony this week on Bosnian-Serb genocide at a hearing before the House's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey, who chairs the bipartisan commission, says: ''It's important that we go over there and say these [mass graves] have to be preserved so that the right kind of experts can look at and make reasonable judgments about who did it, who's been buried there, and hopefully follow the evidence where it leads.''

Mr. Smith says no congressional delegation would visit Bosnia-Herzegovina before the White House and Congress resolve their differences over the 1996 federal budget, presumably by the end of the month. But time is of the essence, he says, because of indications that the Bosnian Serbs are destroying evidence of the worst massacre in Europe since the World War II Holocaust.

Smith and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the ranking Democratic member on the commission, say many lawmakers are interested in making a trip to the grave sites. Dutch Defense Ministry officials interviewed by the Monitor say they may be willing to provide troops to protect a war crimes fact-finding mission.

Any findings produced by the proposed delegation would be turned over to the international tribunal in The Hague. The tribunal was established to investigate war crimes committed during the Bosnian conflict.

The peace agreement will be signed in formal ceremonies in Paris next week. Under its terms, troops attached to a NATO peacekeeping force, which will be deployed immediately after the Dec. 14 signing, would have unimpeded access to the grave sites.

Investigators from The Hague tribunal and human rights groups are also guaranteed full access, which has also been promised by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevich, the most powerful Serb politician in the former Yugoslavia.

The graves lie in the zone that will be occupied by 20,000 American troops. Administration officials say they are reluctant to risk US soldiers to gain access to the graves, but a Dutch defense official confirms that his government may be willing to contribute troops.

''We have not received a request yet,'' says Bert Kreemers, a spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Defense. ''But we are willing to do everything possible to help the tribunal.''

The failure of Dutch members of a United Nations peacekeeping force to protect Muslim civilians after the fall of Srebrenica caused a political uproar in Netherlands.

Ivan Lupis, a researcher from Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, told lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing that because of evidence that the Bosnian Serbs have tampered with one of the graves, it is crucial that the grave sites be investigated immediately after the Dec. 14 signing.

The victims of the Srebrenica massacre were among 12,000 to 15,000 Bosnian Muslims who attempted to reach territory controlled by the Bosnian government. Evidence indicates they were attacked by Bosnian Serbs using machine guns, mortars, and bayonets. Many were lined up, shot, and dropped into pits in executions Mr. Lupis says were ''well planned and systematically carried out.''

Numerous witness have placed Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic at the scene. He has been indicted by the war-crimes tribunal and is subject to arrest if found by occupying NATO troops.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.