Fetching up the bodies in Bosnia | Ed Vulliamy

The Long Read: In Bosnia, an international organisation is digging up mass mausoleums and using cutting edge scientific research to give scapegoats pedigrees some feel of close and justice

They are the unquiet dead. Laid out in rows inside a former industrial building on the edge of the Bosnian municipality of Sanski Most. Some of the skeletons are almost complete, others only a pelvic bone and some assorted ribs, ordered as though to await the advent of more.

This place was used to process wood before Bosnias war of the early 1990 s, and now it operations it endeavours to assemble the dead. The remains are laid out on created trays, and at the hoof of each lies possessions located with the body when it was exhumed, inevitably from a mass grave. So to walk through this room of demise is also to walk through these people lives and last moments. A duo of coaches here, a checked shirt there, a watch or wallet. What made this person pick a yellow-bellied sweater rather than another on a market railing, and chance to be wearing it when taken out to be assassinated? Why striped socks beneath this half-assembly of bones, plain ones to accompany the next? Who were these beings?

In this building, run by the Krajina Identification Project, there is industriou purpose. These dead parties had been missing for 24 times, along with tens of thousands of others, while their families survivors of the hurricane of violence that blew through this area of Europe examined, wondered, panicked the worst.

This facility is one in a chain that seeks to answer that question, the operational activities of the which is the most remarkable entwinement of science, human rights and justice in “todays world”. The duty is to locate and exhume the 40,000 people who went missing after the countries of the western Balkan crusades the worst carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich then to make their remains insofar as they can be found, identify them, give them names, and return these dead back to the life of burying. It is scientific work at its most committed and advanced, helping to meet humen most primal motivation: to implant or in some way ritualise the remains of our dead.


Beside a rough superhighway that clambers a remote mountainside, between the towns of Prijedor and Sanski Most, lies the house that Zijad Bai has rebuilt in the hamlet of arakovo, from the ashes to which it was charred in 1992. Next to the house, where he now plays football with his son, Adin, is a meagre marble monument, on which are carved their lists of 38 people, many of them members of Zijads extended family. Some of them were killed during the night of 25 July 1992; others faded. Zijad was 15 years old on the night that after his father and most other mortals had been taken away to concentration camps Serbian death squads came back to mop up the women and children.

We were at home, he withdraws, when we heard the soldiers singers. Come on out! Come on out! My father gestured to us: “were supposed to”. As soon as they went out, and another kinfolks around us, machine guns inaugurated shooting. I recognised one of “the mens”, the others wore balaclavas. They were about five years older than me. I watched my mother reached firstly and fall down, then my brother and sister and I extended behind a bush to obscure. I stayed there until they had finished filming and hollering I recognised another of the balaclava soldiers from his expression; they came from merely down in the depression, the latter are neighbours.

My mother, and my brother and sister were dead. But I survived. I was behaved on the convoys, and went to a refugee camp in Germany. And I never contemplated Id come back here, but I couldnt sleep without knowing what happened. Where were they? I had to find my missing father, all my uncles, and to find where they had hidden my mother, younger brother and sister.

There ought to have seven stoppages in connection with the extermination of the arakovo villagers. Two of the accused ought to have released on bail under house arrest, and Zijad thinks they are the men he recognised on the night of the massacre. Thats one of their houses right there, he says, pointing towards a white be built upon the depression floor. Were said he hopes that these trials will disclose where their own families is. Im going to testify. Even though were surrounded by them, I have no fear of anyone or anything any more. My alone need in life is to find those I have lost.

Where Zijads mountain lane matches a tarmac byway, there countenances a little patronize are maintained by Zijads uncle, Fikret Bai, who takes my notebook and writes a index of their lists of his extended family who went missing during the last week of July 1992. It takes him a very long time; there are 29 of them, including his mother Sehria, his wife Ninka, son Nermin, who was 12, daughter Nermina, who was six, four brothers including Zijads father, three sisters, various aunts, uncles and cousins. Of the 29, 19 are children; a very young was two.

Prijedor, Prijedor, where some of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian war took place. Picture: Andrew Testa/ Panos

They were taken and killed by the viaduct, merely there, by the main road, Fikret says, pointing to a railway connection beneath which wed just driven. For years, Ive had no idea “where theyre” buried.

Fikret was working in Germany when it happened. The first thing he did was to tour refugee camps across Europe: Holland, France, Austria, Croatia. I barely knew what I was doing, like a wild hunter-dog. But good-for-nothing. So “theres only” one thing to do: am coming, and I never reputed Id do that, back to the destroyed residence. But I did, in 1998, merely to start looking, for I had nothing else to do with “peoples lives” but find the bodies and the people who did this. I questioned a Serb, who had been the best man at my wed, raised by my grandmother: where are they? There are not many people I can ask, I pleaded with him, I only need to know who did this, and “where theyre” implanted. He just said: I dont know, I was not there. I could tell he was lying. I went to the police in Prijedor, but everyone knew it had been the police who organised the conceal of their own bodies. Then the other, but he had died. Then I realised the only thing to do was to start digging.

I dug everywhere. I helped wherever there was a dig. Fikret went to the mass grave found at the village of Kevljani in 1999, next to a concentration camp established by the Bosnian Serbs at Omarska. There was no evidence of Fikrets family.

Then, in 2004, undertaking began at two seconds mass tomb, too near Omarska, at Tomaica. Fikret was there, digging, but their own bodies noticed there were did not include their own families. None of us knew, he says, that we were only 100 metres from the most difficult mass grave of them all.

A A marble headstone with their lists of 38 people who were taken from the small hamlet of Carakovo during the night of 25 July 1992 and killed. Many continue missing. Photo: Andrew Testa/ Panos

We sit in Fikrets yard, roses clambering the barrier, neighbours guiding by, saluting him. He sips a glass of Nektar beer, a Bosnian Serb brew. The sorenes doesnt go forth, it gets worse, stronger, the longer it lasts, he says. I went to the commonwealth courtroom, and an American lawyer pictured their rights and interests for a while, but then said he had to leave and take another job. After a while, I gave up, I couldnt go on any more.

Then, in 2013, there was a bigger, macabre discovery at Tomaica: hundreds more figures, lay, hidden but now disclosed. Fikret Bai was there times after the first globe was ruin. First, they started to find my neighbours, the Tatarevi brethren, up the thoroughfare there. Then a cousin of excavation. And then my brother Refik no documents, but the DNA matched.

Its hard to say what I detected. It was like someone who belongs to me coming back from 10 metres deep. Hes my family. And then another body comes out, and its not one of excavation, and you feel so bad. I did that for three months, until the last form was discovered and either marked or not. Now we must wait for another grave to contain the women and children: two were found at Tomaica, but still 17 boys are missing, aged two to 16. You know, I cant believe Im saying this; it leaves a bad delicacy in my mouth, and in this lovely night, for me to have to tell you that all this is the case, that this is what parties do to each other.

Zijad Zijad Bai has rebuilt the family home in arakovo. In 1992 it was burned dowm Photograph: Andrew Testa/ Panos


The driving force behind this sought for the missing dead is the International Commission on Missing Persons( ICMP ), founded in 1996 on the basis of an initiative by President Bill Clinton. ICMP arrived to urge the point and identification of 30,000 beings in Bosnia( and 10,000 more across the region ), missing in mass graves. Most have been obtained and their persists returned to their families but 8, 000 in Bosnia are still missing.

ICMP has been working on the website of World Trade Center in New York, advising on how to identify those killed on 9/11; it has been in Guatemala and El Salvador, sought for the missing from US-led dirty battles of the 1980 s; and South-east Asia, relating victims of the tsunami in 2004. The organisation, says its director-general, Kathryne Bomberger, is thinking about future occupation that might include searching for the victims of not only conflict but natural disaster, forced disappearance, human trafficking and migration. Detailed country programmes have been bequeathed for Iraq, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Albania and Ukraine. It is even preparing to address the as yet unquantified missing of the Syrian conflict and the 10,000 missing children around the migration crisis in Europe.

We do this from a premise that all missing persons have rights, the same rights, says Bomberger. But in addition to the humanitarian principles, “its also” about the rule of law it is an obligation of states under subjects of international law to detect missing persons.

The money this work will require is minuscule in comparison to corporate or even aid budgets and hitherto, this is an increasingly mean macrocosm when it comes to funding, says Bomberger, and the missing are easily overlooked.

The world out there is one big-hearted NN mass grave, says Ian Hanson, the man who broke the very first field here in Bosnia in search of the 8,100 victims of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. NN is the abbreviation used only for tombs; it stands for No Name.


Over the summer of 1991, the break-up of Yugoslavia began to turn bloody, firstly in Slovenia, then Croatia, then Bosnia, as Yugoslav republics sought independence and Slobodan Miloevis government in Belgrade sought to establish borders for a Greater Serbia, which spread into both Croatia and Bosnia and entailed the riddance, through fatality or expulsion, of every non-Serb in the territory.

In Bosnia, a brute pogrom was loosed in springtime 1992, chiefly at first against Slavic Muslims in the east and against Bosniak Muslims and Catholic Croats in the north-west Krajina; the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was subjected to relentless siege and the stillborn republic torn apart.

I reported on this war, and in August 1992 discovered concentration camp, established by the Serbs for Muslim and Croat prisoners, near the town of Prijedor in Krajina. The bloodbath dragged on until soon after the Srebrenica massacre three viciou year later. I have kept in touch with the survivors of, and those bereaved by, those cliques, and come to understand how the outrage of disappearance inflicts an immeasurable pain on those who remain. I return to Bosnia every year for honours at the camp, and is aware that, in so many routes, those messages missing and faded are crueller than dead; they leave the mothers, fathers and family without so much as an interment, a mausoleum to stay, an note of whatever happens and why.

When researchers from the war crimes tribunal in the Hague first reached in 1996 to build a occasion against those responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, their first moronic task was to sought for the evidence presented: its martyrs, 8,100 slaughtered men and boys ploughed into the ground.

They were led by a French examiner called Jean-Ren Ruez, an anthropologist called Richard Wright, who had worked on second world war tombs in Ukraine, and a former archaeologist of ancient and medieval London, Ian Hanson who is now deputy managing director of forensic sciences, anthropology and archaeology at ICMP.

Work at Srebrenica began on what were thought to be the five mass burial sites each containing numerous separate mausoleums in which the dead had been immersed and left concealed. Then a ghoulish true developed: experimenting was indicated that body parts from what became called the primary graves had been endeavoured to secondary ones, to hide evidence. Sometimes, they had even been disinterred and reinterred again, into tertiary graves.

This had two consequences: first, that more than a million-and-a-half bones and body parts from 8,100 people were sown across innumerable locates; and second, that the few byways of rural eastern Bosnia had for weeks, months, been heaving with trucks carrying the decompose, stinking are still in these beings some 3.2 million tonnes putrefactive material. Yet no one said a thing.

We call this grave-robbing, says Hanson. The Serbs had arranged secondary graves to be located in places where there had been armed dissensions, in order to be allowed to allege that pogrom scapegoats were killed in combat. It was all very carefully worked out.

The search for the missing was initially regarded as a humanitarian affair. But the war crimes tribunals reason was prosecutorial. When ICMP arrived in 1996, it sought to find the veiled dead both for human concludes, and to find hard attest to substantiate what had happened and uphold the rule of law. The scapegoats clearly approve: of the relatives of the missing who presented blood samples in pursuit of a Dna match, 90% agreed to any results to be used in evidence at trial.

Fikret Fikret Bai at home in Carakovo: 29 members of their own families were taken by Bosnian Serb violences and killed in July 1992. He is still sought for the remaining the majority of countries. Image: Andrew Testa/ Panos


From the outset, the process of locating and identifying the dead was has been affected by a toxic sky of denial , non-cooperation and sectarian formations that dealt with their own backs losses and no one elses markedly among the prime perpetrators responsible for more than 80% of the missing, the Bosnian Serbs.

When we firstly arrived, says Hanson, who was then with the war crimes tribunal, the peoples of the territories with the information we needed were not nice guys; they were guys with firearms not requiring us to do what we had come to do. We used to go into the police stations that were supposed to be helping us, and interpret pictures of ourselves on the wall: Do Not Cooperate with These Beings!

To that objective, ICMP stepped in , not only to improve look for the organizations and encourage the skills required to do so, but to assist the Bosnian government in turning a slapdash, sectarian search into a systematised, centralised operation. Hanson uses the word facilitate but moves his flattened palms against thin air making as if to push it.

The initial pursuing focused mainly on Srebrenica. Identification was at first done using classical anthropological methods: identify controls, dental management, garb and so on. But from 2000, ICMP inaugurated use DNA samples from blood were presented by relatives of the dead, according them with those gleaned from samples of excavated bone. This was the second revolution in forensic anthropology and the figures speak for themselves: in 1997, seven positive distinguishings; in 2001, 52; in 2004, 522.

Srebrenica has become iconic of Bosnias carnage, hitherto it tends to detract from other cruelties over the three years of the battle. Bosnia is a country without a reckoning, a call to account. And nowhere is this more merciless than in Krajina, with the second biggest concentration of mass graves, the first of which was found in 1999 at Kevljani. Near what had been the iron ore quarry of Omarska, the tomb contained 143 bodies of men assassinated in the camp.

A second tomb was are available at Kevljani, this one with 456 victims of camp Omarska, and others around a mining facility at Ljubija. But simply in 2013 did Bosnias single largest mass grave away from Srebrenica come to light, a few kilometers now down a soil trail from Omarska: the grave at Tomaica in which Fikret Bai find his brother.

The site looks like a pond now, liquid settled in the sunken dirt, from which reeds proliferate. A lineage from the nearby Serbian hamlet amble up the racetrack towards it, carrying jigging rod. But for more than a year, this was a scene unlike almost any other in Bosnia since the war.

They have arrived, all of them, withdraws Dijana Sarzinski, mortuary director at the Krajina Identification Project( KIP) facility on the edge of Sanski Most. Its one thing to exhume mass from a mausoleum of 11 beings, as many of them are. But here were 434, maybe more. The digit would afterwards rise to roughly 600. They had been preserved in clay for 20 times, tightly packed together, glued by disintegrating tissue.

Some people are identified on the basis of only a few bones, and it is up to the families to decide whether they have enough to embed or whether to wait for more. Parties find their missing, but not ended, says Amor Maovic, who set up the Muslim-Croat Federation Missing Persons Commission after the campaign. They may lay a few thumbs and a leg, and five years later theres a whack at the door, its the left leg now, 2 years later a piece of skull. Its part of that dreadful limbo. At one point, Islamic spiritual approvals decreed it irreligious to lay less than 40% of a mas, further exacerbating the damage for those working protagonists trying to deal with fragments.

During the besieging of Sarajevo, recalls Maovic, the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladi told his gunners to drive them to the edge of madness. Well, this was the same principle, but for the madness to remain after the crusade. The madness of relatives of the missing, which will remain until their own extinctions. They appear as statistics, all 40,000 of them. But each quantity is a horror storey that people are going through, every one of them like a tale you are able read for the rest of your life.


There are organisations that models a connection between the mechanisms of search and the families of the missing. Mirsad Duratovi, a survivor of Omarska, is president of the Association of Camp Detainees of Prijedor 1992. He is too, as he puts it, a messenger of fatality to houses he knows well. He returns word mainly of men he knew from Omarska, where prisoners would be called every night from their crammed parts for routine torment, crime, mutilation and death.

Ive had every kind of encounter, says Mirsad. I reverberating the bell, and for 20 seconds we embrace, because no statements are necessary. They already know what news I deliver. You cant clarify or describe the sensitives , nor would I wish them on anyone else. In a strange acces, its best available various kinds of mood, and the worst, at once.

We talk at the site of the Tomaica mass grave after yet another daytime of commemoration at Omarska, ladies laying flowers at the now-locked openings of areas where they were maintain, hardened mortals cracking up at the reliving of atrocious recognition. The is the issue of the missing is what represented me come back, says Mirsad. He had been living in Germany until 1999. I had myself failed 47 each member of my extended family.

Mirsad wears pressed shirts and occasionally a suit, which is rare around here. His whisker is groomed, he drinks little. When Mirsad talks about the suffers, he speaks from experience. The hardest of all, he says, was to knock on my own mothers door, and tell her that her “husbands “, my father, and her other two sons, my brothers, had been seen. On one mitt, it was the bulletin we had all been waiting for; on the other, it is the beginning of a different heartache. My baby always “re just saying that” when her husband and my brothers were found, things “il be easier”. The pain of the wait was killing her, it had been so long. Now we have buried them, and we are in a position at last start to go through the bereavement. That period I had to be both a messenger and a son.

For Mirsad, there is a wider determination in this work: To prove that there was genocide in an area where there has been no belief for genocide. The war crime tribunal in the Hague has ruled in serial occurrences that genocide was committed at Srebrenica and contiguous Zepa, but not yet anywhere else in Bosnia. To prove systematic vetoes and demonstrate methodical conceal of forms. Methodical and premeditated. It wasnt enough to kill all these beings and their families and children, burn their towns and villages, blow up their mosques and Catholic faiths, burn their documents and papers and record, take “the mens” to concentration camps and either kill or evict them, so these beings never subsisted and then to systematically obscure their dead. If “thats really not” massacre, I dont know what is.


The bodies from Tomaica, such as those from all around Krajina, come first to that facility on the edge of Sanski Most. Forensic anthropologist Dijana Sarzinskis role here is testimony to Bosnias global leadership in this expertise: from Sarajevo, she examined at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and then at the University of Central Lancashire in England, before coming home to join ICMP as an intern.

The standard operating rehearsal here is the worlds gold standard, says Sarzinski. Persists are meticulously cleaned, and a biological profile installed. Scientists and technicians work in silence, invest in off-color tunics and concealments, showering figure question, cleaning bones with toothbrushes. The bones are subject to a physical decontamination, followed by removal of any exogenous DNA that may have attached itself. A small sample of bone a bone opening is then extracted with accuracy blades, to be passed on to the laboratories. Were not allowed to do that now, as anthropologists, to decide a cause of death thats for the pathologists, says Sarzinski. But we are in a position prepare the cases and point out possible crusades. The single missile flaws through the skulls of these men from Hozia Kamen are enunciate enough.

The The remaining beings pogrom during the Bosnian war are laid out on counters at the Krajina Identification Project in Sanski Most. Picture: Andrew Testa/ Panos

The counts arriving from Tomaica were so devastating that the bodies had to be treated with salt, basically mummified, use a method thousands of years old, preferred by the ancient Egyptians, she says. They had been preserved in clay for so long, and very quickly decompose through dessication of tissue, defects and maggots.

The bodies from Hrastova Glavica, a desolate mountain hamlet near Sanski Most, presented a different defy. In August 1992, the Serbs introduced 125 hostages here by bus. They took them off the bus bound in groups of three, dedicated all the men a cigarette, filmed them and slotted them individually down a crevice in the stones.( The mausoleum was spotcheck because one humankind transgressed free and existed to tell the fib .) Body duties had been squashed together for so long, they were all co-mingled, material stuck together, material and bone from one organization all mixed up with another, Sarzinski says.

Once the bones are ready, there is a requirement to re-associated with others from the same skeleton; this is crucial to establish what grave-robbing has has just taken place. It became very quickly clear that of the 434 figures we received from Tomaica, 56 cases of body parts needed re-associating with clients which had been previously identified at Jakorina Kosa, says Sarzinski. But others enter into the category of NN , no name.

I ask whether Sarzinski would like to come to this years honour at Omarska made faces to the bones, as it were. I cant, she responds. I have to do this occupation for what it is. I cant render to traverse that line.


Hava Tatarevis garden is ablaze with the palette of summer. She is the older sister of Zijad Bais murdered baby, and she survived if you can call this existence, she says to tell the story of the nighttime she lost her family, some weeks before the murder of Zijads. It was one of the first days of the conflict. Serviceman came to the house, and took them all away. They took my husband, Murharem. And six members of my sons: Senad, Sead, Nihad, Zijad, Nidzad and Zilhad. They came to the house with grease-guns, and balacavas, and just said: Youre coming with us, if not well kill you all, here and now. I started to cry, and they said: Dont fret old lady, theyll be back. And marched them down the hill.

I never understood my sons again, but a few eras after that, the same gentlemen is coming and ravaged everything. They embezzled what they wanted from the members of this house, eat and drank what was here, and smashed the rest. They killed all our animals. I was taken to the camp at Trnopolje, then on the convoys to Travnik. From there, after a long time, my sister has now come took me to Croatia, and then Germany.

Mrs Tatarevi intervals. The only chimes audible are bees across the flowerbeds and the humming of a tractor in mid-distance. I started go looking for them all right away, she prolongs after a while. First of all I ogled around the refugee camps. I wrote notes. People would come to Germany from all over the diaspora, and Id ask them: have you accompanied their own children? Have you considered my husband? I started coming back in summer to rebuild the house, and plant stuffs. And I expected everyone, even the Serbian neighbours: have you seen them? Do you know where they are?

I dont know how I survived the anguish. I dont know if I did subsist the agony. I just wanted to know how did they die? Are they still alive? Might they come back to the hamlet while I am in Germany? If they were dead, all I wanted to do was to hold their bones in my hands, and find a residence of dark-green grass under which to immerse them, and say my prayers and say: there they are, my dead sons.

Then, after almost a quarter-century, she learned about the brand-new mass grave found in 2013. I feel I knew, I had a sense, something was just telling me this was it. We went to Bosnia on the Sunday, to the tomb area, to Tomaica. There was a grave full of children and young people from our hamlet. And there was one of my sons, Senad, still with his marriage doughnut on. And I knew, even before they took the others to the laboratory, a expression told me it was them, the other five. And yes, afterward, the status of women came: We have your partner, we have your sons, she said.

Dusk falls across the hot smog. The clang of the night muezzin floats in all the regions of the hollow formerly proposed never to be heard here again. The brutal madhouse of those dates and darkness 24 years ago seems unimaginable, but Mrs Tatarevis kindly spirit, and falling tear, make it only too real. It is hard enough to lose a child, I see. But to lose them all? What can I say? What can I do? I cannot jump out of my skin into another. I simply have to do what I can with my own. And they find themselves hidden now. The wait is over.

Additional research by Elsa Vulliamy and Victoria-Amina Dautovi. A longer form of this article was first published by Wellcome on Mosaic and is republished here under a Artistic Commons licence.

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This article was redressed on 6 December 2016. The subheading of the previous version incorrectly stated that the International Commission on Missing Persons was a UN organisation. As the clause regimes, it is an independent body founded in 1996 based on the results of an initiative by President Bill Clinton

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