bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
Britain forgets Bosnia's nameless dead
by Daniel McGrory

Britain forgets Bosnia's nameless dead

Daniel McGrory

Forgotten by the world, 4,000 victims of a massacre in Bosnia lie stacked in a warehouse like discarded refuse.

Most are just skeletons in clothes, packed inside muddied body bags that are piled from floor to ceiling in this white prefabricated shed beside a busy main road.

None has a name, just a number scrawled in blue felt tip pen on each bag. Nobody knows who they are because governments, including Britain's, are reluctant to spend money on funding a new scientific investigation to discover the identities of those killed in the biggest mass murder in Europe since the Nazis.

They were unearthed from mass graves hidden in forests and caves around eastern Bosnia, and are believed to be just half of those murdered in what was supposed to be a United Nations safe haven at Srebrenica in July 1995. About 8,000 boys and men were executed in five days.

The House of Death

The knot of bereaved families who escaped and who regularly gather outside the warehouse they call ‘The House of Death’ asks why the West talks about prosecuting war criminals and yet does not seem bothered about finding out who was murdered.

Gordon Bacon, a former murder squad detective in Durham and head of this investigation, walks along row after row of nameless victims heaped on stainless steel trays. ‘If our ministers spent five minutes inside this room and saw this perhaps they would do more to help,’ he said.

Britain was among those who helped to set up the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in 1996. Yet when Whitehall was asked last month to donate money, the Foreign Office sent a cheque for just Pounds 10,000 to solve the world's biggest forensic puzzle. America has sent Pounds 7 million, the Dutch - whose troops abandoned Srebrenica to its fate - offered Pounds 3 million. Even Iceland has given three times as much as Britain.

Dr Rifat Kesetovic said that the money would have produced results because of new DNA techniques being perfected at two new laboratories in Bosnia. Scientists could map the human gene and, by the same means, map genocide.

The forensic pathologist demonstrated how a one-inch sample cut from a thigh bone of each victim could be instantly matched against blood samples from family members who are missing loved ones from Bosnia's war. Dr Kesetovic said that there were anything from 25,000 to 30,000 people still missing.

While a handful of teams search for where they are buried, other staff are trying to track down the next of kin, around 100,000 of them, to take a pin-prick of blood. Some who need to be traced are refugees living abroad.

‘I know many people are sick of hearing about Bosnia and feel they have given enough money,’ Dr Kesetovic said. ‘But unless the grieving - Serb, Croat and Bosnian - are allowed to recover their loved ones, there will be no peace or reconciliation here.’

His office wall is plastered with charts listing details of the victims already stored at the Podrinje Identification Project. There are filing cabinets stuffed full of meticulously kept records of each victim, with colour photographs of where they were found, the clothes they were wearing and any identifying marks that might narrow their search.

There is just one police officer among his small team working in a couple of cluttered offices in the northern industrial town of Tuzla.

Awaiting identification

Besides the warehouse, there is also a disused salt mine where hundreds more body bags are packed on to wooden shelves, waiting for identification. He unzips one bag at random and points to how the bones show this was a boy no more than 14 or 15 years old. You do not need to be a pathologist to realise how he died as the doctor threads his finger through the two bullet holes in the skull.

Until now scientists have had to piece together the bones on a metal table, like a gruesome jigsaw, and work out if there was something distinctive, such as old fractures, that might give a clue as to who it was.

It was painfully slow so Dr Kesetovic's team has also produced a book it shows to families: four hundred pages of colour photographs of scraps of clothes or the few personal items that might have been found. There are rusted car keys, a shaving razor, leather belts, an assortment of shoes and boots, a few pocket watches and a pair of spectacles held together by black masking tape. Most poignant of all are the torn, muddy and faded photographs.

There is one of a young man dancing with a girl in a green dress at what is obviously a wedding party. In another, a proud father balances a child on his knee. There is a Christmas tree in the corner.

For all their efforts in four years, the team has identified only 79 people. Mr Bacon, 57, is trying to convince governments that the new technology they have perfected in ICMP's laboratories means that with a promise of six million pounds - a fraction of what is poured into this region every month in some questionable aid projects - scientists are sure that they can find and identify 80 per cent of Bosnia's missing victims in the next seven years.

Dr Robert Ashford, 32, a forensic anthropologist from Chelmsford, Essex, is among the handful of volunteers on the project. He said: ‘I'm surprised Britain hasn't given more (to) something that will guarantee results.’

The problem the scientists face is that more bodies are found every day. Hundreds of others are stored in disused factories in other towns. Survivors, and sometimes those responsible for the murders, beg for protection before they will identify another mass grave.

Three hours' drive from the warehouse in Tuzla, volunteers are working 30 yards down in a limestone cave hidden in a thick forest near the town of Sokolac.

At this cave in Paklenik, on an April morning in 1992, 53 men faced their execution. Their hands were tied behind their backs with barbed wire. In groups of five they were marched to the mouth of the cave and shot at point-blank range. One man - the only survivor - tried to run and tripped as automatic gunfire ricocheted around him. The Serbs were sure they had shot him. Until now this man has been too scared to lead inspectors to what could turn out to be one of the biggest mass graves in this country.

In ten days of digging, the scientists have already uncovered more than 50 bodies. Small yellow flags mark the position of each skull. Beneath them and in crevices they can see the remains of more victims.  Scrabbling on her hands and knees, Dr Eva Klonowski shows how one man, his elbow shattered by a bullet and his hands still tied, somehow managed to crawl 50 yards to a ledge where he must have bled to death in the darkness. ‘This is a slaughterhouse and whatever your politics or what you think of the Balkans, surely we have a duty in the name of humanity to find out who these people are,’ she says.

The investigators get no help locally. Farmers who live only a few hundred yards away express astonishment at the discovery of the cave.

Armed Italian troops from the international force stand guard around the mouth of the cave in case the perpetrators of this crime make another attempt to blow up the narrow entrance.

Scarce resources

Nobody wants even to guess how many bodies they will find or how long it will take to excavate this area. Until they finish in the cave at Paklenik the team cannot move on to another burial site about a mile away. Last month a Serb man who was dying of cancer called his son to his bedside. In a rasping voice he told the boy that his conscience would not let him die without admitting to how he was part of an execution team who shot dead 55 men and buried them in a field. He told the boy to lead investigators to the grave but they are careful to give no clue as to the precise location.

Dr Klonowski said: ‘If we do, someone will try to move them even now. God knows when we will get there.’

At ICMP's new head office in Sarajevo, Mr Bacon listens to families from all sides of this conflict, pleading for him to help to end their misery.

Sadik Selimovic, 32, said he lost 11 members of his family, including his father and his three brothers at Srebrenica. ‘My mother is an old woman and all she asks is to bury her sons and her husband,’ he said.

Later, Mr Selimovic and others on the committee of Missing Families plan to meet the American Senator Bob Dole, the chairman of ICMP, who will open the new DNA bone laboratory in Sarajevo and use his visit to encourage Western governments to help speed up the identification process with further donations.

His fellow commissioners, such as Michael Portillo, emphasise that this is not about party politics, just honouring commitments made to Bosnia. Mr Portillo will ask Whitehall for more money this week.

A Foreign Office spokesman said that it, ‘supports and highly values the Institute's excellent work and we will continue to do what we can from our limited resources’.

Mr Selimovic is unimpressed. ‘Britain was among those who sent troops here to protect us in safe havens,’ he said. ‘If they couldn't help when our fathers, sons and brothers were alive, then for pity's sake, the least they can do is help us now.’

This article appeared in The Times (London), 28 August 2000


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