The remains of some 1,000 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacres are believed to still lie in hidden graves after their bodies were reburied again and again in attempts to conceal the killings.
On July 11, on the 24th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Nura Begovic will bury the only part of her brother Adil Suljic’s body that has been found so far, 24 years after he was killed.
“Of his body, only one hand has been found,” Begovic said.
Soljic, who died at the age of 39, will be interred at the Srebrenica Memorial Centre in Potocari, where the victims of the 1995 massacres by Bosnian Serb forces are laid to rest.
Begovic said that she and Soljic’s mother died in 2009 without seeing the discovery of her son’s bones. A Seiko watch, his tracksuit and half a boot were found next to the bones.
The remains of around 1,000 genocide victims still lie in graves on the outskirts of Srebrenica, the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina believes.
Their bodies were buried, then dug up again and transferred by trucks and mechanical diggers to several ‘secondary’ and even ‘tertiary’ mass graves, each one further away that where they were originally buried.
Missing Persons Institute investigator Sadik Selimovic, a large, grey-haired man who lost several family members in the genocide, has spent years searching for, and finding, these victims’ remains, as the quest to identify all of those who died in the 1995 massacres continues.
Driving in his SUV, Selimovic traverses the narrow and overgrown paths around the villages in the Srebrenica area, where he has already found several secondary and tertiary graves.
A number of bodies were brought to these secondary or tertiary sites from a primary mass grave at Glogova, which is located by the road between Kravica and Bratunac. More than 1,200 people were shot dead by Bosnian Serb forces in a mass execution in a hangar at the Agricultural Cooperative in Kravica in July 1995.
Selimovic explained that the Hague Tribunal excavated the grave in Glogova in 1999, 2000 and 2001, but bodies were also found after that, so he believes that more human remains could be found in that area.
“The Hague Tribunal sent us information on what they had done. We are carrying out analyses and assessments, so I think we will go back to that locality and work,” he said.
The Glogova mass grave was found with help of satellite images taken by the US, Selimovic explained. Bodies were transported from there to at least 16 reburial locations that have been discovered do far.
Systematic attempts to hide bodies
The Hague Tribunal, the Bosnian state court and the judiciaries of Serbia and Croatia have so far sentenced a total of 47 people to more than 700 years in prison, plus four life sentences, for genocide and other crimes committed after the fall of Srebrenica.
The verdicts have established that, starting on July 13, 1995, more than 7,000 Bosniaks were detained and executed at various locations. The first major massacre took place in Kravica, which was followed by mass killings in Rocevic, Kozluk, Pilica and Branjevo.
According to the verdicts, after the murders, the bodies were placed in primary mass graves, an operation in which the Engineering Unit of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Zvornik Brigade participated.
The operation to conceal the crimes continued between August 1 and November 1, 1995. The Hague Tribunal determined that “an organised and comprehensive effort was made to hide the executions by exhuming the bodies from primary mass graves and reburying them in secondary graves”.
Standing at the Glogova grave site, where the remains of 403 people have been found, Selimovic explained that bodies were also transported from here to Zeleni Jadar, Jasenova, Zalazje, Pusmulici and Bljeceva in November and December 1995.
Taking the bodies from Glogova, the trucks had to pass through Bratunac and Srebrenica and then drive for dozens of kilometres to Zeleni Jadar, more than 50 kilometres away from Kravica.
“Zeleni Jadar is a secondary mass grave, where bodies exhumed from the primary mass grave at Glogova were buried. On the road towards Jasenova, towards Ljeskovik, there are five more mass graves that we have exhumed. All of them originate from the primary grave in Glogova, which shows that they did it in a systematic and organised manner,” Selimovic said.
At the Glogova site, which is now overgrown with scrub, Selimovic explained that a white mixture of ground stone was found next to the bodies. On the basis of this finding and witness testimonies, investigators determined that bodies from the primary mass grave were temporarily placed in a nearby pre-war stone factory prior to being relocated to the secondary mass grave.
“When they loaded them onto trucks again, they took that [white] material and it was visible. In each of the graves containing bodies transferred from Glogova, at least a piece of something originating from Kravica was found. On the basis of that, we have concluded that those are relocated secondary graves,” Selimovic said.
Some of the bodies were relocated from Zeleni Jadar after the flooding of a stream uncovered a part of the grave and moved to a pre-war dump site in Zalazje. In order to get to Zalazje from Zeleni Jadar, the decaying corpses had to be transported through the centre of Srebrenica.
“When they relocated the primary grave with mechanical diggers, the bodies were decomposing. A part of one body would be loaded onto one truck and another part onto another truck. Those trucks did not go to the same location, the same grave. Trust me, in 60 or 70 per cent of the cases, [parts of] bodies were found at two or three locations in the relocated graves,” Selimovic said.
“This could not have been done by hand… This required major mechanisation – digging, burying, bringing the trucks in; that was [how it was done]. That is one of the most logical explanations,” he said.
‘I will never stop searching’
While BIRN was talking to Selimovic at the tertiary mass grave in Zalazje, which is also now overgrown, the conversation was interrupted by a passer-by who could get his car down the narrow road because of a parked vehicle.
Selimovic approached him and asked him if he could help find the location of another mass grave for which he was searching. Later on, he explained that this local man could perhaps have heard where the grave was located.
The investigator, who has searched for victims’ graves for more than 21 years, said he was concerned that it is now getting harder and harder to get information about the remaining undiscovered burial sites.
“I cannot believe, with what I have seen working as an investigator, that so many people took part in this, but so few are ready to say where the graves are,” he said.
“Come on, say where those people were buried, so they can be handed over to their families and buried,” he urged.
He went on to explain that the human remains found in some of the secondary and tertiary mass graves were better preserved than those in primary mass graves.
“It all depends on the earth, the acidity and composition of the soil. In Glogova, the acidity is such that bones simply melted. In some cases, when they wanted to destroy bodies, they poured lime and acid over them,” he said.
“The worst conditions I have seen was in a grave at Jalovista dam at the Sase mine, which I found two years ago. There was lead and zinc waste at that site… I found complete bodies, but they were dissolved with acid. Those remains were in the worst condition I have ever seen,” he added.
Meanwhile the relatives of Srebrenica victims whose loved ones have not yet been found still hope that they will find at least a part of their remains so they can finally bury them.
“I live for the day when at least a little finger is found, so he can have his grave. If he does not have a grave, people will say he never existed,” said Hajra Catic, who has been searching for her son Nihad Catic’s remains for 24 years.
Selimovic also said he would like to see the victims’ relatives given the satisfaction of a decent burial.
“I hope that, while I am still in a good mental and physical condition, we shall be able to satisfy all those families, irrespective of their ethnicity. We, as the [Missing Persons] Institute, are obliged to search for everyone, and we will find them,” he said.
For Selimovic, there is also a deeply personal element to the ongoing search. While looking for hidden mass graves, he has also been looking for his own relatives’ remains.
He lost three brothers, his father, nephew, two brothers-in-law and his father-in-law in the genocide.
“No matter how long this process lasts, and some would like to see it over now, I will continue, and I will go on working on it even after I have retired,” he vowed.