ŠEKOVICI, BOSNIA–With the The Hague conviction today of Ratko Mladic, the “Butcher of Bosnia”, I was reminded what genocide smells like: syrupy rotten decay. Over a decade ago I witnessed firsthand the ramifications of what Mladic and his henchmen did during the war in Bosnia. It was 2006 and Andrew, my photographer who had been assigned to shoot for my Newsweek story about the changing face of Bosnia, had heard the night before about the exhumation of about 35 men from a primary grave.
So we escaped our dodgy Tuzla hotel early that morning with our translator, Aida, and met several local and international staff members of the International Commission on Missing Persons on the side of a field on the border between the Republika Srpska and the Federation (Bosnia is still divided into two entities, created by ethnic cleansing during the war years). Once we hit the RS border, we had a police escort all the way through the winding country roads to the rubbish dump—until the day before covered over with tires, plastic wrappers and the garbage of locals who presumably had an inkling of what lay beneath.
Pulling back the white plastic tarp, the scent of the long-since departed swirled and enveloped me when we crowded around the mass grave. Below, encased for almost 11 years in muddy clay, was a cornucopia of body parts. Jaws separated from skulls. Femurs next to ribcages. Fingers forever clenched in fear—a last movement of life, bracing for eternity. I was entranced by the death that surrounded me.
There was not much color in the grave below—about six feet wide and 20 feet long—except muddy brown. But as I surveyed the edge of the grave I saw a speck of green and blue below. To my far right there is a skeleton that stuck out from the horrific crowd of remains. Wearing a bright green— possibly corduroy— long-sleeve shirt and dark jeans, it was the preserved remains of what I could decipher must have been a tall man. Here was a man in his entirety, not a scattered smattering of random body parts—his body perfectly intact, save that his skull that had been placed on the back of his shirt by the forensic anthropologists who were quietly digging around him. On the right side of his skull was a small, precise hole. He was wearing bright red socks.
“Can I come down, get a bit closer,” I asked one of the women who was wearing glasses, her hair held back in a ponytail. “Yeah, but be careful where you step,” she said, wearing a white jumpsuit with ICMP written across the back. I bent down, straining to see a bit more. There was a copper wire at the wrist of his green shirt and jagged bones sticking out. Tied to the shirtsleeves were two white plastic bags. “What is in the plastic bags,” I asked. “They are his hands so that when we take the body out they do not come off and get mixed up,” she told me unemotionally. His boots were still laced up. And then she snapped off the ankles from the rest of the skeleton, separating them forever from his body. Those, too, went into a tagged bag. Snap, crackle and a heinous pop.
The scientists kept digging—helpers removing body bag after body bag—and I kept staring. I asked the prosecutor from Tuzla what he suspected had happened. “Well, they may have been killed here in front of the grave,” he said, his joyful preppy orange jumper incongruous to the scene we were witnessing. “Or they could have been shot in the warehouse we passed up the road and then buried here.”
It looked like any non-descript village by Bosnian standards— so much of the post-war landscape is still littered with homes ripped open with gaping wounds from shells, factories and staircases that lead to nowhere, their landings and second floors long-distant memories. “So where did the men probably come from? How did they end up here,” I asked, looking at what had for years been used as a rubbish tip deep in the woods of RS. “Probably Srebrenica,” he said. To them, this was yet another day at work. For me, it was life-changing.
What had been unearthed and brought to the surface here in Sekovici were remains from a primary grave—in other words, once the dirt and trash had been put on top of the grave after the executions, the men’s bodies were allowed to decompose in peace. Unlike many of their friends, brothers, sons, fathers, grandfathers, nephews and uncles who tried escaping through the woods when the UN “safe area” fell to the Bosnian Serb army in early July and were killed, buried, and then their skeletal remains moved and commingled when the guilty parties were worried they would be found out by the international community, these men and boys had been left undisturbed for for all these years. The clay earth had preserved many of their remains and for the ICMP the identification of these victims would, with the use of DNA, be a cakewalk compared to graves where boys’ pelvises lay next to old men’s shoulder bones.
I watched as they took out the man with the green shirt and dark blue jeans. He lay next to someone with red tracksuit bottoms. Were they friends? “Who were you,” I wondered as we walked to Andrew’s Land Rover. “That was the best-preserved grave I have ever seen,” Andrew said as we dialed our contacts on his satellite phone to tell them we would be late. We did not talk for a long time.
That night and many nights after, I thought about him. Who was missing him? Was he from Srebrenica or was he a refugee from another Bosniak village that had been ethnically cleansed? Had he tried escaping through the woods with the male members of his family or had he gone to the Dutch base in Potocari seeking protection and refuge from the Bosnian Serb army only to be separated from his wife and children and led away on a bus? What had he thought of when he was captured? Did he have anything in his pocket—keys, photographs, a wisp of his lover’s hair—that stayed pressed to his heart when he was shot? Where was his family now?
I was strangely connected to this man without a name. I had seen him lifted from his muddy home and that meant I was now a part of his story too. There were so many questions that may forever go unanswered. But at least there were a few things that I already knew— I knew that this place, Sekovici, was the last place on earth where you would want your life to end. I knew the kinds of songs the birds were singing as the shots rang out under the shaded trees. I knew of the short hilly walk from the road to the dump site. I knew of his green shirt. I knew of his finger bones in white plastic bags.
Months later, with the help of a friend who worked for the ICMP, I found out his name–Abid. I tracked down his daughter, Azra, who was now a radio DJ living near Tuzla. I spent an afternoon in a cafe with her and she told me about her dad: How he was a carpenter, was the best chess player in all of Srebrenica (they lived nearby but were rounded up and put into the enclave during the war) and how he loved the color red (the color of his socks).
His daughter told me also about the night he fled into the woods—how her mother had packed him some food, whatever she could scrape together–that included an impossible-to-find apple. When her mother left the room and his daughter was hugging him goodbye, he slipped the apple into her pocket. “I know how you love them,” he told her with a kiss. And she never saw her father again.
Later we went back to her flat–she told me about how her family had struggled after the war and how she was heartbroken when the call came from the local prosecutors to say they had found her father’s body. “I had lived on hope all those years and it was over for me,” she told me. She said she was her father’s favorite and showed me a picture of her dad, who was handsome. Azra also showed me other photos as we chatted: pictures of her with soldiers during the war, a cousin’s wedding and of a concert she attended of a popular Serbian folk singer.
“She is my favorite singer,” she told me smiling. “But how can you like her–she is a Serb and Serbs killed your dad,” questioned Aida, who since the trip had become a good friend and we had spent a few occasions meeting Srebrenica widows. “Because my father always told me never to hate,” she said stoically. “You can dislike someone but you should never hate a whole group of people for the mistakes of a few.” The wise words of a dead man silenced me. I hope that today— with Ratko Mladic’s sentencing — Azra can finally get some peace.
- First photo, special courtesy Ron Haviv, VII 2) ICMP scientists exhuming bodies, Andrew Testa