DAVID ROHDEBattle of Srebrenica now over the truth
July 9, 2000
FOR two years, thousands of bodies packed in white plastic bags have been awaiting burial in central Bosnia, in a limbo that could stand as a symbol of the uncertain fate of Bosnia itself -- and much else in the Balkans.
Two thousand of the bags sat for most of those two years in two tunnels behind the municipal morgue in Tuzla. Rats were allowed to feast on bodies, according to aid workers.
After a year and a half of planning, the bodies from the tunnels and other makeshift morgues -- there are 4,700 bags in all that contain either bodies or body parts -- were finally moved to a newly built warehouse in April. Now a seven-year, $10 million project is under way to come up with an exact total of bodies and and identify the remains, but it needs more money.
The bags contain bodies collected over the last five years from mass graves and forests around the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. That was the site of the worst single atrocity of the Bosnian war, a series of ambushes and mass executions carried out by Bosnian Serb soldiers that left 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men missing.
Finding, unearthing and storing the bodies has proved a tortuous process that exemplifies the problems that have slowed peace efforts in Bosnia -- corrupt local officials, a limited international commitment and internecine political battles. And where to bury the corpses has now become one more thorny issue for the international mission in Bosnia to grapple with as it tries to reconstruct a divided country without fully governing it.
The problem with the bodies is that they are keys to how history will be told. And all sides in the skirmishes that still haunt the former Yugoslavia understand how important controlling history is when it comes to controlling power.
For that reason, relatives of the missing have been campaigning to finally begin building a memorial and interring the bodies in individual graves in a field in the village of Potocari, near Srebrenica, on this Tuesday, the fifth anniversary of the killings. They want local Serbs to have to drive by tombstones every day -- row after row of tombstones. Only then, they say, will Serbs be forced to reckon with the blood on their soldiers' hands.
"The Serbs must accept that this genocide happened," said Hasan Nuhanovic, a survivor whose mother, father and brother are among the missing. "This grandiose memorial should be a reminder," he said by telephone. "If they can't accept that, I don't see how we can live with them again."
Local Serb leaders, not surprisingly, have a counter-offer: to bury the corpses on a hillside farther from view. Serb war veterans go even farther, flatly denying that any killings took place and warning of violence at a ceremony Muslim survivors plan to hold on Tuesday.
The unresolved fate of the bodies also points to the conflicted nature of the Western mission in Bosnia. On one hand, war crimes investigators try to exhume as many bodies and prosecute as many war crimes suspects as possible. On the other, Western diplomats and American military officials try to avoid creating situations that could prompt violence and American casualties.
In that uncertain atmosphere, the bodies have become part of a broader propaganda battle, being waged across the former Yugoslavia, Europe and the United States. Aided by the Internet, a revisionist interpretation of the war has begun to radiate out from Belgrade; some American and European leftists, who a year ago took exception to NATO's bombing of Kosovo, are now backing Serb nationalist claims that Western governments and journalists exaggerated Serb war crimes not only in Kosovo but in Bosnia as well.
In the case of Srebrenica, the slow pace of efforts to recover and count bodies has created an opening for denials of what occurred five years ago. After Bosnian Muslims turned their heavy weapons over to United Nations peacekeepers in exchange for having Srebrenica declared a protected "safe area" in 1993, Dutch peacekeepers and United Nations commanders did little to protect the town when Bosnian Serb forces attacked in 1995.
More than 7,000 men were reported missing to the International Red Cross after the fall of the town. But because of a lack of money, bureaucratic delays and a huge Serb effort to hide bodies by moving and reburying them, only half of the known graves around the town have yet been exhumed. To date, 1,866 bodies have been recovered from mass graves, according to tribunal investigators.
Thirty remaining mass graves, believed to hold as many as 2,000 bodies, are to be exhumed by the end of 2001. But tribunal investigators fear that intermittent funding could dry up again and that a historic opportunity will be lost.
Western diplomats agree that long-term reconciliation in Bosnia hinges on an acceptance by average people that nationalists committed crimes in their name, followed by a rejection of the nationalists. They point to elections last spring that showed small gains by moderates as a sign of progress. But they warn that forcing Serbs to accept memorials now will not work, and could increase support for nationalists.
"You have to keep the issue alive but not expect that people will admit to it immediately," said Alexandra Stiglmeyer, spokesman for the international mission in Bosnia.
Ms. Stiglmeyer said the international community was committed to building a memorial in Srebrenica, but the fifth anniversary was not the time. Emotions are running high, she said, and nationalists on both sides may look to provoke violence that could aid them in national elections in November.
Mr. Nuhanovic scoffed at that explanation and said immediately building a memorial with "thousands of graves shining in the sun" is the only way to ensure that Serbs, the world and future generations face what happened in Srebrenica.
He said the latest promises from international officials echo past assurances -- promises that led to 7,000 people going missing, Serb nationalists flatly denying the killings and rats being allowed to gnaw on the corpses of men the world had vowed to protect.