Forensic experts risk lives for Bosnia justice
A rocky ravine has become the latest place that experts are looking to find the remains of hundreds of Muslims and Croats massacred in the Bosnian War.The idyllic mountains surrounding this deep abyss belie the horrifying task of salvaging evidence of one of the most gruesome episodes of Bosnia's war.
This job goes to forensic experts backed up by elite police who must descend a rock face about 100 storeys high to scour a ravine for remains of more than 200 Muslim and Croat civilians who were lined up on a cliff top and killed by Serbs.
The descent is not the only danger.
Bombs were thrown at the victims in an attempt to make sure nobody survived to tell the story of the 1992 massacre. This has slowed progress in the search, as areas around the cliff first have to be combed for explosives.
"As you go down trying to think about dangers -- falling stones, bombs, snakes -- you cannot help imagining how those people felt knowing they were going to die here,” said Amor Masovic of the Missing Persons Commission. “You worry that you will probably have very little to give to their families."
Three full skeletons were found halfway up the cliff in one heart-rending discovery. Search teams said that may mean they survived the fall and tried to claw their way back up before dying.
But most finds have been tooth and bone fragments covered by rocks, garbage and dead animals apparently hurled into the gorge by Serbs from a nearby village.
"We have already collected 102 bags of fragmented remains which we hope will account for at least 51 people," Masovic said. The bags will have to be carried up the 300-metre (990-foot) incline once the job is done.
Under the hot, midday sun, bereaved relatives gather on the narrow mountain road above the ravine, braving the rising stench of decomposing animals and hoping for any shred of evidence to finally bury their dead.
The massacre site only came to light in July in a confession by one of the killers, Damir Ivankovic, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison by the Court of Bosnia and Hercegovina, the tribunal that handles war crimes not sent to the UN court in The Hague.
"My sister died from sorrow,” a teary Hajar Dervic said. “She did not live long enough to see this but I want to. I want the whole world to see it. I want to know why, why are our children here?"
Dervic's son, her two nephews and two cousins were among those killed at the Koricanske Stjene ravine on August 21, 1992.
They were part of a group forced out of a convoy transporting several hundred civilians whom Serbs deported from the northwestern town of Prijedor. They were then ordered to line up atop the cliff and killed.
Others in the convoy were taken to Travnik, a nearby town then under the control of Bosnian government forces, where they joined previously deported family members.
Most of those killed were taken that morning from Trnopolje, one of several notorious Serb-run detention camps near Prijedor, and told they were going for a prisoner exchange.
They were between 16 and 88 years old.
"They were exchanged for rocks,” Zumra Zaimovic said, struggling to contain her emotions. “Why? My son was only 33 years old. I wish they would find at least one small bone so I could bury it with the socks and pack of cigarettes I prepared for him, hoping he would join me in Travnik."
Holding onto hope
Forensic experts have urged families not to hold out too much hope that something will be retrieved for burial.
In 2003, some remains were found by experts at another site about 200 metres down the road. It was located thanks to testimony from only a dozen men who survived by falling or jumping down the cliff when the shooting started.
"There, too, it was mostly tooth and bone fragments,” Masovic said. “We recently identified 37 people found there, but the remains were so small that nothing has remained after (the pieces were used for) DNA testing."
Masovic said experts were only left with tiny shreds of evidence as the perpetrators attempted to cover up the crime by removing the bodies and larger bones and skulls.
In his court case, Ivankovic reached a plea bargain with prosecutors and agreed to testify against seven other men still on trial for their roles in the massacre.
The Bosnian public reacts with outrage to such deals but some, like Nadzad Besic, concede it may be the only way to establish the truth about some episodes in the 1992-95 war.
"I just heard that my older brother's driver's license was found down there," said Nadzad Besic, struggling to keep his composure. "We must find the remains and bury them and truth must finally be acknowledged ... if we want our children to have a better future, the same future like other children in Europe.”