What’s in a ‘mass grave’? Linda Ryan, Living Marxism, March 1996

What’s in a ‘mass grave’?

Linda Ryan

Living Marxism, Issue 88, March 1996

As the world’s media gets hoarse speculating about what lies hidden in alleged mass graves across Bosnia, Linda Ryan finds some holes in the story and unearths a hidden agenda

What’s in a ‘mass grave’?

Ever since the small town of Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serbs last summer, the international media has reported that 8000 missing Bosnian Muslims were massacred there. US human rights envoy John Shattuck stated categorically that 7000 were massacred after he visited the alleged mass graves discovered by journalists around Srebrenica. The genocide indictment issued by the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague against the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, claims they were involved in killing 6000 at Srebrenica.

The Srebrenica story is symptomatic of what has happened since the start of the war in Bosnia. There has been a degradation of investigative journalism, with a ghoulish search for bodies substituting for professional rigour. There has been duplicity by journalists and officials about what has happened to people on all sides. There has been a manipulation of death tolls without any evidence to substantiate the numbers. The claims of 8000 slaughtered in Srebrenica have no more credibility than the claims of 250,000 dead in the whole of Bosnia. And there has been an abandonment of the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.


Many people have died on all sides in Bosnia. But there is no way of knowing how many have been killed. Yet instead of circumspection we have had prejudgement of one side‐‐the Serbs. The ‘fact‐finding missions’ and investigative reports look more like the work of the US intelligence services, which have sought to orchestrate hysteria about genocide and Holocausts as part of their propaganda war against the Bosnian Serbs.

Where do the figures for the dead in Srebrenica come from? They are based on misrepresentations of information from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On 13 September 1995, the ICRC released the following statement: ‘After the fall of the enclave, the ICRC received over 10,000 requests for family news from civilians who were transferred to Tuzla in central Bosnia. About 2,000 of these requests were from different family members seeking the same individuals. An in‐depth analysis has shown that the remaining 8,000 requests fall into two categories: about 5,000 concern individuals who apparently fled the enclave before it fell, while the remaining 3,000 relate to persons reportedly arrested by the Bosnian Serb forces.’ (ICRC News, No37) In other words, the maximum number of people who could have fallen foul of the Bosnian Serbs according to the ICRC’s research was 3,000. But an illiterate or innumerate media seized on the figure of 8,000 as the putative death toll.

The ICRC believes that at least 5,000 of the 8,000 escaped to Bosnian government territory without their families being informed. After intensive pressure from the ICRC, the Bosnian Muslim authorities in Sarajevo finally admitted months later that thousands of fighters from Srebrenica had been redeployed in central Bosnia. The government justified its decision not to inform the soldiers’ families or the ICRC on the grounds of operational security. This fact was hardly reported.

So what happened to the 3,000 reportedly ‘arrested’ by the Bosnian Serb Army? This is where the story begins to get murky. Only about 200 men from Srebrenica have been found by the ICRC in Bosnian Serb prisons. There is evidence to suggest that some Bosnian Muslim soldiers and civilians were killed in fratricidal fighting between those who wanted to battle on and those who wanted to surrender or leave. In New Republic in August 1995, Charles Lane, a committed supporter of the Bosnian Muslim cause, reported that there were at least two firefights between Muslims. Journalists reported that bodies of dead soldiers and civilians were strewn in the streets when they entered the town.

However, a few fratricidal firefights cannot account for the 3,000 presumed missing by the ICRC. In February, Bosnian Serb officials in Srebrenica told the new UN human rights envoy, Elizabeth Rehn, that the missing men had been killed in battle. There was intensive shelling and fighting on the front lines and in surrounding villages for days before the town fell. There may also have been more fighting after the fall of the town, as Bosnian Muslim soldiers moved to government territory, and it is likely that some were ambushed and killed. This scenario has been disputed by journalists and international investigators who insist that the missing thousands were slaughtered en masse by the Bosnian Serbs. Let us look at the evidence they have assembled to substantiate these claims of mass murder.

The first evidence of large‐scale killings cited by journalists and human rights investigators came from the refugees who arrived in Tuzla. In the many media and official reports about the alleged massacres in Srebrenica, however, testimonies based on hearsay and double hearsay outnumber the scant eyewitness accounts many times over. This has not prevented rumours being accepted as hard evidence by international journalists and investigators.

Contradictory stories

The international war crimes tribunal in the Hague is also counting on small numbers of witness testimonies to carry the indictments against Bosnian Serb leaders accused of genocide in Srebrenica. One survivor, Hakija Huseinovic, told investigators that, on 13 July 1995, 2,000 men trying to escape from Srebrenica were caught by the Bosnian Serbs, crammed into a warehouse in the village of Kravica and killed with grenades and machine guns fired through doors and windows. Husejnovic said he survived by playing dead and covering himself with bodies. His story contradicts that of another witness who claimed that 2,000 men surrendered in the village of Kravica and were taken by truck at night to an outdoor location, thought to be near Zvornik (quite a distance from Kravica), lined up and shot by Bosnian Serb soldiers. The witness said he pretended to be dead and then escaped. It is impossible for both of these stories to be true.

The second source of evidence cited in support of the claims of mass killings is the US intelligence services, which provided satellite photographs, purporting to identify a mass grave near Srebrenica, which were printed around the world (see below). They are supposed to show a football field at Nova Kasaba which was used as a collection point for Bosnian Muslim prisoners of war. But they could have been taken over any field, anywhere, any time. There is not a single satellite photograph showing hard evidence of a massacre near Srebrenica. Claims by the US intelligence services to be in possession of damning tapes of intercepted telephone calls about Srebrenica between Serbian officials are unfounded. John Shattuck admitted in an interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel that there is no evidence that tapes exist.

These spy stories are the stuff of Cold War propaganda once scorned by journalists. But today they seem to be accepted on the nod. Few journalists even thought to question the timing of the release of the pictures‐‐in August, a month after the fall of Srebrenica, but within days of the expulsion by the Croats of 200,000 Serbs from Krajina. It looked like a classic diversionary tactic by the US authorities, which had given full backing to a mass ‘ethnic cleansing’ operation by the Croats. In all the excitement about the alleged mass graves in Srebrenica everybody forgot about what had just happened in Krajina.

The eager media consumption of the CIA photographs turned the search for ‘mass graves’ into a self‐fulfilling prophecy. Journalists scurried to eastern Bosnia in search of bodies. In August 1995, teams from CNN, CBS, BBC, France 2, TG 1 (Italy), TV Netherland and others streamed in. They found little. Many crews did not even bother to search out the site shown on the CIA satellite photograph, because it had generally been agreed in media circles that it was not a mass grave. This revelation did not grab the headlines like the original story. Indeed, it was not deemed worthy of mention. A bandwagon effect had been created. More journalists set off in search of ‘the evidence’.

Find the corpse

By mid‐February this year, journalists led by David Rohde of the American Christian Science Monitor and Julian Borger of the Guardian claimed to have discovered five mass graves linked to the Srebrenica killings. The only physical evidence they had come up with was some bones and clothing. For Borger, that was enough; reporting that he had found some rotting body parts, he endorsed claims by US war crimes investigators that Kravica ‘is the site of one of the worst atrocities in Europe since the Holocaust’ (Guardian, 22 January 1996). It seems that any patch of ground in Bosnia where earth has been moved can qualify as a mass grave, and any evidence of death in the war‐zone can be put alongside the Holocaust.

Some might think that bodies would come in handy as evidence when charges of genocide are being levelled. There must be tens of thousands buried all over Bosnia. Yet not one had been uncovered at the alleged ‘mass graves’ near Srebrenica at the time of writing. All sorts of excuses were given for the lack of bodies‐‐they had been covered by snow, dismembered by machines, destroyed by chemicals and moved elsewhere by the Bosnian Serbs. It almost seems like nobody wants to dig around in case they discover the ‘mass graves’ are empty. This is what happened when British divers went into the flooded mine at Ljubija, in north‐west Bosnia, alleged to hold the bodies of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims and Croats. They found nothing.

There is no hard evidence that 3,000, let alone 8,000, Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica. The Dutch troops who were based in the area at the time testified to the war crimes tribunal that they saw no evidence of mass killings. The first official report into the Srebrenica events, the last written by the UN human rights envoy, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, before he resigned, provided no conclusive evidence. The latest investigation by his successor, Elizabeth Rehn, turned up no new evidence. The troupe of foreign journalists have discovered nothing more. Officials examining the ‘mass graves’ have yet to find one body. Not a single photograph of a ‘mass grave’ taken with a terrestrial camera has been forthcoming.

Reasonable doubt

The war in eastern Bosnia was brutal. In 1992‐93, more than 1,000 Serbs from the villages around Srebrenica were killed by Bosnian Muslim fighters. These events were the subject of an award‐winning film, The Unforgiving, by Clive Gordon. They have been well‐documented and the graves are there for all to see in Bratunac. So there is good reason to think that local Serbs may have sought vengeance after the fall of Srebrenica. But this is still surmise and conjecture. As long as there is no hard evidence, there must be doubt about whether or not Bosnian Muslim soldiers were massacred.

Yet on 7 February 1996, a senior ICRC official, Jean de Courten, stated that, after five months of silence from the Bosnian Serb authorities in face of repeated requests for information, he believed the 3,000 had been killed. Coming from the one international organisation which has remained neutral throughout the war in Bosnia, this statement carries more weight than the media’s loose talk. What made the ICRC take the unprecedented step of accusing one side of conducting a massacre?

Was it because the ICRC had obtained conclusive evidence of a massacre? Or was it because the ICRC had its arm twisted at a time when the USA is turning the hunt for war criminals into a crusade? A climate of hysteria has been created around the mass grave stories that recently resulted in the ICRC offices in Tuzla being wrecked by refugees from Srebrenica. This climate has been created by the USA with the help of the media. Allegations of mass killings in Srebrenica are big news because the USA has an axe to grind on the subject of war crimes.

American interests

Since the start of the year Washington has been making all the running on the war crimes issue‐‐sending troops to escort war crimes investigators, pushing Nato forces to play a role hunting down alleged war criminals. And it has piled pressure on Serbia to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal or face perpetual ostracism. The US secretary of state, Warren Christopher, told Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in February that Belgrade would get no ambassador, no financial aid, no recognition and no permanent lifting of sanctions unless it handed over suspected war criminals. This is not a noble crusade by Washington, but a self‐serving attempt to occupy the moral high ground in international affairs. Before they take it at face value, journalists would do well to consider the implications.

They might learn the lessons of Pakracka Poliana, an alleged mass grave in Western Slavonia which was said to contain the bodies of 1,700 Serbs. The figure of 1,700 came from a UN officer who guessed that there were 17 graves in the area, each with approximately 100 people. He did not see the graves, but observed evidence of digging. The official investigation found 19 bodies in nine small graves. The ‘mass graves’ were just military trenches. The report by the UN war crimes tribunal Commission of Experts concluded that on‐site investigations are absolutely necessary to confirm the validity of allegations. ‘Some groups have expressed their displeasure at the investigation establishing that people in those numbers are not buried there. Presumably for propaganda purposes 1,700 is a more useful number than 19.’

Why have war crimes investigators not shown the same circumspection before jumping to conclusions about ‘mass graves’ in eastern Bosnia? Surely not because the bodies in question are said to be those of Muslims rather than Serbs; or because the USA finds 8,000 ‘~ a more useful number for propaganda purposes than 800.

Additional information from Bill Hawk