Empty Bosnian graves baffle UN – Jon Swain, The Sunday Times

Nov. 3, 1996.


The Sunday Times by Jon Swain

Empty Bosnian graves baffle UN

THE onset of winter in Bosnia has halted the gruesome and painstaking task of excavating mass graves until next spring. But as the weary teams of United Nations warcrime investigators pack away their shovels after lifting several hundred bodies from the earth’s cold embrace, a crucial question still needsto be answered about Europe’s largest case of mass murder since the second world war.  Where have all the bodies gone?

In several months of digging at mass graves in the macabre hinterland around Srebrenica, the investigators recovered far fewer bodies than they had expected. Of the thousands of men and boys from the UN safe area who were executed by Bosnian Serbs in July 1995, only a few hundred  less than 10% of the 7,000 Muslims missing  have been dug up.

The empty graves speak volumes about the conspiracy by Bosnian Serbs to cover up the massacre at Srebrenica. Their leadership claims that few bodies have been found because the stories of atrocities there were exaggerated.

The more plausible theory is that bodies have been made to “disappear”. As.long as a year ago, American spy satellites first revealed evidence of tampering at several grave sites which, when later exhumed, yielded fewercorpses than expected..

One such grave site is at Pilica. This is where 1,200 Muslims were shot on July 16 last year, according to testimony by Drazen Erdemovic, a 25yearold Serbian soldier and selfconfessed executioner. However, UN gravediggers found only 200 bodies there.

One explanation for the empty graves is that the bodies may have been dug up and taken to an aluminium factory at Zvornik to be chemically dissolved.

American satellite images from between September 27 and October 2 last.year show unusual activity both at the aluminium plant, which officially was shut down, and at the grave site itself.

The aluminium factory had the capability to dissolve human flesh because it was using sodium hydroxide to convert bauxite ore into aluminium. Sodium hydroxide is highly toxic and, according to Abdulah Sacerbegovic, a Muslim and the plant’s former manager, it easily dissolves human flesh, leaving virtually no trace except a sludge.

Sacerbegovic believes the factory may have been involved in the disposal of bodies in 1992, when Zvornik was being “ethnically cleansed” of Muslims.

The tampering with graves complicates efforts to bring prosecutions at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague against those responsible. It also means that relatives may never find their loved ones’ remains.

Manfred Novak, the UN expert on missing people in Bosnia, is calling for all 10 known mass grave sites around Srebrenica to be excavated next year without fail. “If this whole question of the disappearance is not solved to the satisfaction of the families and the politicians,” he said, “I think it will be a major obstacle to peace.”

During the past year the Nato led peace implementation forces in Bosnia have made only minimal efforts to guard the Srebrenica graves. With their mandate  due to expire at the end of this year, it seems unlikely the sites will be found intact when digging resumes next spring.