Investigating Mass Murder

By Eric Stover

Forensic scientists exhuming mass graves of Bosnian Serbs.

During the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Eric Stover investigated numerous mass killings for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He later returned to the Balkans with photographer Gilles Peress to document the work of the forensic teams he had originally organized. In these recollections, he describes the difficult and emotional work at hand.

Read an excerpt from Stover's book,The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar.

During the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Eric Stover investigated numerous mass killings for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He later returned to the Balkans with photographer Gilles Peress to document the work of the forensic teams he had originally organized. In these recollections, he describes the difficult and emotional work at hand.

During the Balkan wars, I frequently accompanied teams of forensic scientists to Bosnia and Croatia on behalf of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague to investigate reports of mass killings. Invariably, our investigations would end at a mass grave.

No mass graves investigation was more demanding than the massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of 7,000 men and boys outside of the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in July 2005. A year later, The Hague Tribunal, with the assistance of Physicians for Human Rights, shuttled more than 90 scientists into and out of the region in what soon developed into the largest international forensic investigation of war crimes -- or possibly of any crime -- in history.

It was grim work and, at times, dangerous. One shot from a sniper’s rifle or an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) lobbed down from the hills could bring the whole operation to a screeching halt.

At about 9 a.m. each morning, U.N. vans and trucks would pull up at any one of the graves under investigation, disgorging scientists and Tribunal investigators. After donning overalls and rubber boots, the archaeologists would remove the tarps that had been draped over the bodies the evening before and gather the tools of the trade from a storage container: shovels, plastic buckets filled with trowels, brushes of all sizes and shapes, twine, small plastic evidence bags, ref marker flags, tape measures, spoons, and even chopsticks (for hard-to-reach parts). The archaeologists would then descend into the dark pit. It was as if they had stepped through a looking glass and entered a world created by Hieronymus Bosch.

As the day wore on, the scientists often lost track of time, pausing only occasionally to sip coffee and compare notes. Exposing a body with trowels and brushes, then photographing it and mapping its placement could easily consume half a day. But attention to detail is the key to all forensic work: “Lose one tooth or even a foot bone,” the forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow often repeated like a mantra, “and you’re an accomplice to the crime.”

So why dig up the mass graves? From an evidentiary perspective, identifying and determining the cause of death could corroborate the accounts of survivors and lead to convictions of the perpetrators. There was also the need to set the historical record straight.

For the scientists, who toiled only inches from the bodies, it was exacting work, physically and emotionally. While brushing away the dirt from a blood-splattered shirt, it was easy to imagine the victim’s final moments of terror: the panic, the screams, the final blast of an AK47. “Constantly seeing their faces, their arms and legs contorted and twisted over one another, that’s what really gets to you,” a Guatemalan archaeologist told me. “At night, when I close my eyes I still see them.”

The Srebrenica graves were unlike most sites the scientists had worked on in their own countries. To begin with, they were larger and contained more bodies. Many of the bodies, especially toward the bottom of the graves, were fairly well preserved. A body can decompose quickly if it is lying on the surface or buried just below it. But the deeper it is buried (and if the soil conditions are right), the more likely it will remain preserved for a longer period of time. This is especially true if the burial is near or below the water table, as was the case at Srebrenica.

So why dig up the mass graves? From an evidentiary perspective, identifying and determining the cause of death could corroborate the accounts of survivors and lead to convictions of the perpetrators. There was also the need to set the historical record straight. Shortly after satellite photographs of the Srebrenica graves appeared in the press, Bosnian Serb officials claimed the men who had fled the town had died in combat and were hardly the innocent civilians that their families said they were. Finally, from a humanitarian perspective, families of the missing would know the fate of their loved ones and be able to give them a proper burial.

So far, more than 2,000 bodies have been exhumed from the Srebrenica graves, and most of them have been positively identified, largely by DNA testing, and returned to relatives. Yet, 11 years after the fall of Srebrenica, the two men who bear the greatest responsibility for the massacre -- Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic -- remain free. “What troubles me,” one of the forensic investigators told me in 1996, “is that these people may have died in vain. Without justice, all of this will end up being a mockery of the dead and of all that we’ve accomplished.”

Back to top | Read an excerpt from Stover's book

Eric Stover is the director of the Human Rights Center and an adjunct professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. His collaborations with photographer Gilles Peress resulted in two books, The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar and A Village Destroyed: May 14, 1999, War Crimes in Kosovo. Stover’s most recent book is The Witnesses: War Crimes and the Promise of Justice in The Hague.