Books: The secret language of bones

Overwhelming forensic evidence of genocide in Bosnia places the Serbians squarely in the dock, says John P Fox
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The Independent Culture
The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar

Text by Eric Stover, Photographs by Gilles Peress Scalo pounds 16.95

In his Foreword to this harrowing textual and photographic account of the 1996 international forensic examination of the mass graves of Muslim victims of Serbia's ethnic cleansing policies in Srebrenica in 1995 and Croatian victims in Vukovar in 1991, Richard Goldstone, until October 1996 the Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, has this to say: "It is my sincere hope that this book will strengthen the case for a permanent International Criminal Court. For without one, we cannot hope that the 21st Century will be less bloody than the one which is about to end."

Although this book is published one month after just such an International Criminal Court was established by treaty in Rome on 17 July, it is doubtful whether Goldstone's hopes will ever be fulfilled. As this volume amply demonstrates, men of evil will carry on committing mass murder and genocide whenever they want to, irrespective of whatever moral or legal restraints are supposed to prevent such horrors. It is extremely doubtful that an ICC created immediately after the end of the Second World War would have prevented subsequent genocides, while more recently a report in the Times of 6 August is worthy of attention. It stated that between 18 July (one day after the Rome Treaty) and 21 July, the Serbs carried out wholesale massacres of civilian Muslim Albanians in Orahovac in the currently disputed region of Kosovo - and then arranged for their burial in mass graves.

It is the forensic examination of earlier Muslim victims of Serbian genocidal policies in Bosnia in 1995 which is the heart of this graphic volume by Eric Stover, the Director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of California at Berkeley, with photographs by Gilles Peress. In May 1996, Stover and Peress accompanied the American forensic anthropologist, William Haglund, appointed the senior scientific expert of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for the former Yugoslavia, and his vast team of international scientists, in their excavations of the mass graves at Srebrenica and Vukovar. As in "ordinary" murders, forensic evidence is vital in the case of genocide for establishing the cause of death and the guilt of those alleged to be responsible, especially here, since Bosnian Serb officials always claimed that the men who fled Srebrenica had died in combat.

Many of Peress's photographs of exhumed corpses and body parts are sickening to behold, one's sense of horror being heightened by Stover's information that many of the victims had their limbs tied behind their backs or had been blindfolded before being shot from behind. Indeed, many of the photographs and other details remind one of the photographs and forensic results of the excavations carried out at Katyn near Smolensk in April and May 1943 by the multi-national medical commission appointed by the Germans to investigate the mass graves of Polish officers shot in 1940 by the Russian NKVD.

For the most part, however, Stover's text cannot quite make up its mind whether it is to be current reporting on the 1996 excavations or a potted history of the savage recent history of Srebrenica and Vukovar. Stover falls between several stools in trying to combine the background history of the Serb massacres at both places with the recent international forensic functions of some of the leading players in the excavations of 1996, and descriptions of those excavations themselves. Consequently, the text often loses its essential focus.

Nevertheless, it is in his final four chapters that Stover's account really begins to have an impact where, for example, a more scholarly account such as that by Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both (Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, Penguin pounds 7.99) necessarily misses out. Here, Stover recounts interviews with survivors of Srebrenica and Vukovar, above all with Muslim women. The loss of their menfolk is all the more harrowing since, in many cases, neither they nor the forensic scientists have any tangible evidence of their fate. Just as for the female relatives of los desaparecidos in Argentina and Chile, so too for the Muslim women of Bosnia perhaps the greatest pain is the unknowing. And for some of the Muslim women of Srebrenica, this sense of loss is accentuated by the living memory of the utter shame and degradation they suffered as Muslims when being multiple-raped by Serbian soldiers.

If anything, it is Stover's depressing Epilogue which returns us to the issue of the newly-created ICC. There, Stover recounts how, despite all the documentary, forensic, and living-witness testimony which exists to bring to book the two chief Serbian war criminals, the former Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and General Ratko Mladic, they still remain free. So far, those charged at The Hague with crimes in the former Yugoslavia are only the "little fish". In this, the United Nations and associated governments bear great responsibility. On the other hand, and as he was bound to, throughout his text Stover raises the question that while one must always blame a political leadership for the crime of genocide, it is often difficult to apply such blame in a blanket fashion to the millions ruled by that leadership.

Despite one's qualms about the structure of Stover's text, this is a book which can and should be read in a single session. And as with all other books on the subject of genocide, it is guaranteed to make one think seriously about that entity we like to call "humanity" on this earth of ours.

Dr John P Fox lectures on Jewish history and Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London