Mass grave yields up the dead of a ravaged city: Marcus Tanner reports from twice-conquered Mostar in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
THE SICKLY smell, like sweet peas, rises from the sun-baked mounds of earth on the edge of Mostar. A young soldier pointed to the large crater where the bodies of 93 massacred Muslims were uncovered a few days earlier. He had helped to dig out the bodies, heavily decayed after weeks underground. 'I had to identify the body of my aunt,' he said.

Most people claim that at least three more mass graves are waiting to be uncovered. 'There are places near the front line which we have not been able to touch yet. But we will dig them up soon,' the soldier said. 'Hundreds of people from Mostar have disappeared and not been accounted for.'

The identified victims were nearly all local Muslims, captured and taken to detention camps when the Serbs briefly seized a part of the city. They were killed and thrown into a mass grave on the eastern outskirts before the Serbs staged a panicky retreat in June.

In the centre of Mostar an imam was getting ready to conduct the funerals of two victims, identified by relatives the previous day. Eighty-five bodies have been reburied in a park in the past few days. Some of the graves belong to fighters. One wooden sign read: 'Mike the Englishman.' No one seemed to know any more about this British volunteer.

Relatives and soldier comrades clustered round the gravesides. Few people in Mostar do not have a relative buried in the park. The imam said: 'I had to identify the body of my cousin. All the people in the city hoped their missing relatives were being kept in a camp behind Serbian lines. Now we see they were all killed.'

The war in Bosnia has wrenched out the heart of Mostar, the old Turkish capital of Herzegovina. The old quarter, with its skyline of minarets, pointed roofs and bridges arching the Neretva river, was almost totally destroyed by weeks of Serbian bombardment. What little escaped bombardment, the retreating Serbs burnt down.

Where traders in Ottoman costumes and wearing the traditional fez once conducted a thriving trade selling copper bric-a-brac to coach-loads of foreign tourists, now remain only blackened stumps of ruined buildings.

Croatian soldiers now stride triumphantly through this desolate urban landscape. Mostar has been proclaimed capital of the Croatian region of 'Herceg-Bosnia', and all power is in their hands. The new Croatian bosses do not welcome foreign journalists and did not welcome inquiries about the Muslim graves. 'You English are all Serbian Chetniks,' shouted one of Mostar's new military commanders. 'The Chetniks sent you and you should be arrested. Now get out of here.' A soldier standing beside him chased me out of the building with the butt of his


The local Muslims are subdued. The Croatian capture of Mostar means they can freely return to the city, but some whisper of their unease about the future under the new order.

In a back street, one young Muslim said: 'The Croats have taken over everything. They have all the factories, the hospitals and the government. They have all the weapons. They say the Muslims cannot fight, but that is a lie. Look at Sarajevo, where Muslims fight very hard.' When he realised I was a journalist, he took fright. 'Just say the situation is excellent,' he said.