Back to Bosnia: Archivist of atrocity who lives to fight for justice

Robert Fisk reports on a survivor of ethnic cleansing in his series from former Yugoslavia, a year after the ceasefire
Click to follow
Sanski Most - Beside the Cluj road, there is a massive hole in the earth, half-filled with mud from the overflowing River Sana. They have already taken the corpses from the mass grave and buried them on the soft green ridge to the north, where a sea of rain-soaked flowers covers their very last resting place.

But 10 miles away, in the courthouse of Sanski Most, Judge Adil Draganovic ensures that the Muslim dead of western Bosnia are still with us. He has photographs of each decaying corpse, documents and money that the victims had hidden in their shirts and blouses before the Serb executioners shot them into the pits. He has opened two mass graves and now plans to open another 13. In his files are more than 5,000 documents captured from the Serbs in the military collapse of 1995 when Sanski Most was retaken by government forces, a terrible record of the holocaust visited upon Muslims over four years, in the words of the killers.

Judge Draganovic is a driven man, intense, his narrative running in different directions as he remembers another atrocity, the details of another execution. He pulls open a cardboard file and takes out a piece of paper dated 25 May, 1992. "The action starts," a Serb militiaman has written in biro, "...there is no retreat or halting until surrender. No prisoners to be taken with weapons..." It is the Serbs' own record of their assault on the Muslims of Sanski Most, the orders that will lead many of them to the mass graves. Then the judge produces a school notebook and hands it to me. A Serb called Tade Vukic has written on one line: "32 bodies buried - Krusovo." The remark is followed by a list of numbers and prices in Serbian dinars and a reference to a bulldozer. The note is addressed to a Serb official called Rasula.

Only after a few seconds does the meaning of this awful document become clear to me. The number represents Vukic's workers. The dinars are their pay for the day. They have been using a bulldozer to bury dead Muslims. This is an expenses chit by the chief mass graves digger of Sanski Most.

"They killed 24 of my family and I survived by accident," Judge Draganovic says. "So it is my duty to my dead family and to all our dead to catalogue these terrible crimes. It will take years. I will be doing this for the rest of my life. I will go on searching through the documents to prove the crimes and the genocide perpetrated against the Muslims, and for all the nations of Bosnia- Herzegovina.

"We must find the missing persons so that we can mark their graves and find out who murdered them and find these criminals and prosecute them. I have thousands of documents at home. I read them every night. I sleep with them and live with them. This I must do as a duty to my people."

When Judge Draganovic spread the photographs on his desk, even the Pakistani policeman from the UN's international police sitting next to me drew in his breath. Each picture showed drunken, armed men, some bearded, some holding machine guns in the air, several wearing black bands round their foreheads or foot-long, bushy beards. One older man had on his head a tall black military hat decorated with Serbian eagles. They were celebrating their victory, these drunken Serbs, eyes joyful, smiles as broad as the knives some of them also carried. Here, in these pictures, were the ethnic cleansers of western Bosnia, snapped by their comrades at the height of their slaughter.

"Do you understand?" Judge Draganovic asked me. "Do you know how we feel about what these people did? You know, we have just identified a mass grave near Hrska village in which 19 young men were buried under a wall. We know they were taken to the house for what the Serbs called 'interrogation' and that a Serb called Vlada Vrkes promised they would be exchanged for civilians from another town. But when he left, four Serbs - locals from the same village as the Muslims - just shot them all down with automatic rifles. The bodies were thrown into the house and the building was set afire and the wall collapsed. We will exhume their bones in a few days."

No one interrupts Judge Draganovic. It would be sacrilege to do so. "We opened a grave at Sasina and found 65 bodies, aged from 17 to 70. One of them was a woman. They were all killed on Arkan's orders and the killing was carried out by a man called Nedeljk who lives in Banja Luka now." Draganovic knows I am returning across the old front line to Banja Luka in an hour's time and his voice grows soft and menacing, a frozen smile covering his face.

"If you see him in the Bosna Hotel tonight, will you be good enough to tell him to come to Sanski Most? Tell him I personally invite him. Tell him there are nine rivers in Sanski Most and I invite him to come fishing with me. Tell him I will send my personal car for him." There is an absolute silence in the judge's room, which seems to have grown colder.

Another file is spread on the table and another set of photographs. "They killed 500 people on the Vrkpolje Bridge in 1992," he said. "They were killed in groups and then the Serbs destroyed the bridge on top of the bodies. There was a survivor, so we were able to find 28 corpses in the hole we dug by the bridge but more than 400 corpses drifted off down the River Sana. We cannot find most of them because they decayed and their bones are on the bottom of the river."

In a bleak, almost weary aside, Judge Draganovic just happens to mention that another 200 Muslims are thought to be buried close to the bridge. In all, he believes 3,000 Muslims were massacred in Sanski Most and 10,000 around Prijedor, which is still under Serb control and to which Judge Draganovic and his team of forensic scientists - six Muslims, two Serbs and two Croats - have no access.

Judge Draganovic is staring now, at my face. "I have seen you before," he said. "You came with some Europeans and a young woman when I was a prisoner of the Serbs in Manjaca concentration camp. You took photographs and I tried to make sure I was in your pictures because I thought this would help save me. Other journalists came. You all saved my life. Thank you." I had taken dozens of pictures at Manjaca in 1992. I had a faint recollection of a smaller, much thinner man with Judge Draganovic's features.

"Well, I did survive and I live to remember," he says. "I have a peaceful nature and I still cannot understand the mind of the people who did these terrible things. But to survive is what is important, to be a witness. It is very difficult to kill a hundred people at once. Someone will be wounded and live. And he is the one who tells us where the graves are and who did it. Someone always survives a massacre."

t Tomorrow - the dark secret of Banja Luka's 'Police Station No 3'