Graves sit silent in search for war's lost souls

Missing in Bosnia: 'We cannot accept that there are thousands of people in mass graves, like dead dogs, in the heart of Europe'
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The Independent Online
The young man gazed at the skull in search of an answer, but rose to his feet defeated. The bones, shoes and clothing pushed to the surface by the melting snows told him nothing, save that the small patch of ground taped by Bosnian police was indeed a mass grave - estimated to contain up to 10 bodies.

"I'm looking for my father," said Armin Hrnjic, a soldier. "I was trying to see if I could recognise the shoes but nothing looks familiar. . . four years have passed." Mr Hrnjic fled the suburb of Hadzici, west of Sarajevo, days before it fell to the Serbs in the summer of 1992. His 49-year-old father, Fahrija, stayed behind to protect the family home but was trapped in the Serb advance.

He joined 12 neighbours in an attempt to walk out through the woods and over Mount Igman to safety, but he never arrived. "They didn't make it, so no one knows if they are alive, or missing or what," Mr Hrnjic said sadly.

But the secrets of the gravesite, the truth of his father's fate, will not come - as most believe - from exhumations. In fact, the unearthing of mass graves - be they suspected execution sites or just the last resting place of the victims of war - is a last resort in the process of tracking the missing and identifying the dead. It is a long, complicated and expensive procedure, but one vital to Bosnia's chances of a stable, peaceful future.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the lead agency in attempts to trace the missing, and reunite families, has 10,000 to 20,000 "tracing requests" outstanding - that is, appeals for information from the relatives of the missing. Most requests for information are lodged by families loyal to the Bosnian government, though Serbs across the line have also lost relatives in the war.

A host of organisations forms part of the search for the missing: the two local commissions, I-For, the ICRC, the war crimes tribunal, the UN Centre for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights - who provide forensic expertise - and the Office of the High Representative, Carl Bildt.

The process begins with the ICRC messaging system - 24 million letters have been delivered in the Bosnian conflict - with families soliciting information from almost anyone who knew the missing person. If this is unsuccessful, the ICRC logs a tracing request. It has presented more than 12,000 of these to the two parties.

"It is an incredibly complex issue," one international official said, an issue which touches on politics, domestic and international, human rights and international law, war crimes and the strict humanitarian task of ending the agonising uncertainty of relatives. Furthermore, the official said: "We cannot accept that there are thousands of people in mass graves, like dead dogs, in the heart of Europe."

The lists of missing will be published with appeals to the public to come forward in confidence with information.

"What we are interested in is if the man is dead," one official said. "We are not interested in how he was killed." So some are telling the Red Cross, for example, that they saw the dead body of an acquaintance without fear of any investigation into how the person was killed.

In the last resort, exhumation and forensic examination are possibilities. But the difficulties and expense of such operations are enormous.

Physicians for Human Rights reckon that the smaller the grave, the higher the chances of identifying bodies; but without very detailed information about the victims, even a best case scenario will mean less than half, sometimes only 10 per cent, identified. The cost could rise to $3,000 (pounds 2,000) per corpse.

To maximise the possibilities, the agencies will build an ante-mortem database; that is, collect as much information as possible about the victims who are believed to be buried at the site in order to compile a list of possible matches. Such a database is likely to take a year to collate and cost millions of dollars. It will not answer the question of what to do with those bones and bodies that are never identified.

The task of determining the fate of the missing - most of them presumed dead - is Herculean. But the refusal of Americans with relatives missing in action in Vietnam to give up the ghost 20 years later is only one indication of how vital it is to end the uncertainty for thousands in Bosnia. The thirst for justice pales beside the families' desire just to know the truth.

"The most important thing for me is to find out the destiny of my father," said Mr Hrnjic. "Who killed him is less important, and I will never find out anyway. I just want to give him a proper burial."