Muslims hope graves will solve macabre mystery

Emma Daly went back to Kljuc with men whose families fell into Serb hands

For the people of Bihac, under siege for more than three years, the fall of nearby Serb-held towns offers a chance to stock up for winter, harvest hay and ripening pumpkins, round up cattle, sort through abandoned houses, and pick up a sofa. For many it brings the right of return to the houses - or the ruins of them - that they were forced to abandon in 1992.

The litter of war lines the road from Bihac to Kljuc: a few bodies wrapped in blankets, cars shot to pieces, the hulks of gutted tanks and everywhere blankets and odd shoes - the debris of Serb civilians fleeing east.

The west-bound traffic consists of overloaded haycarts and tractors towing trailers filled with booty: an old woman sitting on a plundered sofa, a man herding formerly Serb cattle, soldiers driving trucks with cyrillic number-plates. But perhaps the most important gain will be the truth about what happened to those left behind.

Fudo Kestic, a soldier on duty amid the ruins of what had been the Muslim village of Krasulje, told a harrowing tale of leaving his home in Kljuc amid the smoke of houses put to the torch and the cries of women and children left behind, including his mother and 17-year-old sister.

"I could hear a child crying: `Mama, Mama ...' he said. Mr Kestic, 24, said he was one of 149 Bosnian men who escaped from Kljuc, when it fell to the Bosnian Serb army in May 1992, by trading 62 Serb hostages. When the fighters withdrew they left the others behind, hoping they would be respected as civilians.

"We fled up Mount Grmec and all we could hear were the women and children crying and the songs of the drunken Chetniks," Mr Kestic said. "All we could see were our houses burning." He last heard of his family as prisoners in the Serb camp at Manjaca. He does not expect to see them again: "I heard what the Serbs were doing, so I lost hope."

Their fate may be uncovered in the wake of the Bosnian offensive, which has yielded thousands of documents abandoned by Serb forces as well as what may be many mass graves, including one close to Mr Kestic's position. We were not allowed to visit it, as it was too close to the front line, but down the road towards Kljuc, we visited another site in a wood.

The dark mud had been turned over to expose a single shoe and a clothed skeleton. The government is expected to excavate the area, as well as a small field in the village of Prhovo which we were also barred from visiting.

A soldier led journalists to the site in Prhovo, weeping as he described witnessing the massacre of his family. "I watched from the woods as they bulldozed the corpses into the ground in front of our house," said Senad Medanovic, 25. The only thing he has left to remind him of his family is a small medallion with two hearts and the name of his sister, Enesa. The family of her boyfriend saved it for him.

Skulls and other remains have been found as local officials begin inspecting five possible mass graves around Kljuc.

Light digging has begun at the one site and a Bosnian government commission is working out a plan to investigate the entire area. Chris Gunness, a UN spokesman in Zagreb, said the local authorities told UN military observers that there were 40 possible mass grave sites in the area. "When we fled it was dusk, everything smelt of smoke," Mr Kestic said. "When we came back, all we could think about was to keep marching forward. We knew the people we were fighting were those who had torched our villages. At each village we reached, everyone had a picture in his mind of what had happened."

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