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‘Show me his socks’: Banja Luka’s warehouse of death

9 October 1996: Robert Fisk meets a mother looking for her son in a warehouse full of Serb bodies

Saturday 02 October 2021 21:30
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<p>A Serbian seals the casket containing the remains of a newly exhumed body from a Serb-held cemetery in Ilidja, near Sarajevo, 1996</p>

A Serbian seals the casket containing the remains of a newly exhumed body from a Serb-held cemetery in Ilidja, near Sarajevo, 1996

The Serb coroner held out the skull to Radojka Todorovic. “This is your son’s head,” he said. “Can you not see the incision over where the right ear was? That was the operation he had on his ear. This is your boy.”

Radojka raised both her arms, looked at the skull and then down at the terrible remains at her feet. There was a rib cage partly covered by a rotted T-shirt, a mouldy pair of trousers and a pile of dark flesh. It had lain in the mass grave at Glamoc for almost a year. But Radojka Todorovic ignored both the overpowering stench and Dr Karan’s conviction that this pathetic, awful heap was 27-year-old university graduate Radovan Todorovic, her only son. “I want to see his socks,” she cried. “I knitted his socks before he went to the front. Show me his socks – then I can identify him.”

All around us in the dark and terrible warehouse lay the dead, 107 of them, Serb soldiers and civilians alike, 12 women among them, the oldest aged 90. Most appeared to have had their skulls beaten in or to have been shot at close range. They had been placed in ghostly ranks, numbered according to the mass grave in which the Croatian troops had put them in the last days of the Bosnian war, always supposing the war has ended. It was hot in the warehouse and Dr Karan, the coroner, a thick-bearded giant of a man, held the skull in one hand and swatted the flies from his face with the other.

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