Feature 03 Nov 17

Horror Revisited: Exhuming the Bones of a Bosnian Massacre

When the bones and skulls of 137 Bosnian war victims were unearthed at the Koricani Cliffs near Travnik, the sheer horror of the exhumation left a mark on those who dug up the human remains.

Igor Spaic BIRN Sarajevo
 Some of the bones of the victims.

A rich mix of dark greens, yellows and browns extends to the horizon as autumn transforms the colours of the leaves on the many oak trees scattered among a sea of pines. Grey patches of stone light up as rays of sunshine hit the hills across the abyss beneath the nearly vertical cliff.

But this majestic view does not bring joy, and it probably never will again. It has been tarnished by a tragedy that was out of the ordinary even for the time when war was ravaging Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The trees were still green when 18-year-old Ifet Vojnikovic stood at this same spot in the summer months of 1992. They would have been the last thing he saw before bullets tore his back apart.

The Koricani Cliffs, towering above the Ilomska canyon north-west of Travnik, was the site of the massacre of some 200 Bosniak and Bosnian Croat men who had previously been held at detention camps in the Prijedor area.

Last month, Bosnia’s Institute for Missing Persons announced that it had found the remains of 137 victims, including 86 skulls, at a recently-uncovered mass grave in the area. The bones were taken to the Sejkovaca Identification Center, and are now awaiting DNA analysis.

Mujo Begic.

“Nothing has emotionally drained me to this extent in a long time,” Mujo Begic, the chief of the regional office of the Institute who oversaw the exhumation of the mass grave, told BIRN.

Over the years, Begic has spent a lot of time around bones of war victims and has been on site at the exhumations of many mass graves. Yet this one was special.

“I have not seen such a grave in my work until now. One that is so different, where the bones are so mixed up,” he said, repeating several times that the experience made him feel “empty”.

On August 21, 1992, the victims were taken from a convoy of buses heading towards Mount Vlasic.

They were ordered to line up at the edge of the cliff and kneel down facing the abyss, as Bosnian Serb police officers pointed automatic weapons at their backs.

After they were shot and their bodies were thrown down the cliff, the perpetrators also threw explosives down onto them for good measure. Then they threw down rocks to cover the bodies up.

In the weeks following the massacre, the perpetrators returned to the site and organised a ‘clean-up’ operation, dragging the bodies to a nearby hollow in the bedrock and covering them up with rocks again.

This is why the exact location of the burials could not be found for two decades.

Some of the victims jumped off the cliff as the gunfire began; only 12 of them survived.

A few went on to testify before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Foemer Yugoslavia and the Bosnian state court, which resulted in 11 perpetrators being sentenced to a total of 200 years in prison for the massacre.

But the vast majority of the victims have remained there underneath a light grey carpet of rocks for the past 25 years.

Missing Persons Institute experts at the exhumation.

Begic explained that the bodies were already in a state of advanced decay when they were dragged from where they fell after being shot to the nearby mass grave.

He recounted what was said by one of the people who was involved in the gruesome exhumation.

“He said, ‘We pull an arm, and it breaks off... animals had already dragged an arm here, a leg there...'

“They said it was an odour so intense they could not even cover it up [by wearing] masks. Some of them simply could not take it so they ran away from the site. They couldn’t take the sight of so many people murdered in one place,” Begic added.

The site was uncovered after Begic and his colleagues spoke to one of the perpetrators who was convicted of the crimes while he was in prison, and then in July, another person who was involved in covering up the remains helped them pinpoint the exact location.

The exhumation team found the first remains about a metre-and-a-half deep under the rocks.

Begic recalled how the atmosphere was cold, claustrophobic and tense during the exhumations.

“There was always the danger of an avalanche of rocks falling on top of us, so we had to be very careful,” he said.

He and his team also found many personal belongings, and he recalled one particular find he stumbled upon when he and a collegue were cutting open the pockets of one victim's trousers.

“We saw there was something inside, so we cut it open and found a bank card, a nail clipper, a dental prothesis and some other things,” he said.

“As me and my collegue were cleaning off the dirt to read the name on the card, he suddently stared at me, saying: ‘This is my physics professor.’ It was Uzeir Crnic, who was taken off the bus by one of his former students.”

At 55, professor Crnic was also the oldest victim whose remains and documentation were found.

But Begic believes the biggest reason why he felt so ‘empty’, is because of the relationships he had developed with the people looking for their loved ones.

“You connect with these families on an emotional level through the years and that is what did it to me. Your friend is looking for his brother, for example. We have one man who is still searching for his two sons, and he himself is already on his deathbed,” Begic explained.

“Every time you see these people, the same questions hang in the air, they don’t even need to say anything: ‘Did you find them? When will you?’” he said.

Families of victims visited the site twice during the exhumations, although some had no close relatives still alive.

“This is mainly a family grave, where we have examples of four brothers, or a father and two sons being found,” Begic said.

“We have a mother, Zumra, who is 81 and looking for her son, she has nobody else. There will be nobody left to properly bury some of these people, because all their relatives have died meanwhile as well,” he added.

Mourners paying respects to the Koricani Cliffs victims in August. Photo: Anadolu.

The search for those who died at Koricani Cliffs also inspired the 2012 drama Halima’s Path, which was selected as Croatia’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

The film was inspired by the story of Zahida and Muharem Fazlic, whose adopted son Emir was killed in the massacre. They spent 12 years after victims' bones were discovered looking for his biological mother in order to get her DNA, in a bid to see if they could identify the remains as his.

Begic said he knows a few of the 12 people who survived the massacre, and they all live outside Bosnia and Herzegovina now.

“People will hardly decide to return after what they have been through. One of them lost both his legs. He was found and taken to the Banja Luka hospital in Republika Srpska, where he was humiliated and harassed even further. He will never return here,” he explained.

Begic recalled some of the survivors' stories, saying that they themselves want to remain anonymous.

One of them was wounded when he jumped off the cliff as the shooting began. After days of crawling around, he finally managed to climb down to the river to drink some water, but a torrent came up and pulled him down the river for nearly two kilometres.

He ended up stuck in a water mill. The people working at the mill found him and handed him over to police, and subsequently to the hospital.

Begic’s next job is putting names to the numbered bones that were exhumed.

“We have already begun the DNA processing, and we hope to identify them all soon,” he said.

Once the victims are named, they can be buried again - but this time with dignity.

“These are people. They are not numbers, or statistics,” Begic said.

“It is our duty to tell their stories, so that this evil never happens here again.”

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