When Hava Muhic gave birth to a stillborn girl in Srebrenica in July 1995, Dutch soldiers took the body away. Years on, the search for her grave - and others - is ongoing.
Former Dutch UN peacekeepers and survivors of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre allege that during the fall of the UN-declared “safe haven”, Dutch soldiers buried at least five adults and one baby in a grave inside the Dutch UN compound in Potocari.
|Hava Muhic, a Bosnian Muslim woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby girl as the Srebrenica enclave fell to Bosnian Serb forces | Photo by Nino Maricic|
Sixteen years later, as both former Dutch soldiers and Srebrenica survivors and relatives recall what happened and look for answers, the whereabouts of the alleged grave are still unknown.
“The nurse said she was stillborn. The umbilical cord was twisted around her neck, and it suffocated her,” recalls Hava Muhic, a Bosnian Muslim woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby girl as the Srebrenica enclave fell to Bosnian Serb forces.
“ I was inconsolable,” she says 16 years later, “ but so weak I couldn’t even grieve. I fell unconscious,” she explains. Two Dutch soldiers took away the tiny body in a cardboard box.
“They took the baby with them, and said they were going to bury her. I didn’t even get a chance to see her,” says Muhic, who was then 24.
It was July 11, 1995, when the UN-declared "safe-haven" of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic. The victors separated Muslim women from the men, and subsequently took away an estimated 8,100 Bosnian Muslim men and boys to nearby locations and executed them.
To prevent discovery of the killings – ruled an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, and the International Court of Justice – Bosnian Serb forces later exhumed the bodies from the primary mass-grave sites where they had buried them, using heavy earth-moving equipment that broke many of the bodies into pieces. They reburied the disarticulated remains across the Podrinje region of eastern Bosnia in dozens of so-called secondary mass graves.
Now former Dutch UN peacekeepers, responsible for protecting the Srebrenica enclave, say that some bodies, including those of at least two babies, were buried within the confines of the UN base in Potocari, outside Srebrenica.
|East side Potocari - possible location of the grave|
Former Dutch peacekeeper Dave Maat, from Goes in Holland, now 35 and a law student, says that Muhic’s baby was not the only one buried at the Potocari base.
Experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, after serving in Bosnia, in June 2009 Maat filed a damages claim to the Dutch government called a WOB, or Wet Openbaar Bestuur, an Open Government Act procedure.
He was given officers’ reports and fact sheets, in which eight anonymous soldiers stated that between five and nine adults and at least one baby were buried in a mass grave on the compound in Potocari.
The mass grave was reportedly marked with red and white tape with a wooden sign showing the names of the deceased in black felt marker. Despite the sign, the names of the dead appear nowhere in the documents. One body is identified as 70-year-old Behara Delilovic.
Three of the others are said to be two men aged 70 and 75, a 20-year-old woman, and a baby boy who was born and deceased on July 13, 1995. One painful detail from the officer’s report is also included: at the same moment as mass murder is in progress all around Srebrenica, a Dutch soldier reported losing 300 Deutschmarks.
But these documents were not given to Maat before at least one of several Open Government Act requests he was to file had been turned down.
“Whenever there is a suspicion that Second World War veterans are lying somewhere, no effort is spared, and a painstaking investigation is done to trace them,” he remarks. “Now that we’re talking about some buried Bosnians, the opposite happens. Nothing.”
Maat was just 19 when he joined the 600-odd Dutch UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica in early 1995. “We went to Bosnia to help people,” he remembers. “Not to fight. I liked that idea. But we were sitting on the Titanic with those people. All we could do was move the furniture around.”
Dutch soldier Joeri Eggink from Steenwijk was 22 and in good spirits when he arrived in Bosnia. Until, in his first week in the snowy, starving enclave of Srebrenica, he got shot at. It took him less than a fortnight to come to the conclusion that it was going to prove difficult to help the inhabitants of the enclave.
|Adje Anakotta near the possible mass grave in Srbrenica|
Twenty-four-year-old Adje Anakotta, from Hoogeveen, dreamt of being part of the Dutch air mobile brigade but instead got sent to Bosnia as a medic. His father, a veteran of the erstwhile Royal Dutch Indonesian Army, was worried about him.
“It scared him that as a UN soldier you get sent on a humanitarian mission, right in between two adversaries. He figured there wouldn’t be much we could do if the conflict broke out. Turns out my father was right.”
In April 1993, a year into the war in Bosnia, UN Security Council Resolution 819 demanded that Srebrenica and its surroundings be treated as an area safe from attack and hostilities “by all parties”.
By early 1995 some 50,000 internally displaced Bosnian Muslims had crowded into the town, with little or no food, poor and scant accommodation, and the operationally lacklustre Dutch UNPROFOR battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Karremans to protect them.
The experiences of Dutch soldiers like Anakotta, Eggink and Maat are typical of soldiers from the under-gunned unit, caught between increasingly aggressive Bosnian Serb tactics around the enclave, and increasingly desperate manoeuvres by the defenders in Srebrenica to stop them from leaving.
At the beginning of March 1995, the Serbs tried to expel the Dutch, and only allow piecemeal food transports to trickle through. The Bosnian Muslims started harassing the Dutch, according to Eggink.
“They tried everything to provoke the Serbs, so that we’d have to intervene. As Karremans said: ‘No good guys, no bad guys’. The one was no worse than the other.”
Relations deteriorated fast. To avoid being annoyed by begging children, Dutch soldiers made T-shirts saying “nema bonbon” — no candy. And they chalked the walls of their base with graffiti that read: “No teeth? Moustache? Smell like shit? Bosnian girl!”
A young Bosnian man carrying his dead father home in his arms was inexplicably spat on by Dutch soldiers near the gate of their base, recalls Anakotta.
He himself was on guard one day near the Dutch soldiers’ rubbish-dump. Four children came scavenging. It was forbidden for them to be on UN grounds, and moreover the children were in an area visible to Serb gunners. Anakotta warned the children repeatedly.
They didn’t listen. Suddenly Anakotta’s sergeant walked up and pulled out a Glock 9mm pistol, cocked it and pointed it at the children.
“He started screaming real loud and waving that Glock around. Those kids were totally in a panic,” Anakotta says. “Especially the little girl with blond curls, I can still remember the look on her face.”
“I called out: ‘Sergeant, what are you doing? We can’t do that!’ — ‘Shut your mouth, I know what I’m doing!’ — He kept on cursing. The children ran away crying. Later I noticed he’d been using my Glock to threaten those children.”
|Hava Muhic was 21 when war broke out|
Meanwhile, Hava Muhic was 21 when war broke out in 1992, living near Srebrenica with her two-year-old son Aldin and husband, Hajrudin, a furniture maker. As the violence increased, the family fled into the surrounding woods.
There they lived for roughly six months in makeshift shelters. But when it got too cold, they returned to Srebrenica, where living conditions quickly deteriorated, with little food, water or electricity.
“Of course it was unintentional, but at the end of 1994 I got pregnant,” Muhic says. “We assumed the war would be over soon. And we were protected by UN troops, weren’t we?
At least that’s what we thought. There was no food, no vegetables, no fruit, no vitamins and no medicine. Nothing I needed during my pregnancy. If I was lucky I’d eat one meal per day, a sort of mash we made from grain. It was cattle feed, really.”
What they didn’t know was that Srebrenica was totally surrounded, and that General Ratko Mladic was determined to overrun the enclave. At 5am on July 10, 1995, Dave Maat was awakened by one of his colleagues.
“All hell’s broken loose! The Serbs are shooting with anti-aircraft shells!”
Gunner Joeri Eggink was sitting in an armored vehicle in Srebrenica, with just a few dozen men in six armoured vehicles, expected to hold off some of the thousands of advancing Serbs.
“Suicide,” he remembered, adding that Bosnian Muslims suddenly gathered, threatening to open fire on the Dutch if they retreated. A very pregnant Muhic was also standing in the market square.
“We couldn’t stay in Srebrenica because of the Serbian advance. People were panicking, and I could have been giving birth at any moment.”
At around 2am, Muhic’s contractions started and people moved en masse toward the Dutchbat base in Potocari, near Srebrenica, in hope of protection. Muhic and her husband were among them. It was to be the last time she saw him.
“I still remember very well: the apples in the orchard were still green and sour, but there was nothing else to eat. My husband plucked a few and gave them to me.
“Take good care of yourself and our child,” he told me. “I didn’t know those were the last words I’d ever hear from him.”
Her husband, two brothers and his father tried to escape the Serb blockade through the forest: in vain. Years later the organization in Bosnia that tracks and identifies missing persons using DNA-assisted technology found part of his skeleton, while the remains of his father and one brother have been found, identified and buried; those of the other brother and her husband are still missing.
On the morning of the 11th Eggink saw what he thought were thousands of Serbian infantrymen coming down the mountains.
“It looked like a flood wave,” he says. That night he went to help out in the Dutch base set in a former battery factory compound in Potocari, five kilometers from Srebrenica. The situation was desperate. One woman grabbed hold of him.
“She pushed a baby into my arms,” he says. “I couldn’t speak very good ‘Muslim’, but from her gestures I could tell she didn’t want her baby to grow up in this world.”
A doctor was brought in, who declared the child dead. A bewildered Eggink wandered through the hall with a dead baby in his arms, and went outside, where he saw a large hole dug in the ground, a couple of metres deep, allegedly some 25 metres long, according to other Dutch soldiers, with a couple of bodies already in it.
Eggink stood at the edge of the grave, and carefully crept into it, looking for a corner in which to bury the baby. “What happened after that, I don’t know any more. I’d lost my way.”
|Refugees hall Potocari 2009|
Meanwhile the Serbs were entering the enclave of Srebrenica from all sides.
“We were completely surrounded,” Eggink recalls. After standing guard for a couple of hours, he turned back towards the camp in Potocari.
“There were 40,000 Muslims on one road stumbling over each other, all wanting to go forward. They were in a panic, screaming and crying.”
Meanwhile the Serbs were taking all Muslim men of fighting age out of the crowd. They had to hand in their passports and other papers. Eggink asked the Serbs what was the point of this. The answer sounded plausible at the time: “We’re trying to pick out the war criminals.”
Inside the Potocari base Hava Muhic had given birth. But the baby she brought into the world wasn’t breathing and was taken away by two Dutch soldiers in a cardboard box who said they would bury it.
“A half hour after my delivery they sent me away. I was weak, I was still bleeding, I didn’t know where my little son was, and I’d just lost my little daughter.” Muhic needed help. So a woman she knew put her on a truck to be transported to safety. There she bumped into her cousin, Tima Hasanovic.
“If she were an animal they’d surely have treated her better,” Tima recalls. “To be deported in a truck right after giving birth! She was bodily and spiritually broken; she was covered in blood and birth fluid.”
Muhic’s father, meanwhile, was lucky. The Serbs let a couple of buses of men through, in order to convince the other Muslim men to surrender, and her father found her son in Tuzla.
“I’ll never forget the moment I saw my father again. He asked me: ‘Where is your belly? Where is your child?’ Before I collapsed, I could just about answer: ‘I don’t know. I’ve lost everything.”
By July 16, Dave Maat was suddenly starting to understand what had transpired in Srebrenica.
“A corpse lay in the middle of the road. And I saw still more people lying there. Dozens of them. Dark red bloodstains on the pavement, and an unbelievable stink.”
The enclave appeared totally empty. “All the people were gone, taken away. It was a ghost town. I felt I’d been left high and dry. We were fucked.”
Fourteen years after the fall of the enclave, the first meeting between Dutch soldiers and surviving relatives of the Srebrenica victims took place. Anakotta described hearing the hate in their voices that day.
“Their voices were very low. They threw everything out that had troubled them for all those years. ‘Why did you people drink and dance with Mladic? Why did you receive citations of honour?’ We couldn’t possibly answer all their questions. ‘We’re here to listen to you,’ was all I said.”
The troubled Anakotta and Maat decided to do what they could to help: they aim to find out the exact location of the alleged grave at the UNPROFOR base, to see who was buried there.
By 2011 they had found another Dutch soldier who had taken a picture of the grave, and are tracking down the driver of the bulldozer that excavated the grave. There seem to them to be many unanswered questions.
Why do the names of the victims, once written on a sign, seem now hard to find? And why was the grave moved? The reason cited by some sources — prevention of panic among the Bosnian Muslims — is unlikely, according to Hasan Nuhanovic, who was an interpreter for the Dutch battalion.
“The mass murder was already in full progress. The panic among the local population couldn’t have been higher at that moment.”
Mesud Mustafic, 34, is the chairman of ‘Drinski Talas’ or Drina Wave, one of the many associations of Srebrenica survivors. He was involved in the hunt for the grave site on the Dutchbat base. That the mass grave still can’t be found doesn’t seem strange to him.
He assumes that the remains of the people in the mass grave were reburied by overzealous Serbs, in a grave they’d dug for other victims.
Information was also available from the Dutch: a report by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation mentions an “emergency grave”, as the Dutch Ministry of Defence calls it. But no information about it was disseminated in 1995.
“To whom should we have passed along that information? It was war,” a Dutch Defence Ministry spokesperson said. But when Maat collaborated in 2011 in a Dutch TV broadcast, the Defence Minister, Hans Hillen, promised his full cooperation.
“Two weeks later,” says Maat, “ I got the coordinates and photos of the grave.”
But at the designated spot, there was nothing. The Dutch MOD say that they “combed through our archives and passed along the possible location. After the fall of the enclave, many graves were removed by the Bosnian Serbs. Whether that’s what happened with this grave, is speculation. The fact is that at the original location there’s nothing left.”
After the TV broadcast, a Dutch soldier told Maat that he was assigned with a colleague to build three or four green wooden crosses, which he saw placed on the filled-in grave, later noticing that they had been removed from the graves’ location, at a secluded spot behind the headquarters, near a silo.
Maat and Anakotta’s hunt continues. Along with Nedzad Handzic, another member of Drinski Talas, and other Dutch soldiers, they searched various possible locations within 600 metres of the site, finding nothing except the plastic tape used to mark the grave.
Handzic feels frustrated, not knowing whom to blame. The Dutch, he thinks, have dropped the ball; organizations charged with tracking missing persons, such as the Missing Persons Institute for BiH, or MPI, and The International Commission on Missing Persons, or ICMP, have let things slide, he thinks, as they have had information about the whereabouts of the grave since 2009.
The truth stands very much to the contrary. Both MPI and ICMP have searched assiduously for the burial site. Using DNA-assisted identification techniques that now set world standards, the ICMP’s Sarajevo laboratory has identified the disarticulated remains of an astonishing 6,641 Srebrenica victims, recovered from dozens of secondary mass graves.
The MPI is a functioning state-level institution that follows up on hundreds and hundreds of reports of burial sites and with ICMP’s technical assistance exhumes them.
“Although the suspected mass grave location within the UN Potočari base was searched by the BiH Missing Persons Institute on several occasions, no mortal remains have been found,» says ICMP spokesperson Jasmin Agovic in Sarajevo.
“ In September 2011 ICMP responded to MPI’s request for assistance, but, however, a large-scale excavation involving ICMP’s forensic experts ended without results too. Should more information emerge, ICMP will again respond to relevant authorities’ requests and will provide its expert assistance for the proper recovery of mortal remains and their DNA-led identification.”
Meanwhile Hava Muhic has left the country, and only gets piecemeal information about the grave when she’s visiting Bosnia. She obtained citizenship after being granted asylum in France, and now works as a chambermaid in a hotel in the south of France. All she wants is to know where her stillborn child was buried.
“Now I feel that I must consider the possibility of a court case, because I have the right to know where the bones of my child are. My child was taken away from me before I even got a chance to see her,” she says.
“There was a woman who, half an hour after me, delivered a healthy daughter. She’s 16 now. Sometimes I dream that my daughter is alive and grown up. Then I wake up, and I cry.”
The authors are BIRN Summer school for investigative reporting trainees. This article was supported by Scoop, a Danish organization that encourages investigative journalism and by the Dutch weekly HP / De Tijd.
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