Scott Anderson writes: Amor Masovic has the gaze and mournful air of a man who never gets enough sleep. For nearly two decades, his job has been to find the mass graves containing thousands who disappeared during the Bosnian war. He is very good at what he does, and he has a mind for numbers. When I first met him in the summer of 2012, Masovic calculated that he and his colleagues at the Bosnian government’s Missing Persons Institute had found more than 700 mass graves, containing the remains of nearly 25,000 people.
“I think we’ve found all the larger ones now,” Masovic told me as we sat in a smoke-filled cafe in Sarajevo. He had just returned from another foray into the field; his boots were still caked in mud. “But that still leaves a lot of smaller ones.” Exactly how many more depends on the definition of “mass grave.” If you go by the current definition (a grave that contains three or more people), then Masovic’s guess is that there are 80 to 100 still to be discovered. Of those, he suspects that 15 to 20 contain more than 50 bodies.
He has any number of methods for locating the graves. He goes by the testimonies of survivors or by cajoling people in Bosnia’s small villages and towns into pointing him toward places they know about. Other times it’s simply a matter of reading subtle changes in the landscape. “I’ve been doing this for so long,” he said, “that I can be walking or driving somewhere, and I see a spot and think, Hmm, that would be a good place for a grave. I’ve found some that way.” In fact, “grave” is often a misnomer. Masovic has found human remains in mineshafts and caves and dry lakebeds. “They’re everywhere,” he said. “Everywhere you can think of.”
Of all the atrocities committed throughout Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, the one that compels Masovic the most is Srebrenica. In some respects, this is hardly surprising: Srebrenica has come to symbolize the Bosnian war’s unspeakable brutality and the international community’s colossal failure when confronting it. Located in a tiny valley in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was the site of one of the war’s most desperate contests, a marooned enclave in which a couple of thousand government soldiers, along with as many as 40,000 mostly Muslim refugees, held out for three years against a siege by Serb separatist fighters.
For more than half that time, Srebrenica was under international military protection, one of six United Nations-designated “safe areas” established throughout the country in 1993. That status proved meaningless when the Serbs launched an all-out assault in July 1995. Instead of resisting, the U.N. Protection Force in Srebrenica stood down, and over the next few days, the Serbs hunted and killed more than 8,000 men and boys, most of whom were trying to escape the enclave by foot. It was the worst slaughter, and the first officially recognized act of genocide, to occur on European soil since World War II.
For Masovic, the massacre in Srebrenica presents a special professional challenge. Only about a thousand of those fleeing were killed outright. The other 7,000 were captured and taken to various killing fields for execution, their bodies dumped into mass graves. Shortly afterward, however, Serb commanders ordered the original graves dug up and the remains moved to a series of smaller mass graves along the Drina River basin — the so-called Valley of Death — that they hoped would never be found. “This has made Srebrenica our greatest challenge,” Masovic said.
But there is something else, too. The slaughter occurred in the waning days of the war, when the signs were that the international community was about to force a political settlement in Bosnia. Consequently the killings were particularly senseless, one last orgy of bloodletting before the fighting stopped.
“You could say that maybe I am even haunted by that,” Masovic said, staring at the cafe table and absently kneading his fingers. “The evidence gives the chance for moral satisfaction,” he said. “To try to give it some kind of meaning, to at least help the families, this is why it’s so important to me to find those men.”
Masovic began to muse on the potential whereabouts of the 1,100 or so men still unaccounted for. “Probably it means there are some graves we haven’t found,” he muttered, “or maybe a lot of them were thrown in the Drina.” Periodically he hikes portions of the trail that the doomed men tried to take out of the valley. In the early years, he almost always came upon remains, but that has now become rare. “At this point, I don’t think there’s many more still in the forest,” he said. “Maybe 50, 100.”
Masovic is one of the point men in an extraordinary international effort to identify the victims and the perpetrators of the Bosnian war. In 2012, after years of meticulous labor, the Norwegian-funded Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo released “The Bosnian Book of the Dead,” a four-volume compendium that sought to list every known fatality of the conflict (a tally that came in at slightly more than 100,000 rather than the 200,000 figure often cited by the media). That report also underscored the highly sectarian nature of the conflict; of the 43,000 civilians killed, 82 percent were Muslims, and 10 percent were Serbs.
This accounting has been especially comprehensive with Srebrenica. Since 1999, Masovic and his colleagues have transferred any remains discovered there to a mortuary in Tuzla that was built by the International Commission on Missing Persons (I.C.M.P.). Working off a DNA database of more than 22,000 living relatives of the missing, the I.C.M.P. has positively identified nearly 7,000 of those killed — and Masovic’s organization has come up with a remarkably specific number for the dead: 8,372. At the same time, international war-crime prosecutors have intently focused on the massacre, indicting 21 people on charges that include everything from “inhumane acts” to genocide. All of these efforts taken together make Srebrenica one of the most thoroughly documented war crimes in history.
Amid Masovic’s grim recitation, though, there was something I found puzzling. Mass murder on the scale that occurred in Srebrenica must have required hundreds of actors — to stand guard over the captives, to transport them to the killing fields, to bury and then rebury them. At least some of these participants must have confided to a wife, a brother, a priest. Given this enormous pool of potential informants, how could there be many secrets left, many more graves to be found? I asked Masovic what percentage of his discoveries had been a result of conscience-stricken Serbs’ coming forward.
“Percentage?” He smiled thinly. Other than a posthumous letter, he has received only one other tip, a note signed simply, “A Serb from Foca,” that led him to a mass grave. “Maybe you can say this man was stricken by half-conscience,” Masovic said, “because he still didn’t have the courage to sign his name. But other than that Serb? Not one. In 17 years, not one.”
That detail goes to the heart of the struggle facing Bosnia nearly two decades after the war: How do you knit back together a society when those primarily responsible for tearing it apart don’t believe they did anything wrong? [Continue reading…]