Originally published here
Bulldozers unearthed the remains of dozens of people yesterday as investigators searched for about 700 missing Muslims in what is believed to be the biggest mass grave in Bosnia.
The bones, dug up from an area the size of a tennis court, are thought to include some of the 7,000 men and boys who were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica eight years ago - Europe's worst massacre since the Second World War.
"We believe the grave contains several hundred bodies of 1995 Srebrenica massacre victims and those of Zvornik civilians killed at the start of the war," said Murat Hurtic, a member of the Bosnian Commission for Missing People. "It could be the largest mass grave ever found in Bosnia."
The grave was found at Crni Vrh, near the town of Zvornik, north of Srebrenica, and is believed to be a site to which the bodies were moved from their original burial places near Srebrenica. Bosnian Serbs reburied victims to hide evidence of massacres from the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, which is prosecuting those accused of atrocities in Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Experts say the excavations will take about two months, and expect the identification of the victims to be a slow and complicated process, probably requiring DNA analysis.
In July 1995, Srebrenica, which was protected by lightly armed Dutch peace-keepers, was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces who separated Muslim women from the men and boys - thousands of whom were later executed.
The mass grave was found in a mountainous area near the border with Serbia. It is close to the former front line and was surrounded by minefields. Soil samples from the site indicate the grave may also contain victims from a separate massacre at the start of the Bosnian war, which began in 1992.
Experts say they were tipped off about the site by a person who witnessed the re-burial of victims, but its whereabouts were kept secret for more than a year to prevent any tampering with evidence.
So far, the remains of more than 6,000 Muslim men and boys have been found in 60 mass graves in the area. The biggest grave contained 500 bodies. Kathryne Bomberger, from the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), in Sarajevo, said: "We're working on trying to find evidence of identification of these remains, so that we can return the mortal remains to the families."
Balkan Witness editor's note:
The figure of 6000 bodies found to date was reported in error. In all likelihood, someone at ICMP told journalists that ICMP had 6000 body bags from Srebrenica. It is a mistake that is easy to understand; in most cases, one would assume that a body bag containing human remains would contain an entire body. Sadly, because of the problem of secondary mass graves and commingling of remains, that is just not the case with Srebrenica victims. (Secondary mass graves are locations to which bodies from primary mass graves were removed by Serbian forces in an effort to hide the magnitude of the massacre.)
Each body bag does not represent an individual victim. Excavators at the scene of a mass grave isolate body parts and bodies the best they can and put them into body bags. Because of the problem of commingling and secondary grave sites, parts of the same individual may be in other parts of the same grave site or in other graves. Therefore, the remains of one individual are sometimes contained in several different body bags.
This does not diminish the number of persons who went missing from Srebrenica. As of early 2005, ICMP has on its database 7789 named missing individuals from Srebrenica – and there are more people missing because ICMP has bone samples for which there are no matches with family members' DNA.
The nearest estimate of the number of exhumed bodies from Srebrenica in early 2005 is close to 4000. No one can give a more precise figure than that. There are many more sites waiting to be exhumed – and doubtless more will be discovered.
The erroneous figure of 6,000 bodies has been picked up and repeated by numerous other news sources, but never with proper attribution.
Update, December 2008: 5781 identifications of bodies of Srebrenica victims, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons, which updates its website annually.
Update, June 28, 2019: 6982 identifications
Drazen Erdemovic, the first Bosnian Serb army member to admit taking part in the Srebrenica massacre, is due to testify on the crime later this week. He is expected to be a witness for the prosecution in the tribunal's case against the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who is accused of genocide in Bosnia. The trial of Mr Milosevic was halted again yesterday because of the defendant's poor health.
The ICMP said earlier this month that 1,000 bodies of Srebrenica victims had been identified through DNA matches.
Two men accused of responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader, and Ratko Mladic, his army commander, remain at large.
See also the depositions given with the guilty pleas of the two high-ranking Bosnian Serb officers who admitted to their participation in the planning and implementation of the Srebrenica massacre, and the subsequent burial and reburial of the victims' bodies:
Momir Nikolic, Chief of Intelligence and Security of the Bratunac Brigade during the Srebrenica executions in July 1995. May 6, 2003.
Dragan Obrenovic, acting commander of the Zvornik Brigade. May 20, 2003
See also the Final Report (June 11, 2004, Word document) of the Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb) government Commission for Investigation of the Events In and Around Srebrenica Between 10th and 19th July 1995; and the Addendum (October 15, 2004, PDF file) to that report.
"The report itself admits and provides details of the plan and deliberate liquidation of thousands of Bosniaks [Muslims] by the Bosnian Serb forces," said Bernard Fassier, deputy to Bosnia's top international administrator. (As quoted by the Associated Press, Nov. 8, 2004.)