Clue to Srebrenica's Lost Graves

Bosnian Serb officer saw two of the sites where Muslims were reburied, but says a missing colleague knows where many more lie.

Clue to Srebrenica's Lost Graves

Bosnian Serb officer saw two of the sites where Muslims were reburied, but says a missing colleague knows where many more lie.

A former Bosnian Serb army intelligence officer may hold the key to finding a series of burial sites containing more than a thousand victims of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.


Dragisa Jovanovic, an intelligence officer with the Bratunac brigade at the time of the killings, was named in the Hague tribunal this week as the man responsible for reburying many of those killed in the massacre. His name was given in dramatic testimony this week by Momir Nikolic, the first senior Bosnian Serb officer involved in the massacre to admit his crimes.


Now the hunt is on to try and track down the officer, who is reportedly still in Bosnia.


Nikolic, a former security officer in the Bratunac brigade himself, pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity and is hoping to get a reduced sentence in return for cooperating with the tribunal.


He told the court how two months about his part in an operation to conceal evidence which began two months after the July 1995 massacres, in which more than 7,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims were killed by Serb forces. Bosnian Serb troops received orders to dig up bodies and move them to secret locations to be reburied.


Nikolic recounted how in September 1995, he received instructions from Colonel Vujadin Popovic, security chief of the Drina corps, to remove bodies from a mass grave in the village of Glogova.


The victims had died in one of the biggest single mass killings around Srebrenica. According to the indictment against Nikolic, at least 1,000 men were herded into a warehouse in the village of Kravica and machine-gunned on July 13.


"The orders for reburial came from the [Bosnian Serb army] Main Staff," Nikolic told the court.


He said Popovic provided logistical support while Jovanovic oversaw the exhumations. There were so many bodies that even using bulldozers and excavators to move the bodies, the reburial operation took several weeks. The machinery came from the fifth engineering battalion, while the Drina corps provided fuel. When this proved insufficient, Nikolic - acting as coordinator - got the civil authorities in Bratunac to provide additional trucks and diggers.


Eight years on, the location of the sites where the 1,000 people killed at Kravica were reburied remains a mystery. According to Nikolic, Jovanovic knew where they were because he decided where the graves should be dug.


"Dragisa Jovanovic determined the exact locations. Some of the mass graves were in the general area of Zeleni Jadar, " he said, referring to an area of hills and woodlands stretching south of Srebrenica.


Nikolic said he could identify a number of mass graves -at Ljubisavici, a village between Zeleni Jadar and Srebrenica, and at a roadside location east of the town, near the village of Zalazje. Two more were dug north of the town, one in the Muslim cemetery of the village of Budak, and the other in Bljeceva village.


"I personally visited two of them, in Zalazje and Bljeceva," Nikolic told the court.


As for the rest, the answer must lie with Jovanovic. When Nikolic first pleaded guilty, officials from the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation's missing persons commission journeyed to the area, but found the information he had given too general to allow them to pinpoint grave sites.


Now commission head Amor Masovic says he hopes that finding Jovanovic may provide the key.


"I can only appeal to the Serb police to check those localities on the basis of Nikolic's testimony," said Srebrenica's Muslim mayor, Abdurahman Malkic.


Finding the bodies is important not just for war crimes trials, but also to ease the anxiety of families desperate to find out what happened to their loved-ones.


"If people can give information on grave sites, we implore them to give it," said Gordon Bacon, head of the International Commission on Missing Persons based in Sarajevo. "It's heartbreaking to see these families here waiting for news. When we can trace someone, there's an overwhelming relief."


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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