Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Forensic Expert Describes Mass Graves

Two pits excavated in Srebrenica area said to have contained the remains of nearly 300 people.
By Velma Šarić

Forensic anthropologist William Haglund gave testimony in the Hague tribunal trial of Zdravko Tolimir this week regarding the exhumation of mass graves in the Srebrenica area in 1998.

Tolimir is the former assistant commander for military intelligence and security in the Bosnian Serb army, and prosecutors say he reported directly to the chief of staff, Ratko Mladic, who is wanted by the tribunal for his role in the Srebrenica massacre among other alleged crimes.

Tolimir is charged with eight counts, including genocide, extermination, murder, and the forced transfer and deportation of Bosniaks from Srebrenica and Zepa from July to November 1995.

Between 1996 and 1998, Haglund worked at the tribunal prosecutor’s office as a senior forensic medicine consultant, and led a team of forensic experts and pathologists involved in the investigation of the Srebrenica crimes.

Haglund has already testified before the tribunal in two previous Srebrenica trials, in 2000 and 2007, and this week the prosecutor read a summary of his testimonies and asked some additional questions.

At the beginning of the trial, prosecutor Peter McCloskey stated that the witness was an American forensic anthropologist who has been carrying out forensic investigations since 1993 and has “major worldwide experience”.

He had worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “in East Timor, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq”, said the prosecutor, adding that he also worked for the Rwanda tribunal during 1996.

“Between 1996 and 1998, the witness led the team which dealt with the exhumations in various mass graves related to the fall of the Srebrenica enclave,” the prosecutor continued.

The findings of this team - together with those of experts from Physicians for Human Rights - from the mass graves in Cerska, Nova Kasaba, Lazete and Pilica, were the subject of two reports compiled by Haglund.

One report contained the results from the autopsies of the exhumed victims, while the other listed items, mostly blindfolds and hand and leg bindings, found in the graves.

“In the grave in Pilica, Dr Haglund and his team found the remains of at least 132 persons, whereas the grave in Cerska included 150 persons,” the prosecutor said.

“Could you briefly describe the grave in Pilica to the chamber, and the state you found when you began the exhumation?” he continued.

“The hole in which the grave was located was 28 metres long and six metres wide, and at its maximum it was some three metres deep,” Haglund said. “There was a pile of post-mortem remains of a total of 132 persons at one end, remains that were simply thrown in.”

The prosecutor then inquired about what the witness and his team found at the Cerska site.

“The Cerska mass grave was located on a semi-gravel path which went through the hillside towards the village of Cerska,” Haglund answered. “The grave was located by the path, it was a steep place where the earth had been dug up in order for the path to be widened, located opposite a slope.

“There is an open den on that site, which was used as a gravel pit. This is where we found bodies and a very large quantity of bullet casings from the side opposite the slope. This made it clear that the killers were standing on one side, on the far side of the grave, whereas the victims must have been lined up on the other side and then shot at.”

He said his team had found empty casings at the site where “[the victims] fell when the shots were fired.

“When shot at, people would fall over the ledge, and simply roll down into the den. With the help of machinery, the bodies were simply covered up by gravel,” Haglund continued, noting that the depth of the grave was some six metres and its length some 30 metres, and that the bodies were “spread apart” inside.

In 149 cases, Haglund and his team had been able to determine that the cause of death was wounding by firearms. In addition, 48 remains included “bindings on the hands and feet”.

“Some of these bindings were by the side of, or on the remains themselves, mostly on the arms, and in the most cases [made of] wire”, the witness explained, adding that the site in Cerska had not been disturbed by anyone previously.

Referring back to the grave in Pilica, the witness described the situation there as “much more complex”.

“At the far end of the grave, after we started digging, we found a pile of post-mortem remains that were separated from body parts found in other parts of the grave,” he said.

The witness explained that the Pilica grave was “a mixed pile of persons.

“By the road, there was a field with vegetation growing there. We presume that the people were shot at on the field, and then that machinery was used to pick up the bodies, which incidentally also picked up some of the vegetation remains we found at the grave, and which came from the site where they were shot at.

“When the corpses were being picked up, parts of the remains had fallen off.”

The witness added that “mud and grass was found sticking onto the torn body parts, while other body parts were in one piece, and everything was a large pile.
“Were you able to conclude whether anyone interfered with this grave in any way,” the prosecutor asked.

“I wasn’t so sure about it when it comes to this grave,” the witness answered, adding that “the largest part of the ground should have been contaminated by the dissolution of the human remains and the seepage of body water into the ground.

“However, we failed to find such circumstances, meaning that the earth had not been disturbed in the area. It seemed simply more logical that the bodies were brought into such condition after the people were killed in the field and their remains were simply picked up by the machinery and taken to the grave.”

The first indictment against Tolimir was presented on February 25, 2005, and he was arrested on May 31, 2007. On December 16, 2009 he pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.

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