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

Witness Details Srebrenica Mass Graves Study

Former investigator describes complexities of identifying human remains from various sites.
By Velma Šarić

The trial of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic continued this week with testimony from a former prosecution investigator about the research done on mass graves dating from the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995.

Karadzic is accused of planning and overseeing the murder of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. The indictments against him include genocide, extermination, murder, persecutions and other crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A high percentage of the Srebrenica victims have been identified from the remains found in mass graves.

This week’s witness, Dusan Janc, is a police inspector in Slovenia. As he told the court this week, between 2006 and 2009, he served as an investigator the Hague tribunal’s Office of the Prosecutor, studying mass graves and the Srebrenica victims they contained.

The witness described his role as being to prepare reports about the investigation and identification process, including a document he drafted for the Karadzic trial. These reports were based on data collected by “a team of international experts working in the field in eastern Bosnia”.

Janc explained that his latest report had been updated in certain areas, “including a more current representation of the number of victims found so far”.

He said specified during the main examination that the International Commission on Missing Persons, which provided the basic data for his reports, had identified 5,977 of the Srebrenica victims as of the end of 2011. A further 260 sets of remains had been located “without their identity having been determined”, he said. This, he added, was because there was no comparable DNA material available from family members.

“Another difficulty was obviously the fact that many people had a very similar DNA structure, including brothers or even twins, which made it difficult for the identification,” he continued.

The witness said his latest report, completed in January, included “new data about previously unknown locations for mass graves, and had also more broadly considered the issue of mortal remains found on the surface”.

In his testimony, Janc explained the concept of “primary” and “secondary” mass graves – the latter being sites “where the bodies were taken from locations they were originally buried at, in order to cover up the crime”.

As an example of relocation, he said that “in an extreme case, one man’s remains were found in three mass graves, whereas five body parts of the same person were found in two mass graves”, located far apart from each other.

Janc noted that a peculiar feature of some locations of killings was that similar numbers of victims were found to have died.

“There were three sites in the broader Srebrenica region at which slightly over 800 people were killed, he said, citing a figure of 815 bodies at Kozluk, for example.

“This proves that somehow the number 800 was a ‘threshold’,” he said. “Perhaps it was the transport capacity of the VRS [Bosnian Serb Army], or a temporary accommodation capacity.”

During cross-examination, Karadzic asked the witness whether his task was “to support the prosecution”. The witness answered in the affirmative, but rejected the assertion that this meant he was biased.

Karadzic suggested that the witness simply accepted data from reports by international experts without “checking what was being written and who was writing them”.

The witness replied that he had acquired sufficient evidence from many different and objective researchers to be able to draw valid conclusions, without having to look into “points of research made by individuals”.

Janc said he was “ready to discuss concrete measures or mistakes if the defendant wished to ask any questions”.

Karadzic said he would not be doing so, due to lack of time.

He went on to put it to the witness that “victims also came from different time periods, months or maybe years before”.

Janc replied that there was a “complex set of criteria used to connect them to the events in July 1995, including the way of death, the locations, or the objects found with the victims in the mass graves”.

“There was only one mass grave, at Biljeceva, in which the remains of the Srebrenica victims were mixed up with older remains,” he added.

Karadzic continued the same line of questioning, referring to Baljkovice – an area the witness mentioned in his report. He argued that this was the scene of intense combat between Bosnian Serb forces and the Bosnian government army, as a result of which “a very large number – hundreds – of Muslim soldiers were killed”.

The bodies of these combat victims, Karadzic said, were “properly picked up during the clearing up of the terrain, buried in mass graves”, and therefore could not be regarded as victims of the July 1995 events in Srebrenica. “In fact, the clearing up was properly ordered on July 20, 1995,” he added.

The witness answered that experts had not found “any mass grave with hundreds of bodies in that area”.

“While a few mass graves were found in that area, [there were] small ones which obviously did have a few fighting-related remains [but] none of these were included in my report,” Janc explained, adding the caveat that “there may be further mass graves which were as yet unfound” and that “any effort on supporting the discovery of additional mass graves would be welcome”.

“Regarding the clearing up, I wish to repeat that the evidence we have – aerial photography, but also testimonies from different involved people – confirm the contrary; that there was no clearing up of the terrain, but that the mass graves were rather hastily and unsystematically dug,” he concluded.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.