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Downfall, Colder Than Death

Another mass grave hid the truth for eight years. On August 17, the dossier Paklenik was opened. The exhumation continues, and it is estimated that the ravine Propast [downfall] contains at least sixty bodies of the genocide victims. Dani visited the scene of the crime that had been hidden for years

by Irham Ceco

Dani, Sarajevo, Federation Bosnia-Hercegovina, B-H, August 25, 2000

June 15 1992: He walks through the forest slowly. In the column, another fifty people. Around the column, executioners. It is a nice day, the forest is fragrant, but the steps are heavy - the last steps. Thick wire cuts in to the flesh above wrists, but he is growing numb to pain, while trying to understand what is going on with them. The day before, they collected them at the main town square in Visegrad and invited them to join a convoy. Muslims are supposed to leave the town. Not long before that they said that the Yugoslav People's Army was guaranteeing security and introducing order. They were supposed to stay in their homes, return to their jobs and continue peaceful life, as if nothing extremely important was happening. Nevertheless, yesterday they piled them up in eight buses and seven trucks. Men, women, children. "Turks, you're going to your own kind!", "Fuck you Balijas [derogatory term for Muslims-Bosniaks]!", the hatred was spouting from the mouths of acquaintances, neighbors, friends... Silently, like others, he got on a bus. When Zeljko Tasic from Olovo took the women and children out to send them over the separation line, he stayed in the bus. He did not utter a sound while they were beating him up that night in Rogatica. He turned over his documents silently, money, everything they asked from him, just like from the others. Papers were pushed into bags and everyone realized that something was wrong. When before noon they were led into the forest it was already clear that everything was wrong. A handful of men with guns, but they are tied and resigned to their fate. They arrive to the spot named, according to the guards, Paklenik. He does not understand why, until they lead them to the edge of the ravine, an abyss framed by shrubs. The first shot, a piercing pain. He tries to scream while falling, but the voice is gone. While falling to the bottom, he does not feel blows against cold stones, he does not feel the heavy crash of his own fall, only cold. For the last time he hears another shot and then he does not hear anything. Nothing.

August 22, 2000: The name of the ravine is Propast [downfall]. In spite of an eerie name, Paklenik [hell] is an absolutely ordinary grove, which has been hiding horrors for eight years. The number and the names of the victims are still not known. N.N., a witness for the Hague Tribunal has survived the June 15 execution. On that day, Bosniaks from the Visegrad region, villages of Gornji and Donji Dubovik, Velatovo, Zagre, Smijece, Zupa and Dobrun were executed together with him. There were other crimes in Paklenik. The murderers tried to hide the evidence by throwing in soil, stones, dead animals, and animal bones. However, the horror of the truth is beginning to resurface under the detritus. The Commission for War Crimes is preparing for another workday. A tall, middle-aged man with dark Ray Ban sunglasses that he puts on and takes off without an obvious reason, greets Amir Masovic. He warns him that the equipment holding stones taken off the corpses in the ravine is weak and that it should be strengthened. He makes a list of the present individuals and the Dani team. He introduces himself: "Milos Renovica, crime inspector, the Serb Sarajevo Police Station." Colleagues from the BBC want to know what the list is for. "We keep track of visitors, to make sure there is no abuse." The Republic of Srpska (RS) Police is providing security at the crime scene, as well as the members of the Italian SFOR, who are watching the ravine and securing the unpaved approach road.

Eva

Members of the Federation Ministry of Internal Affairs Special Police are placing ropes and securing handholds on the scaffolding and the team is getting ready to climb down the ladder. Anthropologists and workers who will dig put on white, paper, single-use coveralls and one by one descend into the abyss down the ladder leaning against a plank scaffolding. "This ladder is our best investment after Eva!," Masovic says, half in jest. Elvira Eva Klonowski, a Polish woman currently living in Iceland is really, next to Masovic, one of the "engines" of the whole team. White-haired and lively physician Eva really manages everything and does everything. She is a court forensic anthropologist and has been working on Bosnian mass graves since 1996. "You know, in Poland or Iceland, there are a couple cases here and there. This is only also done in Rwanda. I started to work for the Tribunal in 1996." She now works for the State Commission, more or less as a volunteer. "I am doing this from my heart, for Muslims. Actually, from my heart for the victims. Everyone knows who makes up 92 percent of victims in Bosnia. These victims are victims of the aggression, actually victims of genocide. The other eight percent are victims of war. Why should I work for only eight percent of victims."

Sarajevan Nermina Sacic also descends in the ravine. She is an assistant at the Faculty of Political Sciences. "My mother is from Visegrad and 14 of my missing relatives are most likely down there." She will try to recognize her uncle Muharem Zukic by a track suit he put on under his trousers to protect himself from blows if beaten. "If I find the uncle, it will be perhaps easier. It's not much easier, but it is after all somewhat different if you can go to a grave of your loved ones, if nothing else," says Nermina after coming back from the ravine, and continues: "I did not imagine that it would be like this. I don't know if anyone can actually imagine this at all, but there are a lot of animal bones down there. It is slippery, there are corpses everywhere. Those wires, they were killed in a bestial manner. Hopefully the criminals will face some sort of justice, their names are known, thank God, and there are survivors."

Photographs of two bodies found in remains of a track-suit will be examined by the relatives. That could be the first identification. The clothing of other discovered victims will be washed for easier identification, once the exhumation is over. Besides soil, a lot of stones have been thrown in the ravine, so that the clothing decomposed slowly. Next to a corpse the team found remnants of money, German Marks. The paper has decomposed, but the plastic threads are still there.

Abyss

The reporter team of Dani (Ivan Lovrenovic, Nerzuk Curak, Almin Zrno and the author of this article) descends in the ravine. Through an opening overgrown with hazelnut shrubs, weeds and nettles, deeper and deeper. As we descend, it gets colder. There are more nettles, moss, and then bare and wet walls of a karst ravine. In white suits, all of us have a somewhat eerie appearance.

At the bottom of the ladder, at first step we see a corpse. A green sweater, a handful of bones. On the right, a plank wall and a pile of already removed stones and soil. A chain of workers is removing a bucket by bucket of dug up stones and soil, layer by layer revealing the truth. The truth is horror. On the left side, which had been somewhat cleared, a small yellow flag with number seven has been stuck into the ground next to every corpse. Deeper to the left, the ravine has another part curving upward. At the top, separated from others, a barefoot human corpse. Next to him a skeleton of a fox and a pair of mismatched shoes. "He probably remained alive for a while after the shooting and tried to get out. He perhaps pulled the shoes after him. The fox probably smelled something and fell in the ravine," clarifies Masovic. The wrists of the victim are tied by rough, construction wire. It is possible to recognize a bluish-white checkered summer shirt.

There is a mound in the middle. The court pathologists are doing the more sensitive part of the job, clearing bones and clothing with their instruments. "Do not ask much, the investigation is going on," a swarthy pathologist responds with a wry smile to a "technical" question from the journalists. He is busy carefully removing soil. "Here is another skull, give us a bag!" There aren't any bags of the appropriate size at the moment. But there are skulls and many of them are separated from the bodies and frequently roll away towards the bottom. However, it is important to find the vertebra next to the skull for easier completion of a mosaic.

Esref

The ravine is icily cold. Light bulbs, flashlights and reflectors light the killing field. It is not easy to remain composed and do one's job in so much horror and death. Black humor is obviously one of the main defense mechanisms. Workers exchange dirty jokes together with overflowing buckets, tease each other, sometimes smile, but those smiles are sufficiently icy to reveal that no one has gotten used to this.

One pathologist exclaims: "Here, we have a name!" He carefully cleans an opened wallet. "Is there a personal identification card?" asks a special policeman. "No, a check book, from the Post Bank Belgrade. But the man is hundred percent a Muslim!" The name on the discovered document: Esref Muhic.

Around noon there is a blackout and the ravine is again dark, as it has been during the last eight years of hiding the truth about the crime.

Back to the surface, step by step. While the special policemen are boiling a soup, we talk with Dr. Nermin Sarajlic, a resident at the Sarajevo Institute for Forensic Medicine. Dr. Sarajlic has been doing this work for two years. What is it like? "It depends on many factors. It is necessary to call a job a job, to be professional, and work as well as possible. Sometimes it is physically demanding, but one always has to suppress some personal feelings." Is that feasible? "No, it is not," replies the physician, and after a short pause continues quietly: "Journalists can write all sorts of things, but there are no words for those feelings. Perhaps someone who would spend more time with us would understand. But we have to continue, for the sake of the families of those people, for the sake of the truth and facts. It is important that all of us do our part of the job as well as we can, just like these guys, special policemen, who prepare everything for us. Just like Eva, you saw how she works."

The special policemen use the break to fantasize about excursions to the Prenj mountain, unused vacations, and prepare for the rest of the workday. All of them are returning to the ravine, and the Dani team back to Sarajevo. Through Sokolac forests that hid the crime for eight years and probably still hide those who ordered this crime, Mladic and Karadzic. Somewhere around here, probably live the witnesses. Quieter than the victims.


Criminals have names

The survivors from the convoy that on June 14 left Visegrad did not see the death of their loved ones. But they remembered many of those who escorted the convoy and took away males older than 16 in "unknown direction". It is known for sure that Zeljko Tasic fired at Paklenik. As well as Dragan Lukic, a teacher from Sokolac. The list of the "armed escort" of the convoy was given to us by witnesses Mula, Dervisa and Rahima Omerovic, Rahima, Zineta and Nazija Zukic and Juso Karaman and Zaim Spahic. All of them were in the convoy on the day the part of the convoy ended up in the killing field.


Translated on September 18, 2000
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