by Danijel KOVACEVIC
How many times have we heard such or similar statements of BH politicians and nodded our heads in approval?
We all fully support such statements, but only until the discussion about concrete crimes, concrete names, or concrete locations starts. At that point, a majority, on all sides, turns away saying that we could only start discussing our crimes after "they" start discussing their crimes against "us".
End so on, ad infinitum. In the grayness of the somber daily life, calling on the most absurd alibi of all, we try to escape the ghosts from the past.
The cruel reality is different. The scene of the opened mass grave in Ljubija, bodies in bags and the presence of death erases all the possible alibis.
Fully aware of everything mentioned above, a Reporter team headed for Ljubija, a mining town near Prijedor, where recently the largest mass grave so far has been found.
The grave contains bodies of Bosniaks, mostly residents of the villages near Prijedor.
Expecting possible problems, but unsure of what exactly, we first stopped at the IPTF station in Prijedor. Just in case, so that someone knew where we were going. In IPTF they could not be of help (we did not expect any), but they sent us to the Police station in Ljubija, which provides security for the exhumations and which should, as they told us in the IPTF, "if nothing else, at least provide basic information about the location of the grave".
Location: Although skeptical regarding cooperation with the local police, we were pleasantly surprised. The employees of the Police station in Ljubija were extremely professional and provided a lot of valuable assistance to our team.
Besides the local Police from Ljubija, the security for the exhumations is provided by a unit of Gurkhas, members of a tribe from Nepal who serve under the flag of the United Kingdom. Although they have the reputation of possibly the best soldiers in the world, the first impression belied that assertion. They totally ignored us but peacefully continued with, for them obviously very interesting, a game of cards.
Besides a yellow tape saying "scene of crime, stop, Police", nothing indicates that something is happening at this spot. There is no noise of machines or a din of conversation. It is strange that even birds are silent.
The well-known unpleasant smell of decomposing bodies is also absent.
Dead silence is interrupted by the sound of shovels and pickaxes that can be heard from time to time, somewhere from below, from the bottom of the former open cast mine. We notice striking white bags with bodies at the bottom of this crater. They remind one of spring snow that still hasn't melted.
"You could have a lot of trouble," is the first sentence spoken by Jasmin Odobasic, after meeting us. Odobasic is the vice-president of the Commission for Missing Persons from the Federation BH and the leader of the exhumation team at Jakarina Kosa, as the mass grave is officially named. To our questioning looks, Odobasic responds that we are the only journalists from Srpska to visit the mass grave in Jakarina Kosa. "The officials also haven't visited us, neither the entity nor local (from Prijedor) politicians. Ivancevic from the Srpska Commission for Missing Persons showed up for five minutes. He promised to bring [Prime Minister] Ivanic, but nothing came out of that."
Exhumations at Jakarina Kosa, formerly a part of the open cast mine "Ljubija", started on September 11, and so far 353 bodies have been found. It is impossible to give a reliable estimate of how many bodies remain in the grave.
"At first we exhumed as many as 20 bodies a day, but as we are drawing nearer to the top, the numbers are falling. We exhumed many bodies, but we do not expect that the total will exceed 400," Odobasic adds while we go down the slope towards the bottom of the mine. Every step triggers a small landslide. "We are close to the end, I mean the top of the grave... we've had problems with the bulldozer. It's hard to steer, the soil keeps coming down...," he explains trying to overpower the noise of the bulldozer, which has just started digging.
Ribs or fingers: The mass grave is shaped as a funnel. It is 85.3 meters deep, at the top the width is 22 meters, while at the bottom it is 40 meters. While we try to find firm soil to stand on, because the soil keeps sliding from under our feet, we hear Odobasic's cry: "Stop... stop... a body". The bulldozer has found another body. The exhumation team finds remains of human bones in the soil brought up by the machine. "I think that is a hand, I think I saw fingers...," driver says. "No, that's ribs," Odobasic responds,"...there's another Ambassador blanket. We've found hundreds so far. They probably wrapped corpses in blankets to suppress the stench..."
Suddenly, we feel queasy. Nausea and vertigo overcome us; in the last ten years, we've all seen all sorts of things, but a human being cannot get used to certain things. Despite everything, we keep staring at the just found corpse...
According to Odobasic, Jakarina Kosa is a secondary grave, which means that bodies from other graves were moved to this location. Odobasic did not want to speculate about locations of primary graves, emphasizing that there are some indications about that, but that nothing could be claimed with any certainty. However, he emphasized that the management of the mine and the leadership of the Republic of Srpska had to know about the movement of the bodies, which probably took place in 1994. "Above all, that was a lot of corpses, and secondly, they were thrown in the unused open cast mine (it hadn't been used since 1986), after which someone drilled holes in rocks that were used to set off explosives. The explosion and a landslide covered the bodies.
"It was necessary to drill holes in the rocks in order to place explosives and that can be done only with a special drill, which could only be provided by the mine and can only be used by specially trained individuals."
Odobasic finds evidence for this assertions in traces of explosives he found near the grave as well as in holes that can be seen on the nearby rocks.
Red bones: Some of the victims were identified based on the discovered documents, personal objects and watches with engraved dedications, which former miners received after working for the mine for a certain number of years. According to Odobasic, in the lower part of the grave, where most bodies were found, most of the victims are men from Prijedor, and the villages of Kunare, Cereci, Kenjari, Kevljani. In the middle part, at meter 60, there are residents of the village of Biscani, hamlets of Hegici, Ambarine, Cerakovine, Rizvanovici...
According to witnesses, victims from the bottom of the grave were killed most likely in late May 1992, while the victims from the middle part of the grave were killed between July 20 and 23 of the same year.
"Most of them are men, although we found bodies of a couple of women and minors, but we will be able to say more about that after completed autopsies." For now, it is difficult to say how the victims were killed. Abdulmedzid Music, investigative magistrate of the cantonal court in Bihac says: "We found quite a few bullets and it won't be difficult to establish who was killed by a bullet, but regarding those who were killed by a knife or some other sharp of blunt object, that will be hard, because the bodies have already decomposed."
Jakarina Kosa is a former open cast iron ore mine; as every ore, this one also contains a lot of sulfur, which additionally damages bodies.
"This team has so far done more than 2,900 exhumations in more than 80 locations, but we still haven't seen red bones, like here," Odobasic explains.
Someone talked: Grave Jakarina Kosa was found by chance, people from the Federation BH Commission for the Missing claim. Allegedly, this former open cast mine was surrounded by embankments, which was suspicious. However, one look at this location makes their claim doubtful, because this is only one of many open cast mines within "Ljubija", and all of them are almost identical. Access on foot, without adequate mechanization, is almost impossible, and the true shape of the mine can be seen only from air.
Exactly such configuration of the terrain forces one to conclude that the grave wasn't discovered by chance and that, as one of the residents of Ljubija said, "...someone sang in the Hague."
After spending a few hours with the team working on the exhumation of the mass grave, one gats the impression that these people have long ago stopped asking themselves who and why committed war crimes in BH. Instead they want to know why the current leaders of this country aren't trying to help that the search for the missing finally be completed.
To give peace to the ghosts, to make sure that the dead can rest in peace and that the families of the missing finally start living more-or-less normal lives, whatever that may mean. Jasmin Odobasic's request to the Reporter team sounded almost like a cry in a desert: "You, journalists, should push them. It cannot go on like this..."
We leave the grave Jakarina Kosa, unsettled by what we have seen and experienced.
Disbelief, mixed with nausea and desperation, is cut short by a song of the American punk band "Papa Roach", coming from one of the local cafes in Ljubija: "Cut my life into pieces..."