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Ghosts in the Woods

Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief

Lukici, Eastern Bosnia
Lukici, Eastern Bosnia, 20 kilometers west-northwest of Zvornik.
After the fall of Srebrenica, Muslim prisoners were detianed in the village for two weeks, then taken to these woods and executed.

Lukici, BosniaHERE'S NOTHING VERY DRAMATIC about a mass grave except an unsettling presence that one can feel if one looks for it. It's a hard feeling to describe. There's nothing loud or immediately apparent about it, only the feeling of someone looking over your shoulder or a soft whisper in the trees. When you turn to look, there's nothing there. When you leave, the feeling stays with you for days.

It's the same kind of feeling I had when I visited a site known as the "Dump" at the Second Battle of Mannassas. At that place during the two day slaughter along an unfinished railroad line in 1862, Confederates who had been rounded up hanging back from the front line were placed there by General Jackson's military police. It was the only gap in the line and the Union Army went right for it. There was no cover and the slaughter that took place there was sobering. To this day, horses, dogs and other wildlife avoid the area and visitors strolling the line overlooking the gently rolling Virginia farmland report the same feelings of a presence they can't quite define.

The village of Lukici and the woods down by an equally unused railroad have much the same feeling, only stronger. No one knows for sure how many men fell there, but while the Rebels at the Dump could at least fight back, the men at Lukici didn't have any chance whatever. This was where I first met up with the team investigating the mass killings after the fall of Srebrenica.

The village where they were conducing their investigation was much like all the rest of the little, one road towns in Eastern Bosnia. It smelled of chickens, dust, and diesel. There was the usual gaggle of children around the escorting IFOR vehicles. This was a good day for them, they got out of school early while the team did their forensics work in the school. There was, however, an uneasy feeling to the town. Unlike the Muslim areas west of there, the villagers, the children, and the investigation team were unusually tight-lipped. The team wouldn't say anything beyond the fact that they were indeed the team, the children barely smiled and were bashful, and the villagers, many of them Serbs who had fled Sarajevo during the handover looked on with a mixture of distrust, distaste, and disillusion.

HAT LITTLE WE COULD LEARN about what went on there was pretty straightforward. Muslim men, prisoners from Srebrenica, had been brought to the school, held there, and then were taken down to the woods and shot. They had been dumped into an open hole, had their personal effects thrown into a trash heap nearby and then were covered over with a bulldozer. Later, in a crude attempt to cover up the crime, unknown parties removed the decomposed bodies and took them to points unknown. All that remained at the site were a few bones, scraps of cloth, and freshly turned earth. It was all very mundane and sterile save for the unshakable feeling that you were being watched, being called to.

The next day we went to another location, this time closer to Srebrenica on the road to Bratunac. In a roadside warehouse in the village of Kravica a much more violent, haphazard massacre took place. Again the only word we could get from the investigators was that they were indeed investigating, but the consensus among the gathered press corps was that Muslim prisoners from Srebrenica had been held there, had met their fate, and had been buried elsewhere.

At Kravica, west of Bratunac, war crimes investigators examine the warehouse where Muslim prisoners were gunned down after Srebrenica. Kravica, Bosnia

NE LOOK AT THE BUILDING and it wasn't too hard to determine the fate part. The front of the building and its doorways had been peppered with small-arms and machine-gun fire as well as a few anti-aircraft shells. Whoever had been in that warehouse never stood a chance. The place was literally blown to hell, and looking at it and watching the investigation team place their little markers and talk into their tape recorders a chill came over me despite the warm spring sunshine.

As there wasn't a whole lot to do besides watch the investigators and chat with my colleagues, I started to poke around the side of the road after noticing some spent brass lying there. It's always kind of satisfying to do a little forensic work of your own and it didn't take long to get a pretty good picture of what went down on the firing line that day. It's quite amazing, if you know what your looking at, to see a tale unfold in the scattered debris left over at the scene of these kinds of things. With a little looking I could soon tell the formation of the shooting line, the weapons used and the types of troops using them.

A charging clip for an SKS carbine lays on the roadside where it was thrown by Serb militiamen during the massacre at Kravica warehouse. Kravica, Bosnia

HE ROAD RUNS PARALLEL to the warehouse and is raised several feet above the yard and the fence surrounding the place, forming a ditch of sorts. Along its edge I started finding spent 7.62x39 caliber rifle casings and the little charging clips used to load ten shot semi-automatic SKS carbines. From where they were laying and where the brass had fallen, I put the number of shooters on the road at about 20.

They had spaced themselves in a standard skirmish line with about five to ten feet between shooters. Here and there was an empty pack of Serbian cigarettes. On the pavement there were the telltale gouges left by an armored vehicle, either a tank or a half-track. Also scattered about on the roadside and in the ditch was a number of spent 7.62x79 rimmed brass from a belt-fed PKM machine-gun. The rounds were scattered and not in the usual pile left by this kind of weapon, so I figure that they were from the armored vehicle and had been thrown overboard after the shooting stopped. I also found a live, egg-style Yugoslav Army hand grenade laying in the ditch, lost during the chaos.

Kravica, Bosnia
US Army Engineer attached to the war crimes investigation team marks a live hand grenade found by Bartlett at the site of the Kravica warehouse massacre.

ROM WHAT I COULD TELL, a platoon-sized unit, supported by some kind of APC had spread out on the road in front of the warehouse. They had smoked cigarettes and in keeping with survivors accounts and the usual way of doing things here, were probably drinking as well. At some point they received orders to open fire which they did with a vengeance, each man firing sixty to a hundred rounds into the building.

I believe they were militia. This conclusion comes from the SKS chargers present. Front line BSA units are equipped predominantly with full auto AK-47s which do not use charging clips. Semi-auto SKSs go to second string troops; local militias and home defense outfits.

Then there were the shot patterns on the building. Scattered and helter-skelter, like shooting fish in a barrel. No blindfolds, no single shot, execution style precision, more like a bunch of drunken yahoos blazing away for all they were worth.

Inside, though they wouldn't say a word about it, I'm sure the investigators were drawing much the same conclusions. A lot of people had been ruthlessly gunned down here in a blazing orgy of violence, some, according to David Rohde of the Christian Science Monitor, had left their bloody hand-prints on the walls as they fell under the barrage. It was David, you may remember, who found this site and spent some time in a Serb jail for it last fall before winning a Pulitzer prize for his work.

As the sun was starting to dip behind the hills we loaded up for the drive back to Tuzla, leaving these places in peace but with heavy, sick hearts. Another gruesome chapter in Yugoslavia's implosion had been written in these places and no matter what happens in the Hague or anywhere else, the ghosts of helpless men, butchered without mercy or quarter will whisper through the forests and fields here for a long time to come. I, for one, was glad to be on my way.

Additional resources
Serbs Massacre Muslims in "Safe Area" of Srebrenica
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia United Nations
Coalition for International Justice
Reports concerning human rights abuses in Bosnia Intac Access
Major War Criminals/Suspects CalTech's Bosnia Site
Reports on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia CalTech's Bosnia Site

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