Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
"Be careful up there, further up from the road into the forest is the front line and it's heavily mined." He said. That was not surprising, but what we didn't expect was an encounter on a much more personal level.
AFTER THE FALL OF SREBRENICA, mixed groups of soldiers and civilians roamed the overrun pocket bouncing off Serbian patrols and ambushes. The situation was desperate to say the least. Moving at night, groups large and small were gunned down and left where they fell. It was hard to imagine the terror these doomed people experienced on the open hillside where Angelica, Christian deLutz of Action Press and I visited their bones.
Like all of these places I have visited it is only possible to examine the physical evidence on site and try to draw some insight from that and try not to let the whispering in the trees drive into my soul, or worse.
As always, getting there is half the fun. We started out to the site while we were waiting around the Kravica warehouse on a recommendation from our friend Bruno of ABC TV who had been one of the first to visit there.
About 2,000 yards east of Kravica we found a little village and the dirt road up to the hill. The village had no name and had been razed in earlier bouts of ethnic cleansing. I began worrying about mines right off the bat. I figured that with all the war crimes stuff going on around there, it would be just like some disgruntled local to put down a couple of mines for the next carload of hated journalists on their way to "tell more lies about Serbs." Just off the main road, I brought my venerable Polo to a halt and leaving Christian at the wheel, went on ahead and started probing suspect spots with my SOG Paratool.
THE FIRST 50 METERS to a rickety wooden bridge were a tad nerve-racking because recent rain would have washed away any tell-tale digging marks. Once at the bridge however, I saw tractor tracks and evidence that local woodcutters had been using the road. Someone might be keen to take out some journalists, but I found it doubtful they would like to blow up their uncle or neighbor, so I breathed a little easier. Still, I was not going to take too many liberties trying to predict the unpredictable and rode on the roof, Mad Max style, as Christian pointed out, to keep my eyes open for anything suspicious. Good thing I did. As we were taking a hard, uphill turn to the site, I looked back and saw a green Zastava loaded with some unsavory looking youths following us up.
Mines are one thing, but close encounters of the hillbilly kind are quite another. "Chris, first chance you get, pull off and let these jokers get past us." They had gained considerably on us by the time we pulled off and as soon as we stopped I jumped off, whipped down the old fly, and pretended to heed nature's call.
I shot them one of those goofy, Joe tourist grins as they putted past. They returned icy stares and picked at their scruffy beards. They were young, late teens, early twenties, and were wearing mix and match militia uniforms. I noticed the ugly snout of an AK-47 or two tucked away as well. They were definitely not the Welcome Wagon.
AFTER THEY HAD GONE, I hopped back up on the Polo's roof and Christian started up again, keeping in their car tracks. If someone was playing the land-mine game up there, the Zastava would let us know. A short distance further, past another group of razed buildings we came to the ambush site.
Below, scattered all the way to woods were similar piles. Looking closely at the roadsides and the field above us, I saw where investigators and earlier groups of journalists had been, so if there were mines about someone else would have found them. We quietly made our way into the first killing ground.
It was a simple affair from the road, just some piles of rags on the gentle slope. You wouldn't really know what was there if you hadn't been looking for it and it was a lovely, sunny spring day. Anywhere else and we could just as easily been a group of picnickers. But we were in Eastern Bosnia and somewhere nearby lurked mines and a green Zastava full of local, armed yahoos -- up to god knows what. From there on in we spoke in hushed tones.
The road we were on cut across the face of a big hill that stretched down to a lush valley below and a small creek. On the crest above us were little rag piles here and there and an old trench line.
PLACES LIKE THIS CAN bring out all kinds of feelings, so I let my forensics mindset do my thinking and tried to get a picture of what had happened there last summer. The folks on that hill never had a real chance. They had been caught in the open on an exposed hillside. It was probably night time, and judging from the placement of the bodies down hill towards the valley floor, panic broke out during the first shots. I looked around and observed the probable firing positions and formulated a rough estimate of the size of the group who got hit.
There were about thirty people in the group and I surmised that they were pursued from behind and hit from both flanks as they ran. Hunted down and killed was the simplified version. Their bones had been scattered to a degree by animals or such and they laid in all sorts of twisted repose, their flesh mostly decomposed and their tattered clothes going the same way. Closer examination told a hundred smaller, personal tales. One boy, who couldn't have been over 17 years old, was being carried on a makeshift stretcher when he died. He still wore a pair of well-used cross trainers, but his lower right leg had been shattered at some point and the bone stuck jaggedly out of his pants leg. The men who had been carrying him fell almost at his side. You could tell they were older by their clothes and their bones. An older brother, his father perhaps.
"They were bringing out their wounded." I said to no-one in particular, more like a eulogy for brave men. I hoped they had heard me.
Scattered around was the rest of their squad, a big fellow bringing up the rear, a couple of others on the flank and their point man who had almost made it to the road. Amongst his bones were several SKS chargers with the corroding rounds still in them. He was the only one of the group who had any ammunition with him. The rifles, however many they may have had, had been policed up by their ambushers long ago. Whoever had hit them had also removed all their documents from their wallets and they lay scattered about like the so many empty shells of their lives.
THE ONLY SOUND HAD BEEN THE WIND and our camerasí motor drives, but as we moved about recording the scene on film, rifle shots rang out. I cocked an ear for the tell-tale snap of bullets coming in our direction and tried to get a fix on the shooters with my field glasses. No luck. More shots told us they were down in the valley and you could hear the crack of the slugs as they snapped through the trees on the opposite hillside. I glanced at Christian. He sent back a knowing look and we strained again to pinpoint their location. As it stood, they were a couple of klicks away and we were not in immediate danger, but they were making their presence known.
Christian and I agreed that they were probably just red-necking around, shooting cans and the like. It was, after all, a good day for a stroll in the woods. No matter, I kept my ears cocked and my eyes peeled as we went back across the road and down the hills to inspect other remains, leaving Angelica at the car. She had seen enough and left us to our grim work.
All the way down the hill into the woods below, more people had scattered in the headlong flight from their pursuers. A single corpse here, a small group there. Some out in the open, and others who had made small clumps of trees that topped the few terraces in the field. Here we found one boy, in his early twenties by the look of his bones. He, and the stretcher party are the images that stay with me.
We walked all the way down to the edge of the field where it turned into a steep gully that ran down to the creek. A small scatter of bones marked the spot where one person had almost made it to safety. Further down in the woods where it leveled off at the creek bed stood a lonely cemetery. The whole futility of that terror filled rush down the hill struck me with sick mockery. Headlong flight through a hail of death only to land in a cemetery. The irony was too grim, but as it turned out we wouldn't have that much time to reflect on it.
HE HAD MADE IT TO SOME TREES, a good solid knot of them, and had been facing the road. He had been returning fire against impossible odds. Spent brass and a couple of loaded chargers for his SKS were still at his side. He had been firing uphill and when he was hit he fell over backwards, his face smashed. He still clutched a small sapling in his now skeletal hand. When I looked to my left, the small cluster of razed buildings along the road stared back almost mockingly. The boy had been flanked and never stood a chance. His shattered ribs told of the machine-gun hit that snuffed out this brave life. Christian and I left him in silence and in peace.
The sun was still bright and an A-10 was making practice runs over our car as he maintained his station, on call for the investigation team down at the warehouse. I can't tell you how comforting it is to see your guys overhead, but his presence struck me as ominous as we walked further down the hill. I had the feeling he was trying to tell us something with his low level runs and the flares he popped on his pull up. We hadn't heard from the boys in the valley in a while and it made me nervous not knowing where they were. We kept our eyes peeled.
THE BURST OF AK FIRE from up on the road above us shattered the silence and sent flocks of crows clattering out of the trees, calling out their alarm. I looked at Christian and he at me with that international expression for "Oh shit!!" If we didn't know where our band of prowlers were before, we sure as hell knew now. They were above us with a AK and we were smack dab in the open ground, downhill, with cameras. Pathetic. It was time to shag ass out of there, and we did, with vigor.
When we reached the road, breathless and with all sorts of bad images of what would happen when we got there, Angelica was standing there, white as a sheet. The prowlers had disappeared around the bend like a group of phantoms. "I was just standing here and the next thing they are right at car!" she said, almost shaking. "They just walk up and say 'Dobar dan'. I say hello in English and they just look at me like... oh god... then they just go past and start shooting."
We were already in the car and I was roaring down the road in reverse at about 60k, there being no place to turn around. "They just give me look... oh god... they look at me like... like..." and on and on as I spun the Polo around, Thunder road, bootleg style down by the destroyed village. It was one time when the muffler could have stayed up there on that hill for all I cared. Good car that it is, she kept her pipe. We had come, we had seen, and we were hauling ass.
Whether or not they were just playing with us or warning us off will never be known. Our hearts were still racing long after we reached the safety of the investigation party and their NATO escorts. We do know, however, that the images from that hill and the icy stares of our woodland phantoms will take much longer to settle.
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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