Michael Dobbs

Genocide without corpses

The Newsweek headline from November 1996 –“Genocide Without Corpses” — summed up the mystery confronting international war crimes prosecutors as they began investigating the most serious massacre to occur in Europe since World War II. Based on the number of people reported missing following the fall of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica in ...

The Newsweek headline from November 1996 –“Genocide Without Corpses” — summed up the mystery confronting international war crimes prosecutors as they began investigating the most serious massacre to occur in Europe since World War II. Based on the number of people reported missing following the fall of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica in July 1995, they had every reason to conclude that as many as 8,000 Muslim prisoners had been executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic. But the mass graves associated with the execution sites contained the remains of only a few hundred victims.

The answer to the mystery came in 1998, when investigators began excavating a suspected burial site, photographed above, near a village called Cancari in a mountain valley. When they analyzed DNA samples of bones recovered from the Cancari site, along with pieces of rope and articles of clothing, they established a link with the execution site at Branjevo military farm, some thirty miles to the north. They eventually discovered at least eight other sites along the Cancari road that contained the missing corpses from Branjevo.

It turned out that the men who ordered the mass executions of Muslim men and boys following the capture of Srebrenica had also orchestrated a massive cover-up to conceal the original crime. As international concern mounted about the fate of the Srebrenica prisoners in September 1995, Mladic’s men mobilized a fleet of bulldozers and mechanical excavators to dig up the original graves and scatter the remains of the victims in dozens of secondary burial sites across eastern Bosnia.

The map below illustrates the odyssey of one group of Muslims who fled northwards from Srebrenica (marked with an S) on July 11, and were captured by Bosnian Serb forces near the town of Nova Kasaba (1 on the map), as recorded by a U.S. reconnaissance photo on July 13. After spending the night on buses in the town of Bratunac, as described in a previous post, the prisoners were taken to a school near Pilica (2 on the map) on July 14.  On July 16, they were taken to Branjevo farm (3 on the map), where they were lined up next to a pre-dug grave, and executed. At the end of September, their remains were dug up and reburied in Cancari. (4 on the map.)

Click on icons for further details and photographs. Zoom in to discover precise locations.


View Coverup in a larger map

American spy satellites recorded the cover-up, just as they recorded the original crime. The following series of photographs enable us to date this cover-up very precisely. The first photograph shows the Branjevo site on September 27, 1995. A newly excavated trench is visible, along with backhoe and front loader for removing the corpses.

The next photograph shows the Cancari site the same day, September 27. Some tracks are visible, along with evidence of preliminary digging.

The third photograph shows the Cancari site on October 2, with a freshly dug grave, now refilled.

The next photograph shows skulls and other human remains discovered by war crimes investigators during their 1998 re-exhumation of the Cancari site.

The final photograph shows the Cancari valley of eastern Bosnia, which contains at least twelve secondary graves containing the remains of Muslim prisoners executed at Branjevo farm and elsewhere.

The Newsweek headline from November 1996 –“Genocide Without Corpses” — summed up the mystery confronting international war crimes prosecutors as they began investigating the most serious massacre to occur in Europe since World War II. Based on the number of people reported missing following the fall of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica in July 1995, they had every reason to conclude that as many as 8,000 Muslim prisoners had been executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic. But the mass graves associated with the execution sites contained the remains of only a few hundred victims.

The answer to the mystery came in 1998, when investigators began excavating a suspected burial site, photographed above, near a village called Cancari in a mountain valley. When they analyzed DNA samples of bones recovered from the Cancari site, along with pieces of rope and articles of clothing, they established a link with the execution site at Branjevo military farm, some thirty miles to the north. They eventually discovered at least eight other sites along the Cancari road that contained the missing corpses from Branjevo.

It turned out that the men who ordered the mass executions of Muslim men and boys following the capture of Srebrenica had also orchestrated a massive cover-up to conceal the original crime. As international concern mounted about the fate of the Srebrenica prisoners in September 1995, Mladic’s men mobilized a fleet of bulldozers and mechanical excavators to dig up the original graves and scatter the remains of the victims in dozens of secondary burial sites across eastern Bosnia.

The map below illustrates the odyssey of one group of Muslims who fled northwards from Srebrenica (marked with an S) on July 11, and were captured by Bosnian Serb forces near the town of Nova Kasaba (1 on the map), as recorded by a U.S. reconnaissance photo on July 13. After spending the night on buses in the town of Bratunac, as described in a previous post, the prisoners were taken to a school near Pilica (2 on the map) on July 14.  On July 16, they were taken to Branjevo farm (3 on the map), where they were lined up next to a pre-dug grave, and executed. At the end of September, their remains were dug up and reburied in Cancari. (4 on the map.)

Click on icons for further details and photographs. Zoom in to discover precise locations.


View Coverup in a larger map

American spy satellites recorded the cover-up, just as they recorded the original crime. The following series of photographs enable us to date this cover-up very precisely. The first photograph shows the Branjevo site on September 27, 1995. A newly excavated trench is visible, along with backhoe and front loader for removing the corpses.

The next photograph shows the Cancari site the same day, September 27. Some tracks are visible, along with evidence of preliminary digging.

The third photograph shows the Cancari site on October 2, with a freshly dug grave, now refilled.

The next photograph shows skulls and other human remains discovered by war crimes investigators during their 1998 re-exhumation of the Cancari site.

The final photograph shows the Cancari valley of eastern Bosnia, which contains at least twelve secondary graves containing the remains of Muslim prisoners executed at Branjevo farm and elsewhere.

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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