The archeology of mass murder

The above photograph shows a fully clothed body of a murdered Muslim man from Srebrenica that was recovered from the Kozluk execution/mass grave site next to the Drina river, some thirty miles to the north. As you can see from the markings on the photo, there is convincing evidence that this man was the victim ...

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The above photograph shows a fully clothed body of a murdered Muslim man from Srebrenica that was recovered from the Kozluk execution/mass grave site next to the Drina river, some thirty miles to the north. As you can see from the markings on the photo, there is convincing evidence that this man was the victim of a mass execution. His eyes are blindfolded, his hands are tied behind his back, and an empty bullet casing lies in the mud next to him. The autopsy report showing that he was killed by bullet wounds to the chest is available here.

But what about the other 6,000-7,000 people whose remains were discovered at Kozluk and other such crime scenes? Supporters of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leaders accused of genocide, concede that some of these people were murdered in "revenge killings." They insist, however, that a significant proportion of these remains belong to Muslim soldiers who died "in combat" as they headed north from Srebrenica on July 11-15, 1995, following the fall of the United Nations "safe area."

Proving that the Srebrenica-related mass graves are in fact mixed graves is central to the defense case in the Karadzic trial, which is underway right now. Defending himself in front of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal earlier this month, the former Bosnian Serb president advanced the theory that the mass graves were the result of "terrain clear-up operations after combat."

The above photograph shows a fully clothed body of a murdered Muslim man from Srebrenica that was recovered from the Kozluk execution/mass grave site next to the Drina river, some thirty miles to the north. As you can see from the markings on the photo, there is convincing evidence that this man was the victim of a mass execution. His eyes are blindfolded, his hands are tied behind his back, and an empty bullet casing lies in the mud next to him. The autopsy report showing that he was killed by bullet wounds to the chest is available here.

But what about the other 6,000-7,000 people whose remains were discovered at Kozluk and other such crime scenes? Supporters of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leaders accused of genocide, concede that some of these people were murdered in "revenge killings." They insist, however, that a significant proportion of these remains belong to Muslim soldiers who died "in combat" as they headed north from Srebrenica on July 11-15, 1995, following the fall of the United Nations "safe area."

Proving that the Srebrenica-related mass graves are in fact mixed graves is central to the defense case in the Karadzic trial, which is underway right now. Defending himself in front of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal earlier this month, the former Bosnian Serb president advanced the theory that the mass graves were the result of "terrain clear-up operations after combat."

 Look at the comments sections from my previous posts and you will find several revisionist Srebrenica "experts" intent on arguing a very similar "mixed grave" hypothesis. Take this comment from someone called Andy Wilcoxson, who has spent a lot of time and energy attempting to discredit the tribunal:

If disposing of the combat casualties was my job I’d get a truck, I’d drive around, pick-up the bodies, load them on the truck, and if I knew about somebody with a backhoe who was already digging a grave in the area, I’d drive over there and drop the bodies off with them so I wouldn’t have to go to the work of digging a separate grave by myself…The combat casualties and the execution victims come from the same group of people. They went missing at about the same time, they died at about the same time, and they all died within about 50 miles of each other, so why wouldn’t they be buried together?

Sounds plausible, no? Or at least hypothetically possible. The only problem is that it flies in the face of all the forensic evidence.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it seems likely that as many as a thousand soldiers/refugees from Srebrenica were killed in what can loosely be described as "combat-related" operations. Their bodies were found in shallow graves along the route of the march. But there is no evidence at all-and a lot of evidence to the contrary-to support the Karadzic/Wilcoxson position.

First of all, there is all the evidence of mass executions recovered from the gravesites: ligatures, blindfolds, bullet casings, bullet wounds not consistent with "combat" injuries. Then there is evidence gathered by professional archeologists who were able to group bodies together through careful analysis of artefacts recovered from the gravesite and soil samples. Establishing links between the various primary and secondary grave sites around Srebrenica was akin to a huge archeological investigation. Finally there is the evidence of eyewitnesses who survived the mass executions or participated in the cover-up operation.;

Most persuasive to me in rebutting the Karadzic/Wilcoxson arguments was this February 2011 testimony from Dean Manning, an Australian police officer and forensic scientist responsible for investigating many of the crime scenes. He explained that groups of bodies can be identified through common characteristics, particularly the soil that attaches to the victims after they fall to the ground. By analyzing these characteristics, archeologists and forensic scientists would be able to tell if someone had dumped extraneous bodies into a mass grave.

If you saw casualties picked up from a battlefield, you would expect to see that sort of information reflected in the graves, and it wasn’t. The mass graves, the execution points, contained bodies and individuals that indicated they had been executed, not that they had been fighting and had been shot in 20 different locations through the Bosnian countryside and then collected up. If that happened with a machine, I would expect to see the machine scoop the body up and dump it in a truck. So you have soil from that location…We didn’t see that.

But how can you tell that someone you find in a mass grave has not been executed, the judge persisted. Manning cited Kozluk as an example.

If they brought one body, we wouldn’t know that person was not executed. If they brought ten bodies…they would have a layer of soil which would be different to Kozluk. It certainly wouldn’t be the same. If they’d picked those bodies up and thrown them in the back of a truck and then driven them to Kozluk and then dumped them, you would see a tangle of ten bodies or a hundred bodies in that area of the grave. You would see that they had been dumped in the grave, or you would see that they had been thrown into the grave. We didn’t see that. At Kozluk, we saw them executed and falling where they were shot. 

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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