The Graves

The Graves

Why dig up mass graves? Eric Stover argues that not only does it allow one to identify the cause of death and “corroborate the stories of the handful of men” who had managed to survive but there “is also the need to set the historical record straight” (145). Satellite photos of mass graves were dismissed by Bosnian Serb officials as men that had died in combat (Stover, 145). Finding victims’ hands bound and shattered skulls that were blindfolded help prove that it was an execution. The victims of Srebrenica “were the key pieces of evidence” that mass murder had been committed (Jennings, 50). On top of that “families of the missing would finally know the fate of their loved ones and be able to give them a proper burial” (Stover, 145).

Profile of the Forensic Anthropologists

Forensic anthropology is the work of looking at a person after they died to find out what happened to them before they died (Koff, 8). It has played a larger and larger role in human rights investigations “because a dead body can incriminate perpetrators who believe they have silenced their victims forever” (Koff, 8-9). Clea Koff is one anthropologist who worked on Bosnia’s mass graves. She says she aspires “to give a voice to people silenced by their own governments or militaries, people suppressed in the most final way; murdered and put into clandestine graves” (17).

It takes a particular kind of person to find joy in recovering bodies from mass graves. Nine hours of detangling limbs was “uniquely mellowing and fulfilling” for Clea Koff (133). But why put all this effort into recovering so many bodies? Koff discusses in her book Bone Woman how she developed a “double vision” while working in Rwanda and Bosnia. While seeing the bodies analytically through her own eyes as a forensic scientist she was also hit with emotion and saw the bodies through the eyes of their loved ones. She suffered an emotional breakdown while examining a young man’s bullet-lodged femur (Koff, 152). Suddenly she was the boy on the hillside where she had been digging and she could feel the pain of the bullet piercing her leg (Koff, 153). Images relayed from women she interviewed about her missing son filled Koff’s mind and she lost all sense of self (Koff, 153). She was usually “energized and even happy” when unearthing bones but in Rwanda and Bosnia she developed a loss of distance as her mind reconstructed vivid images of the victim’s last moments (Koff, 155). Koff said that because of this, she felt that she had two duties: to identify the bodies to incriminate the perpetrators, but also to return them to their families (138).

James Dawes’ book on genocide includes a quote from an interview with Koff during her work in Rwanda. When asked how she dealt with the dead bodies she responded “gently”, “I’m thinking ‘We’re coming. We’re coming to take you out’.” (68, Dawes). Clearly, it takes a certain kind of mentality to deal with victims’ bodies, but a kind of mentality that we can all admire.


Digging began around Srebrenica a year after the men and boys disappeared (Koff, 118).Bosnia was a unique situation because the women had been separated from the men and were allowed to survive (Koff, 120). This left many relatives of the dead around for investigators to interview and eventually collect DNA samples from. Unfortunately, the graves were all in the newly established Republika Srpska or Bosnian Serb controlled territory (Jennings, 70). Tensions were high, photos of the investigators were found on a police station’s wall, and NATO soldiers had to be assigned to protect the graves from tampering at night (Jennings, 70).

At first look it appeared that bodies had disappeared from the graves, only fragments remained (Jennings, 69). The teams quickly realized that the graves had been reopened and the bodies had been disturbed in an effort to move and conceal them (Delpla, 31). Tire tracks pointed to mechanical equipment such as dump trucks and bulldozers had been used to scoop out and move them, leading to the breaking up of bodies and second graves that were piles of just parts (Jennings, 47/53). The patterns of these machines were taken and eventually matched to several abandoned vehicles in military barracks near Srebrenica (Jennings, 78).

There were five primary grave sites and 29 to 31 secondary sites (Jennings, 52/54). The parts in the secondary graves were far more decomposed after being exposed to air during the move making it difficult to work with the bodies (Jennings, 53). The teams began to connect the primary and secondary grave sites using evidence found in the secondary graves. One secondary grave had fragments of “distinctive green glass containers” with white and red labels that matched the contents of a garbage pile at a bottling plant where Srebrenican men had been executed (Jennings, 54). The glass fragments lead a trail.

During the process of moving bodies from primary mass graves to secondary one, body parts were broken up (Delpla, 144). There were stories of children playing with decomposing legs that had fallen off trucks (Delpla, 144). The International Commission on Missing Persons (formed by Bill Clinton in 1996 during the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the conflict in Bosnia (ICMP)) used a large-scale DNA identification program to identify parts and deliver complete or nearly complete bodies to family members of victims (Delpla, 144). The blood samples would be taken from 1 to 5 living relatives (Jennings, 112). They collected 22,135 blood samples of survivors and matched them to 22,111 bone samples from the graves to identify 15,398 matches and 6,683 total victims (Delpla, 144-145).

There were approximately 1,668,000 bones and pieces of bodies that made up approximately 8,100 human beings (Jennings, 55). The breaking up of bodies between primary graves to secondary were so bad that one man’s remains were found in four separate sites (Jennings, 55). Dutch newspapers were found at one grave, evidence that the men had come from the Dutch supplied UN forces protecting Srebrenica (Jennings, 69).

Infrared light mapping allowed archeologists to locate artifacts at the sites, such as small clusters of cartridge casings (Stover, 159-160). At one mass grave the spread and placing of these cartridges allowed the team to locate where the firing line had been, again proving that it was a mass execution (Stover, 160). Computerized maps were able to show cartridges among the bodies before the digging began (Stover, 160). At another site metal detectors showed a line of bullet cases and hundreds of skull fragments were scattered opposite of the line (Jennings, 71). Blindfolds, some with bullet holes in them, were found on bodies at one site (Jennings, 75). Cranial bones were dried and reconstructed, “almost every case had gunshot wounds to the head” (Koff, 147).

Among their findings were hamajlijas, amulets worn by Muslim men to protect them from spells and disease (Stover, 172). These were commonly found on the bodies of men in their 50s and 60s (Stover, 172). There was also a child’s drawing of a girl with an umbrella (Stover, 173). Stacks of photos, some marred by bullets, were among the bodies (Stover, 173). Another interesting find was that many of the bodies were wearing the then popular Seiko 5 Day-Date digital watches, which wound itself automatically as the wearer moved their arm (Jennings, 69). After 24 to 36 hours without movement the watch would stop working (Jennings, 69). The watches showed the date Sunday the 16th, though the watch did not show the month (Jennings, 69). However, there were only two months in 1995 that had a Sunday on the 16th; April and July (Jennings, 69). It wasn’t a coincidence.

Researchers were able to find that some of the bodies had been on their knees before they fell face forward (Koff, 137). Other times they appeared to have fallen or been thrown into the grave (Koff, 137). The bodies were a range of ages, all wearing civilian clothing (Koff, 138). Since Srebrenica was locked down, new clothing was not a possibility (Koff, 152). Women had to mend clothing over and over again (Koff, 152) During the process of identifying bodies sometimes women could recognize their own stitching in the clothing (Koff, 152). “A beacon illuminating the varied stichwork that could identify the man whose trousers they were” (Koff, 152).

After bodies were removed from the graves they were taken to a morgue where they were first scanned for projectiles and other metal objects such as jewelry (Koff, 145). Next, they had their clothing removed and a full autopsy where important bones were removed for identification, and chunks of bone were taken to get a DNA sample (Koff, 146). The teams created extensive medical biographies as well as “anthropological” portraits of the reported missing from their families (Stover, 162). This information included dental records, jewelry, marks, healed fractures, piercings, handedness, stature, age, sex, height, and anything else that could distinguish the bodies from one another (Stover, 162). They were able to match these profiles to those they created of each body they exhumed.


Here is a map of the primary graves, secondary graves, and execution sites. We can see that few sites were left undisturbed. We can also see the path the men were marched along by looking at the trail of black stars heading north of Srebrenica. This is the “Trail of Life and Death” that US satellite photos documented. All of the executions were done in four days, at various stops during the march. The bodies were buried but then dug back up and transported closer to Srebrenica into smaller secondary graves. For the most part the primary graves were near execution sites.


This image is of one of the mass graves. It’s an interesting image because it shows how tangled the bodies were and the poor state they were in. You can imagine how much care it took to detangle them, and how difficult of a job working with dead bodies would be. Their haphazard layout points that they were dumped in, it’s not clear if this is a primary or secondary grave, but based on how most of the bodies have their limbs and look undisturbed, I’d think this was a primary grave. Secondary graves were mostly a jumble of body parts. Looking at this image also brings to mind the lack of dignity given to these victims. It’s reassuring then to know that after being uncovered and analyzed, all victims were reburied in an actual cemetery.


An investigator examines recently exhumed victims (Jennings). Personal affects are removed and examined for clues about the individual’s identity. Photo taken by Amel Emric.


An image of workers digging out victims at another mass graves. The images was taken by Staton R. Winter for the Associated Press.


A worker from the ICMP at one of the mass grave (Jennings).


One of the watches mentioned. They were very common in Srebrenica and helped anthropologists figure out the exact date the wearer had died.