Excavation of a common grave here has produced the remains of more than 40 people, along with evidence buttressing reports that Bosnian Serbs executed Muslim civilians when they overran the Srebrenica area one year ago, international investigators said today.
The investigators, who have been digging here for three days, said they are finding no military uniforms among the dead, suggesting the victims were civilians. The way the bodies fell suggests a mass execution-style killing, they added, pointing out that it appears the dead were lined up along the ridge of a forest path and shot from a range of less than 10 feet, and then tumbled down a small incline and came to rest in a tangle of limbs, boots and blood.
"The bodies are all akimbo, jumbled up as if they had rolled down the hill," said William Haglund, an American forensic anthropologist working at the site, near Cerska, about 15 miles northwest of Srebrenica. "We are finding sweaters, boots and other clothes but no uniforms."
Haglund and the rest of a team of 15 experts are in the Balkans for three months to undertake the grisly task of exhuming more than a dozen mass graves in Bosnia and Croatia to gather evidence for the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
Just one day before the first anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica to a Serb onslaught, Haglund and his team quickened the pace of their meticulous labor, uncovering more than 20 bodies. Skulls, thigh bones, arms, hands and feet stuck out from the grave at all angles. The sugary smell of rotting flesh wafted through the trees as investigators used pickaxes, shovels and paint brushes to uncover the corpses.
By the end of the day, little red flags, denoting skulls, and little yellow flags, denoting hands or feet, were scattered up and down the hillside, flapping in the breeze.
"It's a wicked game, picking up dead people," said a visibly exhausted Haglund at the end of work today. "It's pickup sticks with bones."
The killing around Srebrenica that occurred in mid-July 1995 is believed to be the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. More than 5,000 Muslim men are believed to have been shot by marauding Serbs. Many were allegedly shot as they attempted to flee the Muslim enclave, lured down from a mountain path by the Serbs who promised not to hurt them.
More than 30,000 women and children were forced out of Srebrenica -- which had been designated a U.N. "safe area" -- and carried in cattle trucks to Muslim territory to the north in the biggest case of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia since the war began.
Four men have been indicted by the Hague tribunal for their roles in the killing. Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, are still running the Serb-held part of Bosnia, which they call the Serb Republic. Two Bosnian Serb foot soldiers, Drazen Erdemovic and Radislav Kremenovic, have been handed over to The Hague. Erdemovic has pleaded guilty to killing 150 men.
Surveying the forested valley where he and his colleagues were working, Haglund estimated another 40 bodies remain to be uncovered.
Cerska is one of the smaller grave sites around Srebrenica. Others are believed to contain as many as 2,600 bodies.
At Kravice, near here, Finnish forensic experts aborted their excavation of a mass grave today because Bosnian Serbs blocked their work and failed to keep promises to provide security, a U.N. spokesman said, according to the Associated Press.
Cerska was picked to be the first to be excavated because it appears not to have been tampered with by the Serbs and, investigators said, proof has been collected suggesting a massacre took place here.
Another factor bolstering such suspicions is the fact that many of the skulls were damaged, suggesting they had been blown apart by bullets. Before the digging began, hundreds of spent shell casings were found on the site.
Asked if he thought the tribunal should have begun work sooner here and at other Bosnian sites, Haglund said it is never too late.
"You must think of these people as witnesses," he said pointing at an exposed flank of dirt replete with protruding bones. "Let them tell their story so that they might not have died in this place in vain."
Investigators pinpointed the suspected Srebrenica grave sites with the help of survivors' testimony or spy plane photography which the United States handed to the Security Council.
Haglund said that the bodies will be exhumed from the site upon the arrival of a refrigerator truck. They then will be transported to a special morgue for further investigation. CAPTION: Investigators used a brush to expose a body uncovered by digging at a mass grave site near Cerska on Tuesday. CAPTION: Bosnia police guard exhumed bodies of Muslims in the village of Svrake near Sarajevo. (Photo ran in an earlier edition) .