Some days Bill Haglund can breathe beyond the sour bodies, squint past the clumps of matted hair and wasted bone, and think of something beautiful. Chagall. The soft edges of the dead, their odd angles of repose, the faceless figures seem something the painter Marc Chagall, in a morose moment, might have dreamed.
Then the gray-bearded medical investigator turns from the dirt to the broiling sun and focuses on a clutch of reporters, queasily waiting on grave's edge for word on the missing men of Srebrenica.
In minutes, Haglund dispels any illusion about the skeletons uncovered from soft clay no higher than his waist. Some have jagged holes in their skulls. Other show wrist bones still bound by plastic-covered wire. Haglund, a Seattle native who wears a tie out of respect for his work and a felt fedora out of sartorial whimsy, deftly and almost clinically deciphers the mound of lost lives:
"We have a gentleman right here, in a sitting position, sort of on top of other people. Here," he said, spreading his arms wide, "You can see gentleman No. 2 is lying on his back. His head is in a downward position. His hands are beside him, like this," he gestured again, "and bound. Gentleman No. 3 is also lying on his back and his hands are behind his back."
What about that crushed skull on No. 7? "I don't know if it's crushed," he said blandly. "It's consistent with a gaping defect to the right-hand side. We'll determine later if there are bullet fragments, bullet peripheries or bullet wounds in his skin." And that slat of wood in the grave -- is that evidence of a stretcher or a ladder?
The forensic specialist, until recently the chief investigator in the King County, Washington, medical examiner's office, looks mildly irritated, setting his hands on his hips. "Well, somebody made that up just now. The thought never entered my mind," he said.
William Haglund, gravedigger to the world, doesn't waste time jumping to conclusions. He and about 20 other volunteers and workers he directs, from the 10-year-old, Boston-based international group called Physicians for Human Rights, have little more than 90 days before the first snowfall to try to dig up dispassionate answers about those secreted in these shallow graves.
The group's work in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Iraq's Kurdish-populated north and most recently Rwanda has documented human rights abuses through medical and forensic tests. If successful, Physicians for Human Rights, contracted by the United Nations to plumb the earth here, may sift through enough bits of bone, cloth and hair to allow hundreds, perhaps thousands, of anonymous victims to speak from the grave.
Srebrenica, a U.N.-protected "safe area" in eastern Bosnia, fell to Bosnian Serb attackers a year ago. About 8,000 civilian Muslim men are listed as missing, and as many as 5,000 of them are believed to have been shot as they attempted to flee when the Serbs overran the area, where several mass graves are now being exhumed.
The victims' stories, likely to be told in court in Haglund's flat Western monotone, will become part of the evidence before the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, now prosecuting alleged criminals from the former Yugoslavia. The Journal of the American Medical Association wrote that even if witnesses have died or disappeared, through these physicians' work "the physical evidence still will speak powerfully for them."
Haglund, who once lived above a funeral home in North Hollywood, is a licensed embalmer and taught comparative literature before earning a doctorate in physical anthropology.
The man whom workers here described as a "quiet storm" moving through the Balkans came in 1993 to the remains of the Croatian city of Vukovar, on the Danube River bordering Serbia. One of the first massacres investigated in the Yugoslav war took place there in 1991 when at least 260 Croatian hospital patients were killed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army and Serb rebels as they leveled the city. He was drawn back by the tragedy that continued to unfold until the fighting stopped late last year. Haglund offers a slightly different interpretation of what drives the grave seekers.
Those who come here will not uncover new methods of terror or murder, Haglund said. Those looking for professional experience will discover that cash shortfalls have turned simple household items -- plastic colanders, garden trowels and paintbrushes -- into their tools.
Instead, he said, the trained archaeologists, anthropologists, pathologists and radiologists who came this summer to sleep in army bunks and work 12-hour days under armed guard are hoping that cool, calm science will ease the emotions of those left behind.
"The real reason you're dealing with the dead is because of the living," said Haglund, 53, who has two grown children. "Because you're living and you're concerned with life. You do it because you're concerned with other people and concerned about resolving the questions that leave their lives in limbo.
"They're missing someone and they can't continue on with their lives. They have this vacuum. And they fill up the vacuum with hope. That the person might still be alive -- in forced labor camps, incarcerated somewhere, working in mines. With my information, I can put an end to some of the questions. I try not to be be a spoiler of dreams," he said quietly. "Maybe just a spoiler of nightmares."
The fieldwork begins with a T-shaped steel rod, one inch in diameter. A crime scene investigator from the U.S. Air Force sticks it in the ground at intervals, pulls it up and sniffs. Bloodstains are long gone. Vegetation has grown over the suspected graves. Investigators, poke by poke, search for the peculiar odor of human decay.
The last time investigators had a whiff of death was about two miles up the road. The grave site, known as Cerska, the name of the nearby village, produced 154 graves, about three times as many as expected.
Once a suspected site is confirmed, a laborer climbs atop a giant backhoe and starts delicately carving, inch by inch, under the anthropologists' watchful guidance. Precision can mean the difference between evidence and ruin in this trade. The excavation on this site, a few yards from a main road to Sarajevo, began with a skull found six inches beneath the grass.
Workers move forward slowly. First with shovels, then with garden trowels and then, when the bones and sinews are clear, with paintbrushes to dust the evidence. The fragile remains are then numbered, photographed, carefully separated, wrapped up, body by body, in white plastic bags and driven by truck to a newly established laboratory in the northeastern city of Tuzla. Thorough examinations of the first bodies began two weeks ago.
"Doing your work, you have to be scientific," said David DelPino, an anthropologist from Chile. "But it's not like digging a mine. I have to be a scientist and approach this objectively but, emotionally, I find the truth very important. You use one part heart, and the whole part brain."
Becky Saunders, a curator of anthropology at Louisiana State University's Museum of Natural Sciences, said she didn't think she was "gaining great scientific knowledge" here in the hills of Bosnia, where passing Serb motorists sometimes honk angrily or flip insulting hand gestures.
Instead, she was trying to make sense of a conflict that flourished from indifference. "People did things like this because they thought they could get away with it," she said. "They thought no one would care."
The team, taking direction from the Hague war crimes tribunal, has investigated suspected graves on all sides of the 3 1/2-year Bosnian war. But the scale of the evidence discovered in Serb-controlled territory has dominated their efforts. Haglund is quick to shake off suggestions that the team's searches have been biased for or against any ethnic group -- a charge that Bosnian Serb officials renewed last week as they threatened to close off some challenged territory.
"The investigations are based on information," Haglund said. "The more information, the better cooperation, the more we can pursue. We want to investigate all we can."
But nothing so simple ever happens in Bosnia. Because of the fierce emotions that still rage here, all excavations must be done under NATO armed guard. All search areas also must first be cleared of mines -- a requirement that has caused a two-week delay to wait for a team of mine-sniffing dogs now working in Mozambique.
And unlike exhumation undertaken by Physicians for Human Rights in other countries, family members cannot venture near the graves to watch or advise the gravediggers. The Serbs suspected of ordering the killings -- some already indicted by the Hague tribunal -- still rule this part of Bosnia on every level.
Before the sun sets in Bosnia this day, Haglund will describe the outlines of seven men and dig on to find six more in a field dotted with purple wildflowers. This field first came to light last fall, in U.S. government satellite photos, as a suspicious plot of freshly dug earth, as people were crying about sons and fathers lost in the Serb rout in July.
At this early date, Haglund will not guess how they died. He will not suggest who put them in the ground. Haglund will only point out that he sees what you see.
All had their hands tied. All were dressed in civilian clothes, with jeans bleached gray-white after months of burial. All were thrown, Haglund points out wearily, "ignobly in a hole." CAPTION: Investigator William Haglund walked near body bags containing remains from a mass grave last month. CAPTION: William Haglund, right, a forensic anthropologist seen here at a Bosnian mass grave near Sarajevo in June, works under the auspices of the international war crimes tribunal. He is leading a team unearthing a grave near Srebrenica, a U.N.-protected "safe area" that fell to Bosnian Serb attackers a year ago. CAPTION: Forensic experts suspect that the exhumed bodies are those of Muslims who fled Srebrenica last summer. About 8,000 civilian Muslim men are missing.