Missing Evidence

MISSING EVIDENCE (by Linda Ryan) ("Nova", Frankfurt o/M, March - April, 1996)

There is no end to the stories about the existence of mass graves in Bosnia. Hundreds of journalists are after them. However, convincing evidence is missing.

Since the army of Bosnian Serbs took the Bosnian townlet of Srebrenica, the Western media have continually reported of the disappearance of 8 000 Muslim inhabitants. When US envoy John Shattuck visited the fields discovered by journalists where mass graves are allegedly located, he categorically stated that at least 7 000 people had been massacred and buried there. Because of the events in Srebrenica, the Hague War Crimes Tribunal indicted Bosnian Serbs' leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic for genocide.

The Srebrenica story is symptomatic of the behaviour of the media. Since the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia, investigative journalism has metamorphosed into a hunt for body heaps in which professional journalistic principles have been thrown by the wayside. Journalists and authorities kept exaggerating the scope of the crime and thought up the number of the victims which could not be proved. The assumption that 8 000 people were killed in Srebrenica is as incredible as the contention that 250 000 people have lost their lives throughout Bosnia so far. Besides, the journalists have cast away the principle that only he or she whose crime has been proved can be declared guilty.


There were many casualties in this war on all sides. However, it is not possible to establish the exact figures at this moment. Instead of detailed investigations, politicians and the media have systematically condemned the Serbs. Reports of expert and investigation commissions resemble secret service reports, the only aim of which is to flare up anti-Serbian hysteria in the West.

Whence the data on the alleged massacres at Srebenica? They are primarily based on a wrong interpretation of an information of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On 13 September 1995 it distributed a press release. It said that the ICRC had received about 10 000 reports of the refugees in Tuzla who lost contact with family members after their flight from Srebrenica. About 2 000 of these reports were filed by various members of one family searching the same relative. It was then communicated that a careful investigation of the remaining 8 000 cases had shown that they were divided in two categories: 5 000 of those disappeared were the persons that had left the enclave even before its fall. The remaining 3 000 persons were captured by Bosnian Serbs. (ICRC News, No. 37). Accordingly, by the ICRC statement, at most 3 000 Muslims were killed. Despite this fact, the media toyed with the figure of 8 000.

The International Committee of the Red Cross came out with the assumption that between 5 000 to 8 000 refugees from Srebrenica had arrived to the Bosnian territory, but that their families had not been advised thereof. It was only when the ICRC began to make determined inquiries in Sarajevo that few months later the Bosnian Government conceded that thousands of soldiers that had fled Srebrenica were re-assigned to other units of its armed forces. The fact that family members were not informed of it was justified by the obligation to keep it a military secret. However, the media did not attach much attention to this information.

The fate of 3 000 disappeared persons continues to be an open question. The ICRC found only about 200 persons in the Prisoners of War camps of Bosnian Serbs. There are indications that sporadic clashes broke out between the Muslim soldiers and civilians who wanted to flee and those who wanted to fight on. Carl Lane, a prominent supporter of Bosnian Muslims, said in "The New Republic" in August 1995 that there were at least two such clashes. Other journalists reported to have seen bodies of soldiers and civilians lying in the streets as they entered Stebrenica.

However, these internal conflicts on the Bosnian Muslim side cannot be the reason for the death of 3 000 people. When United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteur Elizabeth Rehn visited Srebrenica last February, Bosnian military officials told her that the disappeared persons were in fact killed in action. A few days before the Bosnian Serbs took the town, fierce fighting took place at the frontline and in the surrounding villages. Besides, one can assume that there was fighting also after the capture of the town as part of the Bosnian army tried to break out to its territory. Probably some of the troops of these units were ambushed and killed.

However, these possible scenarios did not seem to have interested Western journalists or human rights champions. They have continued to insist that 3 000 disappeared persons perished in mass killings until the present day. On which facts is this contention of theirs based?

The first indications of the existence of mass graves came from refugees from Srebrenica accommodated in reception centres in Tuzla. However, it is readily observable that the first reports were based on rumours. There were few real eyewitnesses. However, this did not stop journalists to present rumours as truth.


The International Tribunal in The Hague contacted only a small number of eyewitnesses who could make substantiated statements at the trial of the leaders of Bosnian Serbs for genocide. Hakija Huseinovic, one of the survivors told United Nations investigators that on 13 July 1995 the Bosnian Serbs had captured 2 000 Bosnian refugees from Srebrenica whom they then led to a warehouse in the village of Kravica where they killed them.

The Serbs threw in hand grenades and shot from authomatic rifles through doors and windows into the crowd. Huseinovic said that he had survived only because he feigned that he was dead and hid himself among the bodies. However, his statement contradicts the statement of another witness who alleges to have seen that about 2 000 Muslims surrendered to Serbian forces at Kravica who took them the following night in trucks to a field outside the village, lined them up and executed. The field is allegedly not far away from Zvornik (which is not so near to Kravica). The witness said that he had survived because he feigned death and then he managed to run away. It is not possible that both stories are true. Other obvious contradictions in eyewitness accounts of Srebrenica were pointed out by Thomas Deimann in his articles in the "Novo" magazine, entitled "Office Warriors in the Balkans" (No. 18, September/October 1995) and "Gutman's Controversy" (No. 19, November/December 1995).

In addition to rare testimonies of witnesses, CIA reports are being used as evidence for the existence of mass graves. Photographs of an alleged mass grave near Srebrenica taken by a CIA satellite toured the world. It was an alleged photo of the soccer field near Nova Kasaba where Muslim PoWs had been detained. However, this could have been a photo of any field at any moment. CIA published no photograph which could be taken as evidence of the existence of mass graves around Srebrenica. Press reports to the effect that the CIA is in possession of the tapes with the conversation of the authorities in Belgrade related to the plans for the capture of Srebrenica cannot be proved, either. John Shattuck recently told "Der Spiegel" that there is no evidence of the existence of these tapes.

These intelligence stories recall the Cold War era when secret service members tried to hoodwink Western journalists. However, almost nobody disproves the official CIA reports today. Only rare journalists have become suspicious since the time of the publication of the photographs allegedly taken by the CIA coincides with the action of the Croatian army which expelled 200 000 Serbs from Krajina. It appears that the U.S. government undertook a classic maneouvre of diverting attention to cover up US support to the "ethnic cleansing" of Krajina.

As the media diverted themselves with satellite photos, the fate of the Serbs from Krajina was being forgotten. The search for mass graves was stepped up last autumn. Journalists from all over the world came to Bosnia to look for bodies. Crews from CNN, CBS, BBC, France II, TG1 (Italy), Dutch Television and from elsewhere arrived in August 1995. But they found very little. Some crews did not bother at all to find the soccer field from the satellite photo, because the journalists had already come to believe that there was no mass grave there anyway. However, it was not reported. Moreover, the said photo is being used as alleged evidence of the existence of a mass grave in many articles even today. Yet, the CIA report achieved the desired effect. Scores of journalists hit the road to collect evidence...

In search of body heaps

At the beginning of this year an ostensibly important aspect came to the fore. David Road of "Christian Science Monitor" and Julian Borger of "The Guardian" reported that they had discovered a number of mass graves related to the capture of Srebrenica. However, the only thing they could show was a few bones and pieces of ripped clothes. It sufficed for Borger to report that he had found mass graves and to confirm at another place the opinion of a member of United Nations Investigation Commission. Kravica was the place where one of the worst massacres in Europe after the Holocaust was committed ("The Guardian", 21 January 1996, see "Die Zeit" of 26 January 1996). It seems today as though each and every hillock in Bosnia could be presented as a mass grave, and each and every indication of death in a war- affected area as an indication of the Holocaust.

As reports of genocide in Bosnia keep coming, it could be supposed that new heaps of bodies are being found out every day. Well, all those thousands of killed must have been buried somewhere. As a matter of fact, however, no mass grave has in fact been found near Srebrenica until the present day. Journalists and investigators come out with all sorts of reasons: heaps of bodies were buried under snow, they have been destroyed with heavy machinery and chemicals to the point of being unrecognizable or transferred to other areas under the control of Bosnian Serbs. It seems that in fact journalists and United Nations investigators have no real interest to dig the alleged mass graves for fear that they might be empty. This unpleasant experience has already befallen British divers who searched the flooded pit of the Ljubija mine in northwestern Bosnia, expecting to find 8 000 bodies. They found nothing. There is no irrefutable evidence to substantiate the contention that 3 000 or even 8 000 Muslims were bestially murdered at Srebrenica. Dutch members of UNPROFOR, stationed there at the time of the capture of the enclave, testified before the Hague War Crimes Tribunal that they had seen no mass killings. The first official reports of Human Rights Special Rapporteur Mazowiecki, who resigned his office in the meantime, provided no irrefutable evidence of the events at Srebrenica, either. The recent investigation of his successor Elizabeth Rehn provided no new information as well. Numerous journalists escorting her found no new things. No picture of a mass grave has been shown yet.

Substantiated Doubts

The war in eastern Bosnia was brutal. In 1992 and 1993, Muslim fighters killed more than 1 000 Serbs in the villages around Srebrenica. These events were described in Clive Gordon's award-winning film "The Unforgiven". The attacks have been carefully documented and the marked graves of the killed are to be found near Bratunac today. It is therefore possible that Serbian soldiers wanted to avenge these deaths during the capture of Srebrenica. However, as long as there is no evidence to that effect, this contention remains a mere assumption.

An ICRC representative voiced his opinion on 7 February 1996 that 3 000 disappeared persons from Srebrenica had probably been killed. He pointed out that the Bosnian Serb authorities had ignored ICRC requests for five months. As the ICRC stood out during the entire war as a neutral institution, the statement of its representative was accorded great attention. Which new information could the ICRC representative invoke? Did the representatives of this organization collect evidence of the massacre? Or perhaps the change of the opinion came about because this organization was put a gun in the head at the time when the United States printed wanted circulars for war criminals from among the Bosnian Serbs?

By their stories about alleged mass graves, U.S. strategists and journalists created a climate of hysteria which recently even provoked Srebrenica refugees to attack the ICRC bureau in Tuzla.

U.S. Interests

Since the beginning of the year the United States has stepped up the hunt for alleged war criminals and pushed this topic into the centre of discussions of Bosnia. U.S. soldiers have been sent to escort United Nations investigators in the field, NATO soldiers have been invited to arrest suspects for which wanted circulars have been issued, while pressure was put to bear on Belgrade to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal. US State Secretary Warren Christopher visited President Milo{evi} last February in Belgrade. He threatened that no Ambassador would be sent and that the country would not be given financial assistance for reconstruction, that it would not be recognized and that sanctions would remain if Belgrade resisted the extradition of alleged war criminals. Christopher's visit was not a noble guesture by the US government in the interest of human rights, but an attempt to strengthen US moral authority in international affairs. Journalists should think about the consequences of this policy before they accept reports from Washington for granted.

Journalists should draw a lesson from the debate on Pakracka poljana, a village in Western Slavonia where it was assumed that a mass grave with 1 700 Serb bodies existed. The number of 1 700 people came from a United Nations officer. He assessed that there were about 17 mass graves in this region with 100 bodies each. Admittedly, he discovered no bodies, but he found out the traces of earthworks. However, only 19 bodies were found during an official investigation at 9 different places. The alleged mass graves were in fact old trenches.

The expert commission, submitting evidence to the United Nations Tribunal in The Hague, said that a careful field investigation was necessary in order to confirm the opinion of the United Nations officer. It is deplored in the investigation report that some authorities were not satisfied with the results. Speaking of the Serbs, it was said that the number of 1 700 was probably better for propaganda purposes than 19.

But why have the United Nations investigators not shown the same attention to detail in the case of the alleged mass graves in eastern Bosnia? Probably not because it is assumed that there are Muslim victim in Bosnia or because the number of 8 000 is much better for U.S. propaganda purposes than 800? (("Nova", Frankfurt o/M, March - April 1996)

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Constantine K. Christakos