Exactly 22 years ago Hava Muhic gave birth to a stillborn baby girl during the fall of Srebrenica in 1995. She was placed in a mass grave by Dutch U.N. soldiers. After a lengthy court battle the Dutchbatters return to Bosnia to help the Bosnian authorities with their search for the grave: ‘Is it true? They found a baby?’
By Eldin Hadzovic and Zvezdana Vukojevic
- Read part I: “A half hour after my delivery, they sent me away. I didn’t know where my little son was, and I’d just lost my baby.”
- Read part II: “Two Dutchbatters took away my baby in a cardboard box. Where is her grave?”
In 2012, we had put former Dutchbatter Adje Anakotta in contact with Jean-René Ruez, who, as an investigator for the ICTY, discovered and charted all the Srebrenica mass graves in 1995. He was one of the last witnesses to testify against Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (found guilty for crimes against humanity and genocide in Srebrenica by the ICTY in 2016). In the courtroom he told Karadzic bluntly about looking for the Srebrenica bodies with his bare hands, with the earth transformed into green, slimey, smelly dirt.
Ruez provided the Dutchbatters with a satellite image that he himself used to find the mass graves. From the sky the omnipresent upturned soil of the freshly dug graves was clearly visible.
Then my colleague Eldin Hadzovic called me: “They have located the Dutchbat mass grave. Within a few days they will open it up.” Together we decided to attend the exhumation.
A few months earlier Dave Maat (now 41), Adje Anakotta (now 44) and former infantry member Alex Hagenaars (now 41) returned to Srebrenica together with IKV Pax Christi to present their collected information, aerial photographs, statements and photos to Amor Masovic. Masovic is the director of the Bosnian Institute for Missing Persons (ICMP), whose task it is to exhume and identify missing people who are still buried in the numerous mass graves across Bosnia.
Maat was back in Srebrenica for the first time after 17 years: “The houses had windows and roofs again. That felt good.” And the fact that Masovic and the Bosnian authorities took the work of the three seriously: “Unfortunately, our Ministry of Defence has only started co-operating with our research after our search for the graves was featured on television. As if they forget the human aspect of the matter. Intentionally staying passive until the end.”
For seventeen years, the grave has been hidden, just below the researchers’ noses, in the former battery factory that served as the Dutchbat base.
On 26 July 2012 when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visits Srebrenica to express his condolences to the more than 6,500 victims of the July 1995 massacre who are now buried in the Potocari Memorial Center, the grave was finally found. “I’m here with sorrow. We share the pain,” says the UN Secretary-General, while the ICMP staff started exhuming the Dutchbat mass grave no less than 100 meters away. “As I stand here looking at the endless rows of graves and names: Amir, Fikret, Hamdija and eight thousand others, I would like to say that Srebrenica is not only holy ground for the victims’ families but also for UN countries.”
One week after the discovery of human remains, researchers together with members of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), begin to remove the earth in the morning, layer after layer. On a wrecking field of the former Dutchbat base a team of forensic experts, archeologists and workers are busy digging with a shovel, kicks, tiny spades and brushes in a giant pit that is twelve by three and a half meters wide and two meters deep.
Director Masovic himself is digging as well. It is Ramadan and the men do not eat and drink while the temperature is rising quickly. At some point, Masovic is caught by the heat, but after splashing some water over his head, he is good to go again.
The discovery of the mass grave is picked up by Bosnian and Dutch media. In the Netherlands, mainly thanks to a staggering press release from the peace organization IKV Pax Christi, who have been active in Bosnia for many years, together with Kamp Westerbork, who are organizing return trips to Bosnia for former Dutchbatters and their partners. From the press release: ‘In Srebrenica, a grave was found today on the site that was hosted by the UN Dutch soldiers in 1995. This is partly thanks to research by IKV Pax Christi in collaboration with three Dutchbatters.” The only one mentioned is Dave Maat. The other two ex-soldiers who were searching, Adje Anakotta and Alex Hagenaars weren’t. That the press release strongly emphasizes IKV Pax Christi’s role in the case, rubs Anakotta the wrong way. This while he was the one who stumbled upon the whole issue about the mass grave and Hagenaars provided the last piece of the puzzle with a picture of the grave with the body of the young woman wrapped in blankets.
In the afternoon one of the forensic researchers suddenly puts on a plastic blue glove and pulls a dusty piece of dark blue fabric. Bingo. The shovel takes over. Layer after layer is scraped off the ground until the level of human remains has been reached. The earth is darker, humid and smelly. “Do you smell that? The smell of death. That smell has been following me my whole life”, says a local reporter who witnessed the war in Bosnia. “That’s how the bodies smelled who were lying on the streets. Pigs that were roaming around would eat them.”
Other photographers and cameramen don’t even flinch at these remarks. This isn’t the first mass grave exhumation they reported on. Not the first bodies or body parts they see. As soon as a bone is put in a white plastic bag, they mutter: “Femur.” When a skull is pulled out of the earth, everyone is quiet. A Canadian anthropology student who came across the exhumation while visiting the Potocari memorial across the road breaks the silence when she asks a fellow student: “Are you thirsty? I have Orangina.”
For hours on end the men shovel, dig and brush away with the tiniest brushes. Sometimes with brutal force, sometimes with an almost moving tenderness. “Ovde. Beba.”
I understand that. “Here. A baby.” The remains of babies are hardly ever found since they consist mostly out of cartilage. “Usually they melt, so to speak,” said Amor Masovic. “I’ve seen over three and a half thousand mass graves and mass murder sites, but I’ll never get used to excavating children’s bodies,” Masovic says. “It’s your job, but we’ve just dug up a newborn baby, without a doubt this is the youngest victim of the genocide in Srebrenica. That’s heavy.” The small bundle is wrapped in plastic and handed over with the utmost respect before it is gently placed in a bodybag. “Could this be Hava Muhic baby” Eldin and I wonder.
A little later there is a group of teenagers in hotpants and flip-flops coming over and take a look. They are Australian and are on a group trip through former-Yugoslavia. They first visited the memorial center: “Our tour guide heard that a mass grave was being exhumed and said it was okay for us to take a look. We’ve never heard of this tragedy at school. It’s very impressive.” The words sound cheerful and enthralled. They take loads of pictures with their cell phones. A massive local policeman of the Republika Srpska (The Serbian entity in Bosnia) becomes nervous of all these spectators at the mass grave, which ultimately is a crime scene: “Who are all these people? I don’t know who’s press and who’s not.” His hand rests consistently on his hip where he carries his gun.
“So far we found the physical remains of five bodies,” says Amor Masovic. “Two older men, an older woman, a twenty year old girl and a newborn baby.” As it turns out, the picture of Alex Hagenaars, who helped bury the people, was crucial for finding the grave. Hagenaars himself is also in the picture, only through his shadow. “We must thank the IKV for this information. I wish I could say the same to the Dutch government, who never showed any commitment to reveal the exact location of this cemetery. Dutchbatters did their work professionally, because the grave was well dug and marked. The grave was later hidden and unmarked, but that’s not the fault of the soldiers.”
Masovic adds that no documents were found during the excavation, although soldiers told him that all the dead were buried with their identity papers. The reports show that the mass grave was covered in a sloppy way: an arm stuck out. Preliminary forensic research on the spot shows that at least one person may not have died of natural death. A skull has a clear fracture. This is by no means mentioned in the documents of Dutchbat. It is assumed that the older woman is Behara Dzelilovic. She died a natural death. The identity of the other three is not yet clear. The physical remains are transferred to the memorial center in Tuzla, where they will be subjected to DNA-analysis. The International Commission for Missing Persons will engage in the identification process.
The newborn baby found might be Hava Muhic’s. “The baby was buried in a plastic bag, leaving the remains surprisingly well kept. We found a 7-8 centimeter long thigh bone, which should be enough to extract DNA for analysis. The human remains will probably be buried next year at the Potocari Memorial”, said Amor Masovic.
In the meantime Hava Muhic, suspected mother of the baby, who now lives in France, has learned through the Bosnian media that there was a baby found in the Dutchbat grave site and that it might be her stillborn daughter.
She calls colleague Eldin Hadzovic for more information. When he sees her name on his phone display, he hardly dares to answer. He is standing at the edge of the mass grave that her plastic wrapped child may have just been pulled out of.
With heavy heart he picks up the phone. “Is it true? They found a baby?”
All he can confirm to Hava is that indeed a baby has been found. Only after extensive DNA research can it be determined if the baby is hers. This will take anywhere from four up to six weeks. On the other side of the line, Muhic is heartbroken. Two weeks earlier, on July 11, 2012 her husband Hajrudin was buried at Potocari, 17 years after his death. He was placed next to his father and two brothers who were also killed in July 1995.
All she wants is a decent funeral for her girl: “I have a bad feeling, I have to say. Even though I finally feel it’s over, I still have to wait for the results of the DNA test. My baby would now be a 17 year old girl. She died because the Dutch soldiers did not provide us the care we needed while the Serbian army carried out a massacre. And no one has contacted me. Not even to ask me how I feel.”
We also keep Dave Maat informed through text messages. He is besides himself that people have been found: “Beautiful news!”
Graveyard at the Srebrenica/Potocari memorial center in Bosnia and Herzegovina. – Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Anakotta hears defence minister Hans Hillen giving a radio interview saying that he is happy for the soldiers and relatives that the grave was found and that the find was partly based on information they provided. Anakotta is not amused: “It’s not fair that the ministry claims this success. They have obstructed our investigation for years and the information they provided was incorrect.”
Nevertheless, Adje Anakotta is very happy: “Now I can start healing. This is a gift from God. We worked so hard for years and now the bodies can finally be returned to their relatives. And with ‘we’, I am talking about us, the Dutchbatters.” Because they found the grave, not IKV or the ministry of defence, he says. We have suffered for years because of this grave, they did not. “Now what do they want? Naturally, IKV has supported us and paid for the trips, but our investigation has brought this case to an end. My life is broken because of Srebrenica. That was my sacrifice. From now on we can say that Dutchbatters stuck our neck out.”
A few months later, DNA results show that the baby is indeed Hava Muhic daughter.
On July 11, 2013, she buries her daughter together with 408 others that were found and identified the year before. A simple wooden mark on the little green box reads: Newborn Muhic (father Hajrudin). With one date for her birth and death: July 11, 1995. For the ceremony Hava Muhic wears a pink headscarf.
A few years later the mother has put up a green tombstone with the name she gave her little girl: Fatima Muhic. The youngest victim of the fall of Srebrenica.
This article was first published in Dutch weekly Nieuwe Revu.