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Louisiana State University News Service, Oct 3, 1997

LSU archaeologist spends month excavating mass graves in Bosnia


A news photo published around the world shows a Muslim man being shot down
on the street of a small village in the former Yugoslavia. He's trying to
escape from a group of detainees. He and other Muslims were killed and
buried in mass graves throughout the countryside.

Such grisly events that occurred half a world away are of great interest to
LSU archaeologist Rebecca Saunders, who spent a month in Bosnia this summer
excavating mass burials of men who were in the same group of detainees as
the man immortalized through a camera's lens. As an investigator for the
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslovia, this was her
third year of working in the wartorn region.

"We excavated mass graves immediately southeast of Br ko, a village that has
been in the news quite a bit," Saunders said.. "We worked in an area where
folks were detained in Br ko, were killed and brought out to a remote area
outside of town. One grave had been photographed, and the photo ran in Time
magazine, and we were able to match up body positions and trees to verify
the same locations."

High military officials were involved in the mass killings, she said, and
top officials have been indicted. "Our job was to provide evidence of the
crimes for the ICTY to use in the trials of the officials." Because of this,
the United Nations will not let her discuss statistics, such as how many
people were buried in the graves, she said.

One of the graves had been robbed with a backhoe to remove the bodies, she
said, "and they had done a terrible job of it. Body parts were left. They
had filled the excavation with dirt to try to hide what they had done.
That's why they call archaeologists in. We can read the dirt and interpret
the two separate intrusions. We can see the initial excavation and
distinguish it from the second because of differences in soil color and
texture of the two grave fills.

There were a number of discrete mass graves in an area about 100 meters long
and 50 meters wide. After the burials, one to two meters of rubble was
dumped over the whole area, apparently because the local population
complained of the smell, she said. "Some of the rubble was clearly from a
bulldozed mosque."

Saunders helped with mapping the bodies' locations in the graves and
excavated the graves. "A few of the bodies were fully skeletonized, though
most had a good deal of saponified tissue (tissue that has turned into a
whitish, fatty substance). All had clothing, which helps with
identification. These were civilians taken solely because they were Muslims.
The prison camp in Br ko was overseen by a high military commander," she

Why does Saunders keep going back to engage in such unpleasant work?

"I think it's good for the field of archaeology to be involved in something
here and now and not some dusty old esoteric knowledge that -- no matter how
much we may protest -- people do not see how it is related to everyday life.
It's a way to bring justice to past events and to serve as a deterrent.
These people who did this were sloppy. They thought they'd get away with it,
but our team of archaeologists, anthropologists, criminologists, policemen
and pathologists can reconstruct every move they made."

Saunders first joined the excavation efforts as a member of the United
Nations team in 1992, when she spent one week in Croatia. Last year she
worked seven weeks in Croatia and Bosnia and then four weeks in Bosnia this
year. She said that this time scientists did not stay on military bases.
They lived in Muslim homes in Srebrenik (a different town from Srebreni ).
"I had to learn a little Serbo-Croatian just to get through the day. Most of
the team were Latin American, so I had to drag out my rusty Spanish. It was
a linguistic whirlwind," she said.

Most of the team lived on the upper floors of the homes, which were very
large homes for extended families. A neighbor woman who was renting out her
house lost her husband at Br ko, Saunders said.

"Nobody was supposed to know what we were doing while we were there. We
couldn't have conveyed it if we'd tried. We had little parties and invited
our neighbors. We were paying them 20 deutschmarks a day per person in rent,
or about 60 deutschmarks (about $48) per day for our house. Before we left,
we noticed that they were already using that income to replace the roofs on
some of the buildings."

They had no access to telephones. "It was delightful. They even served us
breakfast every morning, but that was really strange. They served us hot
dogs or eggs or burek (bread filled with potatoes or cheese and fried). It
was more breakfast than I'm accustomed to. In the late afternoon, we'd have
strong Turkish coffee and something really sweet and enjoy relaxed