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Source: Time Magazine, October 14, 1996
By Maryann Bird
AS BOSNIA'S MASS GRAVES ARE EXCAVATED, THE INNOCENT AND THE GUILTY ALIKE FIND DENIAL IS THE SAFEST PATH
The fighting has stopped in Bosnia, but the agony continues. Thousands of
missing people, desperately sought by their families, are undoubtedly lying
in unmarked graves while their murderers--and the witnesses to their
murders--continue to deny their death. Yet until each side admits to its
crimes, there is little chance that Bosnia's warring factions will ever be
able to forgive one another and live together again in peace.
Branko Kapur knows the problem--and is part of it. A Serb refugee from the
Sarajevo suburbs now controlled by Muslims as part of the Dayton accords,
Kapur fled last winter to the little village of Grbavci (known to its
inhabitants by its old name, Oraovac) in Serb-held Bosnia. There he and his
wife Petra and their three little girls took up residence in a house
formerly occupied by Muslims. It was little more than a ruin, but the
surrounding fields and the little garden with its fruit trees held out the
hope of a more peaceful existence after the horrors of war.
Then, one morning last April, the Kapurs were awakened by the sound of
helicopters. Looking outside, they saw U.N. and U.S. military vehicles
pulling into their driveway. Out stepped soldiers from IFOR, the NATO-led
peace-implementation force, and some official-looking foreigners. A
translator told the frightened family that a team from the International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague had arrived to look
into allegations that hundreds of Muslim men from Srebrenica had been shot
to death and buried behind and in front of the Kapurs' home.
In August the team returned to dig for bodies. For three weeks the stench of
rotting flesh pervaded the small house as the forensic experts unearthed
more than 160 bodies. Although they may return in the spring to dig in the
front, the experts and their IFOR guards are gone now, and the village, some
65 km from Srebrenica, is back to what passes for normal. But Kapur, a
31-year-old former locksmith, finds it close to impossible to acknowledge
that his family is living beside evidence of what may be the worst atrocity
in Europe since World War II. He keeps the horror of what transpired outside
his door--where his children traded fresh plums for exotic foreign
rations--locked deep inside. "If I had known of those, uh, those alleged
bodies buried here, I would never have brought my family to this place," he
now insists. "If these were mass graves, they would look different," he
says, gazing out his kitchen window to the garden. "Branko, how do you know
what mass graves look like?" asks his wife. "It is ridiculous," he
continues, undeterred. "The Muslims claim that we killed 8,000 of their
people from Srebrenica. That is impossible. That's just too many people."
Petra, 35, tells him, "Branko, you shouldn't talk about things that you
don't know about."
When Kapur is told the forensic experts discovered the remains of more than
160 bodies behind his house, he insists, "We haven't seen anything
ourselves." Petra Kapur, stunned by confirmation of the find, murmurs
softly, "Oh, my God." Kapur says he's often asked if the investigators had
found anything. "I always say I don't know."
In the Republika Srpska, it is best not to know about such things. Denial,
for the innocent and the guilty alike, is basic. Most Serbs believe their
side behaved no worse than their Muslim and Croat enemies during the war,
and that they are misunderstood victims. But what much of the world accepts
is that many of Srebrenica's men were massacred in July 1995 after Bosnian
Serbs overran the U.N.-protected "safe haven." Some 15,000 tried to escape
to government-held territory through the woods, but were attacked and many
were captured. A few others fled with the women, children and elderly to a
nearby u.n. base and were separated from their families. Up to 8,500 men are
still missing and are believed to have been killed.
Three who survived the Grbavci massacre claim 2,000 were taken to a primary
school on July 14, three days after Srebrenica fell. From the school gym, an
unknown number were put in groups of 15 to 20, blindfolded and driven to the
area next to what is now the Kapurs' home. There they were shot and their
bodies plowed into a pit. Investigators now believe the 2,000 figure may be
an exaggeration, but there's no doubt that they recovered more than 160
bodies--many wearing blindfolds--from behind the house.
Recalling a program on Bosnian government television, Kapur said he was
moved by the story of a Muslim who had lost his family as well as a leg in
the war and is now a Sarajevo beggar. "It's the same on our side. No aid, no
help, no support. I nearly cried watching this program," he says. Sometimes
he even seems willing to accept that he might be living at two mass grave
sites: "I can't imagine it, but who knows?" But his main defense is one that
is now echoed far and wide across Bosnia: "Fortunately, I wasn't here."
The same cannot be said of others in Grbavci. But then, no one saw anything
that July day when the blindfolded men of Srebrenica went to their death.
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