April 2, 1996
In Bosnia, Broken Families Search the Earth for Broken Bodies
By KIT R. ROANE
ADZICI, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- He walked the trail of his father, past the snowy hills outside Sarajevo that once hid Serbian snipers and through the torn masonry of the village where his family once lived.
In the spring thaw, Armin Fahrija hoped that he would find some evidence of the man who disappeared nearly four years ago when the Bosnian Serbs captured the village.
His search took him to suspected grave sites with a former neighbor, Nermin Hasanovic, but they found little to help them.
The exposed skull of of one victim, who had been shattered into silence by a single bullet to the head, was not his kin, said Fahrija, who pointed out that the shoes that remained were not his father's.
"We came here to find him, just to see if we could recognize something here, but it's hard after so many years," said Fahrija, 26. "Maybe someone else will recall these shoes."
Ten possible grave sites have been marked in Hadzici by the Muslim-Croat Federation police, who now patrol the former Serbian-held territory.
Excavations, expected to begin on Tuesday, are the first step in finding some of the 180 people who went missing after the Bosnian Serbs surrounded the town in May 1992 and began killing those who tried to flee.
To the Bosnian government, these 180 are a handful of more than 27,000 men, women, and children who disappeared during the war.
Fahrija and other Muslims like him now wander these sites, looking for the end to the story of their relatives' disappearance. Some can recount the history leading up to a father's attempted escape, or a final parting moment between mother and son. But what follows is a blank.
"The most important thing is to find out the destiny of my father," Fahrija said. "What is important is to know if he is dead or not, so that my mother will no longer hope for his return."
His father, a locksmith who was 49 at the time, sent his family away to safety as the Bosnian Serbs approached their village. He stayed to protect his home. The family and others who fled Hadzici have not returned to live in their village.
"It is less important to find his killer, for one, because this was war and that will be impossible," Fahrija added. "We just want to give him a proper burial."
A total of 20 bodies are thought to be scattered among the five sites already visited by the federation police and the U.N. monitoring force. A similar number may rest in the other five.
The International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague has been informed of all known sites, but it investigates only those graves holding five or more bodies, the U.N. monitoring task force said.
Smaller sites are left to federation investigators. And in preparation for the task ahead, many now sit in their offices talking to the trail of families who come to fill out a sheet with the details of a loved one's life.
"They come to write down who these people were, what they looked like, and what they were wearing at the last moment," said Edin Sinanovic, from his desk inside Hadzici's new federation police building. "We always assumed we would find bodies here, and the rain has begun to wash up the graves. But who knows what really lies in the ground."
Outside, men and boys who have returned stand about the small thatches and pits where rumor, second-hand observers, or evidence of bones indicate the dead might be. The groups grow as others are attracted by the presence of the few.
They talk about who may be buried underfoot as they pick at the earth with sticks and pass around cigarettes.
"This is where Mehmed Covic is buried," said Saban Sehobic, pointing to a briar patch of twigs covering a deep gash in the earth, then looking at the tall, frail son Covic has left behind.
Walking to a nearby building, Sehobic touched what appeared to be blood on the wall and described the events pieced together from snatches of information brought by other refugees. When the Serbs came, Covic and a small group of other elderly men were cut off from the tiny escape route through town. They took shelter among the walls, holding hunting rifles and hoping that they would not be found.
"They thought this would be safe," Sehobic said, "but the Serbs shot them here. There were no prisoners in Hadzici, because everyone left was killed."
Covic's son, Amir, 16, rocked silently on his heels, his quiet eyes staring at the grave while others pointed to a soiled black jacket that had been pulled to the surface. They said it was proof that his father lay beneath, but Amir was not able to make such assumptions.
"I don't know," he said, his head bowed into a shrug. "To know, we will have to dig up the bones. Only then can we be sure this is where he lies."