Coming face to face with death

Published on RNW website, 8 July 2005
The fall of Srebrenica’s 10th anniversary
by Kim Renfrew

Tuzla was the ugliest town I had ever seen.

To get there from Sarajevo, we had to drive for four hours through the mountains, passing half-built – or perhaps half-destroyed – villages still pock-marked with bullet holes from the war which had ended ten years before.

It was winter when we went, and the car skidded and slid through the snow to arrive in a town full of filthy chimneys belching out smoke, and row upon row of austere socialist architecture, crumbling now and well past its prime.

Grim setting
There couldn’t have been a grimmer – or a more appropriate – setting for the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) morgue. It’s here that part of the painstaking process of collecting and identifying many of the thousands of bodies of men and boys massacred in Srebrenica in July 1995 takes place.

Pieces in a grisly jigsaw
I’d read about similar places. Zoë Brân, in her book After Yugoslavia, has a chilling description of her visit to Bosnia’s Visoko morgue, also engaged in piecing together the grisly Srebrenica jigsaw. She writes of “the all-pervading stink. I thought I’d prepared myself, but it’s not only worse than I imagined, it’s completely different. The mortuary is filled with an acrid, ammonia smell that lingers weakly in the entrance and gets progressively stronger inside the building. The scent of old death disturbed.”
As I walked through the doors I expected to feel nauseous, but the smell wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. It was there, certainly – a peaty, earthy, sort of sweet smell. If you didn’t know it was the stench of death, it probably wouldn’t be that awful.

Grisly truth
The mortuary building itself looked unremarkable: a series of Portakabins, with rooms leading off a long corridor whose walls are papered with war-criminal Wanted posters and pictures of missing men. But behind such workaday appearances lurked a grislier truth. Through the first door, to my left, was a small room that looked like a regular doctor’s consulting room: plain, clinical, with a white table at centre. On the table a young American woman laid out human remains – discoloured, brown bones that she placed in the vague form of a skeleton. When she’d finished, she took a photograph, picked up the bones, put them in a bag and then started the whole process again with another bag. And another. And another. And another. Her task was both precise and – I thought, though I’m not proud of that thought – very, very boring. And it seemed to be endless.

Never-ending task
In fact, the never-ending nature of her work became even clearer when we went into the room opposite. Our guide – a cool, shaven-headed Bosnian wearing wraparound glasses – told me I should put my coat on; it was stuffy, so I was not keen, but he insisted and I’m glad I did, when he pushed back a big steel door and we walked into what was essentially an enormous fridge. It was in here that the sheer size of the massacre hit you. Finding a comparison for tragedy on this scale will always undermine the impact, whatever words you choose – but it was as big as, and looked like, a DIY superstore. Shelves, reaching up maybe ten metres, lined the walls, each packed with buff packages and grubby white bags, labelled, prosaically, “DNA matter”. The male population of Srebrenica will wait in here until bodies are matched to names, then re-interred later in proper graves.

Intimate, everyday objects
Up to now, all this death – though ever-present – remained kind of abstract. Bones aren’t upsetting because they don’t really resemble people. Brown bags of ‘DNA matter’ aren’t that moving because they’re so far removed from what human beings are. But when we entered the room at the very far end of the corridor, which contained the dead Bosnian Muslim men’s belongings, it all becomes too real. Walking sticks, clocks, spectacles, clothes, shoes, all of them disinterred from mass graves along with the remains of bodies. These everyday objects become an old man uncertain on his feet, a bookish boy squinting over his reading matter, someone’s dad, someone’s lover: sad and intimate reminders that nearly 8,000 people lost their lives in the senseless slaughter, which is no easier to understand a decade on.

As well as these personal effects, there were dozens of books – big, hardback things, like family photo albums – documenting page after page of the men’s clothes and belongings. Dependents of the dead men come here to look through them, hoping to recognize something that once belonged to their relatives. The fact that clothes worn by the men were often home made makes it easier for the women left behind to identify what once belonged to whom.

Cold comfort
The process is slow and laborious, but it seems to be working. In 2002, the year before I saw the Tuzla morgue, just 2000 out of the 7800 dead had been found, exhumed from mass graves in and around the Srebrenica region. Only 200 had been identified. In 2005, a year after my visit, still more remains of the dead men have been located, and the identities of 2079 of these confirmed. Small comfort though it is, it seems likely that one day at least, the surviving relatives will know for certain what happened to their menfolk, and know at last where they are buried.

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One Response to “Coming face to face with death”

  1. Alexandra Simonon Says:

    Another great piece.

    I can’t believe it’s been 15 years.

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