Bosnia’s Search for Bones and Truth

A year after Bosnia’s largest mass grave was found in Tomasica, the incredible story of its discovery highlights victims’ families desperate attempts to gain justice from the authorities.

17 October 2014
Jessie Hronesova
BIRN, first published:


Mourners at the reburial in July of bodies found in the Tomasica mass grave. Photo: Beta/AP/Amel Emric.

It was the summer of 1992 when Hava Tatarevic saw her six sons and her husband for the very last time. Since then, she has been searching for the truth about their fate. Until last year, when their bodies were found lying next to each other, perforated with bullets, in a grave that was never meant to be discovered – Tomasica.

“Tomasica is finally proof of how they murdered my children. I saw them taken away and I knew they were going to be killed,” Tatarevic said.

For over two decades, Tomasica has been a fact that no one wanted to address, which everyone knew about but actively avoided acknowledging.

Four hundred and thirty-five bodies of men, but also women and children, have been recovered from the grave after it was finally discovered in October 2013. So far, 284 murdered residents of villages surrounding the Bosnian town of Prijedor have been identified and buried. The full story of Tomasica, however, remains to be told.

According to Mujo Begic, the Bosnian Krajina regional director of the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the investigation aimed at locating the Tomasica grave was extremely protracted. While searching for missing people from the Prijedor area, he suspected that a large grave had to exist. But there did not seem to be any witnesses. The response he got from residents in the Tomasica area was simply: “I know nothing.”

But it is difficult to imagine that the location of a mass grave the size of a football pitch was unknown to locals whose houses are only 300 metres away.

Tomasica lies outside Prijedor, the seventh biggest city in Bosnia, in the north-west of the country, and is part of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity of Bosnia.

The pit where the victims’ remains were found is nine metres deep and the site takes up 100 square metres. Dozens of soldiers must have been assigned to dig a hole of such width and depth and transport all the dead bodies there. Even 22 years afterwards, the driveway to the site is clearly visible on aerial photographs.

As long ago as 1996, a Swedish journalist called Bengt Norborg reported about the potential existence of a mass grave near Prijedor. Norborg gathered information about atrocities committed in north-western Bosnia from eyewitnesses, which – together with reports by Human Rights Watch and other journalists – resulted in the estimate that around 1,000 people went missing in the area in 1992.

“The stories we did (Tonci Percan and I) that winter of 1996 in central Bosnia all came about because of rumours we picked up in Zagreb from Zvonimir Cicak, a member of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, rumours of more mass graves and concentration camps than the ones already discovered in the Prijedor area,” Norborg explained.

“Tomasica was another mining complex with dots of small hamlets around the area. We asked the people in the closest villages about the existence of mass graves and the rumours of killings during the summers of ‘92 and ‘93. The villagers all denied hearing about it (these were Serb villages), but the feeling was, after having talked to them, that this was probably not entirely true,” the Swedish journalist continued.

“We continued asking and finally came to people living outside of the villages. These were Croats that had stayed in spite of the ethnic cleansing. They were terrified but spoke on condition of anonymity and told us about the transports of people. They had heard others (Serbs from the village) talk about the killings and burials and they felt the smell from the area,” he said.

An open secret

The fact that Tomasica was discovered as late as 2013 is even more incomprehensible because the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had already investigated some of the crimes committed in and around Prijedor during the war.

The former mayor of Prijedor, Milomir Stakic, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the extermination and murder of the non-Serb population in the area and the creation of detention camps. So far, 26 people from the Prijedor area have been sentenced for similar crimes by local courts and the ICTY.

Tomasica also appeared in the notorious diaries of Ratko Mladic as a site where bodies were dumped to cover up the Prijedor violence in 1992.

During the war, there were mass killings of Bosniaks and Croats by the Bosnian Serb Army in the Prijedor municipality. The infamous Trnopolje, Omarska and Keraterm concentration camps were close to the city.

The Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre estimates that over 5,400 people were killed in Prijedor and the surrounding areas.

Immediately after the war, witnesses of crimes were intimidated or even killed if they spoke out. “No one wants to be a traitor to one’s nation,” said Mujo Begic, explaining why there is still so much reluctance to provide any information about the remaining mass grave sites in Bosnia.

When asked, not a single Serb resident in Prijedor and surrounding villages was willing to share his or her views on Tomasica. A disabled Bosniak war veteran explained this by using a Bosnian saying: “Suti, moze te cuti” – “Stay silent, someone can hear you.”

Norborg said that people didn’t dare to speak out because they were terrified of reprisals.

“This was war and people were killed for nothing. You had paramilitary gangs roaming around the area looking for reasons to kill and steal. I think even many ordinary Serbs were frightened,” he explained.

“So most people knew about it but kept their mouths shut – either because of fear or out of loyalty to their own.”

Eventually, a former Bosnian Serb soldier, who was a direct participant in the killings, decided to come forward and contacted the Missing Persons Institute. “He was haunted by the eyes of a girl he shot,” Begic explained. But it still took two years of persuading and negotiating to find the exact location.

Rights and recognition

So far, 22,000 missing people have been identified since the end of the war. But the more time elapses, the more difficult it will be to find the bodies of the remaining 9,000. Witnesses and perpetrators will die, and with them any hope of finding the exact location of the graves. This is probably what many unprosecuted perpetrators are counting on.

The issue also stands in the middle of much broader disputes over guilt and punishment in Bosnia.

Viktorija Ruzicic-Tokic, programme officer at the International Commission on Missing Persons, said that a fund to compensate missing people’s families has never been set up because of continuing disagreements about who was responsible for the conflict.

“According to the law, a fund for families of the missing would have to come from the state budget. This would mean that neither entity [the Serb-led Republika Srpska or the Bosniak-Croat Federation, the two political entities that make up Bosnia] would have direct control over who receive compensation and who does not,” Ruzicic-Tokic explained.

The fund would in essence distribute money to all families of the missing, regardless of their background. This would lead to an unprecedented shift in the general approach to the 1990s war, making the loss of all victims equal – be they Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks. A move which would be truly revolutionary in Bosnia.

Bosnia does not have a state-level compensation system for civilian victims of war, and support for families of the missing varies, depending on where they live. Bosniak civilian victims of war living in Republika Srpska are often exposed to discrimination and obstruction; the situation of Bosnian Serbs in the Bosniak-Croat Federation can be similar.

Hava Tatarevic made headlines in Bosnia in July this year as the mother who lost six sons and a husband and had been living on just 150 Bosnian Marks a month (75 euro) – her spouse’s pension – since the end of the war.

But the Republika Srpska authorities had already decided earlier in 2014 that she was not even eligible to receive this money. Now for her to gain the status of a civilian victim of war, which would entitle her to benefits, she must prove exactly how her sons were killed.

Tatarevic’s house in the small village of Zecevi, about 20 kilometres from Tomasica, is decorated with a Bosnian Army flag and pictures of her sons and husband.

In the run-up to this month’s elections in Bosnia, she was visited there by a series of politicians seeking to portray themselves as sympathetic to her cause, and by journalists fascinated by her story. “They come nearly every day, taking pictures and asking me about my health,” she sighed.

The media reports caused diaspora Bosnians to offer donations, which have improved her financial situation, but the attention seemed to have exhausted her. She no longer remembered the exact birth dates of her sons. “The youngest was born in ‘75. Or ‘76? No, I think it was ‘75,” she said, struggling to recall the year.

Tatarevic has filed a case in Republika Srpska, asking to be defined as a civilian victim of war, a process that requires an investigation into the killings and a definition of the crime committed.

But while excavations at Tomasica are due to continue, now the elections have passed, her case is unlikely ever to be properly investigated and resolved, as is so often the situation in Bosnia.


Searching for the missing

Funeral of identified missing persons, BosniaFuneral of identified missing persons, BosniaLee Bryant

Myriads of often-unspeakable traumas are generated by wars. Together with killings, rapes, plundering, and mutilations, the trauma of not knowing what happened to loved ones is a burning and everyday issue for thousands of people around the world. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the most multi-ethnic country in the former Yugoslavia, emerged from the 1991-1995 conflict in the region with the highest number ofcasualties, devastation, and also missing people. By the end of the war, approximately 31,500 people in Bosnia alone were unaccounted for. Given Bosnia’s catastrophic devastation, it soon became the primary playground for international transitional justice efforts. Alongside the first UN ad hoc international tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was established in 1993, Bosnia’s fate also set in motion a global search for the missing through the creation of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) in 1996.

The scale of the atrocities committed in the 1991-1995 Yugoslav wars indeed mobilized human rights advocates and policy makers, engendering massive international involvement in the post-war reconstruction of the Balkans. The United Nations, NATO, OSCE, the European Union and global and regional charities have directed most of their attention to BiH, investing significant resources in its post-war recovery.According to the IMF, BiH alone has received more per capita in foreign aid than any European state after the Second World War. Only between 1996-1999, US $3.7 billion were sent to the country. Post-war justice was meant to come with the ICTY’s judgments and the evidence produced before it. However, the degree to which this has been achieved is so far disputed, especially in terms of its direct benefit for the survivors, as studies such as Meernik and Guerrero’s from 2014 showed. Notwithstanding its debatable nature, the ICTY has spearheaded a new era of universal international criminal prosecution and the extensive evidence presented before it has at least reduced the number of “permissible lies”, to quote Michael Ignatieff.

With the ICTY gaining the transitional justice spotlight in the Balkans, the existence of the ICMP, through which the Balkans have been teaching a global lesson on how to deal with questions of truth and justice in post-war situations, is too often forgotten. Its track record so far is quite impressive. Out of the original number of missing, by 2014, the fate of “only” 8,500 people from Bosnia was still unknown. Over 75% of the missing have been identified – the highest percentage of all post-war countries (e.g. Iraq, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Columbia. In Columba, only around 3,000 people have been identified out of the nearly 70,000 missing persons).Unlike the ICTY, the ICMP was established in BiH with its headquarters in Sarajevo and offices in Tuzla, and Banja Luka (as well as Pristina in Kosovo). It is funded by donor governments (including most European countries, the US, and even the Holy See), the EU, and the C.S. Mott Foundation. Since 2003, when its mandate was extended beyond the Western Balkans, the ICMP– staffed by Bosnian citizens at a rate of 85% – has been functioning as the world’s hub for the search for missing persons. Its role in Bosnia has been irreplaceable since its establishment.

First, its technical and scientific expertise was fundamental for locating mass graves and identifying bodily remains under extremely difficult circumstances: during the conflict, bodies were dug out of primary graves and moved into secondary and tertiary sites, making identification a tortuous and expensive process. Initially, searches were carried out exclusively on the basis of information obtained from witnesses and families (as well as perpetrators), and the identification of bodily remains had to be made personally or through blood samples from family members. To simplify the identification procedures, the ICMP developed a new technology, which has since 2001 allowed for DNA-based computer-processed matching of body parts to family members. This required the creation of a DNA bank through the gathering of blood samples from relatives, including from members of what is now a very large diaspora. The Bosnian diaspora was mobilized across the world and the ICMP carried out several waves of blood samplings abroad. The technology eventually achieved a certainty of 99.9% accuracy rate for identifying a person, and has now been applied in other areas in the world, such as for the remains of the victims of the 9/11 in New York.

Second, the ICMP’s work has demonstrated that a seemingly technical process of forensic identification can have far-reaching healing properties. Resolving the fate of the missing is a crucial step towards restoring social relationships. Several academic works such as Stover and Shigekane’s from 2006 showed that finding bodies of family members helps bereaved families to deal with the war trauma by moving on and directing their grief at one physical site. Recovering, identifying and laying the bodies to rest brings peace to their mind but also allows them to come to terms with the “other” groups. Existing research shows that families of the missing often feel doubly victimized – by the original disappearance of their loved ones and by the culture of silence among the other groups about their fates. Not being given information about their missing friends or relatives, victims find it difficult to trust members of the other groups and are unable to forgive them.

Third, the ICMP’s pressure on domestic institutions has also led to some local reforms, though these have so far not been progressing as originally hoped. Similarly to the ICTY, which encouraged and eventually led the process of establishing a local war crimes court, the ICMP supported the concept of a Bosnian Missing People’s Institute (MPI) in 2005 with the aim of bringing the search for the missing into Bosnian hands. The 2004 Law on Missing Persons, as the first national legislation related to missing persons in the world, prescribed the opening of the MPI, the creation of a central database of the missing (CEN), and the establishment of a fund for the families of the missing. The MPI’s role was to replace the existing regional commissions on missing persons and unify them as one body. Since its official opening in 2008, it has been establishing offices across Bosnia with the primary aim of communicating with the families and prosecutorial offices, matching the technical work of the ICMP with highly localized communicative strategies.

Fourth, the question of the missing has been of great political significance in terms of collective memories and legitimacy of the existing regional governments. Forensic anthropologists can provide solid evidence about how a person died and whether it was a civilian or not, which is documented in the study of Baraybar and Gasior from 2006. The more bodies which are identified, the more facts about their causes of death that are obtained, and the more “truth” that emerges. This poses serious challenges to a country with multiple collective truths and narratives. Actors in each regional government[1] and each of Bosnia’s three dominant ethno-national groups – Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats -have been trying to establish singular narratives about the war in order to justify their role during the conflict. These narratives are more often than not in direct opposition to one another. Many Bosniaks see Bosnian Serbs as carving out an artificial semi-state out of Bosnia via ethnic cleansing and genocide. Many Bosnian Serbs respond by saying that they fought to prevent Bosnia from being Islamicized by the Bosniaks and insist that the crimes committedhave not been as serious as generally presented. Many Bosnian Croats, for their part, see themselves as caught between the Serbs and Bosniaks and their role in the war in purely defensive terms. The tangible evidential imprint on bodies which have been found thus stands as a potential challenge to collective war narratives presented by the three opposing groups. For these reasons, the aforementioned Law has never been fully implemented and the central register of missing persons together with the Fund have so far not been established.

Lastly, the search for missing people has been redefining the role of the state in post-war periods. The state is now expected to tackle the question of the missing in a more substantial way than ever before – the right to know the fate of the missing has entered into human rights parlance and practice and thus defined a new obligation of the state towards its citizens. It has also pointed to the important role of the civil sector and the survivors. Families of the missing and civil society have been driving the continued identification process and insisting on this new obligation of the state towards its citizens. They have been pressing not only for a system of support during the actual search but also for a set of reparation schemes – both in practical (financial) and symbolic (commemorative) terms. These developments have been further anchored in the international system via new global institutions, including the ICMP.

The domestic political hurdles in Bosnia and Herzegovina notwithstanding, the ICMP serves as an example of an effective transitional justice institution, which has avoided some of the mistakes of its better-known sister organization, the ICTY. The Institute has been based in Bosnia and it has directly involved victims in the process. Bosnia still has a long way to go in uncovering the last graves (if ever) and in improving the network of support for the families of the missing; importantly, it must ensure the full implementation of the 2004 Law. The ICMP’s role in this process will probably be only a limited one, while the domestic MPI will take over. During its nearly twenty years of work in Bosnia, though, the ICMP’s track record has been quite impressive given the challenging conditions it has faced and it has been instrumental in uncovering the fate of hundreds of missing persons around the world.

Keywords: ICMP, ICTY, missing people, war crimes, civilian victims, Bosnian war

ICMP Figures:

Number of missing people from the former Yugoslavia as of 1995 40,000
In Bosnia and Herzegovina 31,500
Still missing as of 2015 in the former Yugoslavia 13,000
In Bosnia and Herzegovina 8,500
Number of blood samples for the former Yugoslavia 91,451

To know more:

Baraković, Devla, Esmina Avdibegović, and Osman Sinanović. 2014. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Women with War Missing Family Members.” Psychiatria Danubina 26(4): 340–46.

Baraybar, Jose Pablo, and Marek Gasior. 2006. “Forensic Anthropology and the Most Probable Cause of Death in Cases of Violations against International Humanitarian Law: An Example from Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Journal of forensic sciences 51(1): 103–8.

Clark, Janine Natalya. 2010. “Missing Persons, Reconciliation and the View from below: A Case Study of Bosnia‐Hercegovina.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 10(4): 425–42.

Hronesova, Jessie. 2012. Everyday Ethno-National Identities of Young People in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prager Schriften Zur Zeitgeschichte Und Zum Zeitgeschehen. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Ignatieff, Michael. 1998. The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. Macmillan.

Meernik, James, and Jose Raul Guerrero. 2014. “Can International Criminal Justice Advance Ethnic Reconciliation? The ICTY and Ethnic Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 14(3): 383–407.

Nettelfield, Lara J., and Sarah Wagner. 2013. Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide. Cambridge University Press.

Rowen, Jamie. 2013. “Truth in the Shadows of Justice.” In Transitional Justice and Civil Society in the Balkans, Springer Series in Transitional Justice, eds. Olivera Simic and Zala Volcic. New York, 123–40.

Sebastian-Aparicio, Sofia. 2014. Post-War Statebuilding and Constitutional Reform in Divided Societies. Beyond Dayton in Bosnia. Palgrave Macmillan.

Stover, Eric, and Rachel Shigekane. 2002. “The Missing in the Aftermath of War: When Do the Needs of Victims’ Families and International War Crimes Tribunals Clash?” Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge/International Review of the Red Cross 84(848): 845–66.

Wagner, Sarah E. 2008. To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing. University of California Press.

First published here:

[1] Bosnian governance is based on a sui generis ethno-national federal system consisting of two entities, one is mono-ethnic (Republika Srpska) and one bi-ethnic (Federation of BiH), de facto following the military border of 1995.