“Paw-Paw and Meema were buried side by side in their graves at the Palms cemetery. They would have wanted it that way because they were partners in life, after all, and isn’t it oh so cozy and romantic?” I’ve heard this sentiment expressed more than just a couple of times and I’ve seen it as well—the interment of family members and lovers close together, representative of eternal love and commitment. It’s just a gesture for the living, you see. It means absolutely squat to the departed.
Some of the more than 6,100 gravestones at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial
“We’re making an excursion!” Barticus shouted over the wop-wop of Blackhawk rotor blades. I just nodded in an exaggerated fashion without even asking where. I didn’t have to. “The boss wants to see one of the mass graves at Srebrenica!” I understood; there were mass graves dotting the Bosnian countryside following the ceasefire in 1996. I knew they were all around, but had neither the time nor interest in ever visiting. Mass graves are just not places of the visiting sort.
Wall of names at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial
As the news spread, the guys began fidgeting in their seats. I pulled a video camera from my bag and held it up. “I’ll record the event!” Exaggerated nods were returned. Barticus, who had relayed the plan change to our chopper, had been to Bosnia before. He pulled a tube of toothpaste from his travel backpack. He put a dollop on a finger. I calculated that he was going to give his teeth a finger brush.
“Gotta have nice, minty breath for the dead, eh Barticus?” I cracked irreverently. Barticus looked up at me but proceeded to smear it on his upper lip just beneath his nose. He passed it around the chopper. Veterans of Bosnia did the same and the rest of us followed suit. We all looked ridiculous, I must say. I began to chuckle and grin to the boys on the bird. Barticus just looked at me with no expression, a thing that made me instantly uneasy.
More words are often spoken with a closed mouth and open eyes.
Our chopper put the hammer down and passed the chopper to our front—the one with the general in it. It was our policy to never take the boss to a cold-call location. Without an advance party waiting at Srebrenica, we would at least dash out ahead and get men on the ground to receive him.
Much of the remains of the Srebrenica mass graves are only fragments or commingled body fragments, as they were recovered from secondary mass graves. The photo depicts one section of the refrigerated mortuary.
Our chopper flared hard over the street as we dumped out and spread out in a quick-time route-step to the exhumation site. My camera was tightly strapped to my left hand; my assault rifle was in the care of my right. Our chopper always made unscheduled landings in streets; it was sure to cut down on dust and potential brown-outs, but more importantly it ensured we wouldn’t land on one of the millions of uncharted land mines spread throughout the country.
The grave looked like an archeological dig site. Well, it actually was, if you think about it. As we got nearer I realized why I had Colgate toothpaste spread on my upper lip. The stench was palpable. My instincts urged me not to go forward, but for my entire career in Delta I’d been taught to always go when I didn’t want to. That was just how it was.
There were six adjacent holes. A wide wooden plank ran the length of each, on which we could cross over and observe. I looked at Barticus’ still-expressionless face for guidance. D-Man motioned us to cross over and look, then pick up security positions around the grave site. “Every man goes and every man looks,” he instructed.
Hardline Serbian soldiers of Yugoslavia recognized that the Bosnian residents of Srebrenica were all family, neighbors, friends, acquaintances, lovers…so wouldn’t it be positively romantic to bury them all side by side? Better yet, in a side-by-side configuration such that they were touching one another for eternity? That would only do for the nearly 8,000 Srebrenica residents they interred.
And there they lay.
They were wearing their Halloween masks—all of them. A frightfully ghoulish lot they were. They lay hand in hand, head against head, head in lap, head on chest, chest against chest, back to back, leg over back, leg over face, leg over leg…a death orgy. All the neighbors came to this gathering: the dads, uncles, moms, aunts, brothers, sisters, boys, girls…all God’s chillun’ got wings. Such little ones…so small. Impossibly small, some of them.
Exhumation of the Srebrenica massacre victims
Impossibly small because some of them were, in fact, dolls. Moms will be more compliant in their executions if they are allowed to keep their children with them. Children are more compliant in their executions if they are allowed to keep their toys with them. Made no difference to Serbian gunners; just made their job easier. I observed that the young boys in Srebrenica that year fancied those little cup toys with a ball attached to a length of string. The kind where you would swing the ball around and try to catch it in the cup.
But their arms…where were their arms? None of them had arms. Ah, there they are, all behind their backs—secured by ligature. None of the men wore shirts. I noted one of the missus had her hands secured behind her by a length of beads that she had perhaps been wearing that day, that last day in Srebrenica. Burying these town folk together was a gesture by the Serbs who would go on living; it meant absolutely squat to the dead.
Our helo screamed as it heaved upward and forward, nose down and twisting in the sky. Barticus handed me a clump of wet napkins that he had just used to wipe the toothpaste off his lip. “Here,” he shouted, “You look ridiculous!” I grinned a mandatory grin as I wiped my lip. “Welcome to Bosnia!” he shouted. This time I wore the vacant expression.
At some point during that flight I regained consciousness and realized I still had my video camera strapped to my left hand. The thought of it hadn’t so much as crossed my mind even for a moment at the grave. But then videos of mass graves do not make the best travel memorabilia…not in the least.
The job occupied the rest of my day well enough, but eventually, our tasks were done and I was back at my safe house late that night. I made coffee despite the hour, as I felt quite certain the Sandman would not be punching my ticket that night. I heard the rush of a sudden heavy rain outside the house and felt a distinct urge to be out in it.
Exhumed grave of victims—2007
Stepping into the backyard I became soaked immediately, head to toe, my coffee diluted by the deluge. The downpour was of such strength that I could scant see to the yard’s back wall. I was honestly OK with that. I was OK with not seeing anything, anything at all, ever again. I stood, soaked, and sipped and sighed. With each sip, my coffee tasted more and more like the night sky.
And yet it happened.
By Almighty God and with honor,
Dedication for this article goes to NEWSREP sister Susan Hanigan