Bosnia mass grave could yield evidence for ex-Yugoslav war crime trials

Bosnian mass graves discovered 2:34

TOMASICA, Bosnia - It has taken more than 20 years for the ground to give up its secrets. But now teams from the International Commission of Missing Persons are confident they have discovered one of the biggest mass graves from the deadly civil war that gripped the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

As forensic teams dig deep through the thick clay at Tomasica, near Prijedor, they are hoping their excavation will bring answers to questions being asked in trials at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and peace to the families still searching for their dead.

A team from The Hague has just visited collecting evidence which could be used in high profile prosecutions there, and families visit every day searching for news.

Forensic scientists have so far unearthed 150 bodies - an average of ten bodies a day. Officers from the Prosecutor's office have turned the site into a crime scene. Witness statements have already established that this grave originally contained 1,000 bodies when it was dug in the summer of 1992. It will take months of digging to establish how many still remain.

Secrets are hard to keep, and it was a former Serb soldier, originally part of the team tasked with hiding the bodies, who came forward in April unable to live with the guilt he has carried for 21 years. Time is finally delivering justice and laying ghosts to rest.

Witness statements have already established that this grave originally contained 1,000 bodies when it was dug in the summer of 1992.

The area was at the center of a vicious war which left more than 100,000 dead. News of atrocities from the war dominated news broadcasts.

Forensic experts, members of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), and Bosnian workers search for human remains at a mass grave in the village of Tomasica, near Western-Bosnian town of Prijedor/ ]

Those involved in the conflict - the Serb, Muslim and Croat populations - live in an uneasy peace now, but they are constantly arguing about their history - and the conflict which tore their country apart.

In the region of Prijedor where this grave has been found, it has been established that it was the Serb forces that were responsible for most of the deaths as they forced out Croats and Muslims.

It was a vicious campaign of murder, which left more than 4,000 dead in this area alone. Most of them were Muslims, according to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

General Radko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb war time leaders, stand accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for the actions of the Serb forces in this area at the time. What they discover at this grave may be used by the prosecutor in the Mladic trial, and in the summing up in the Karadzic trial which is due to end at the end of this year.

Today, ghosts of the dead and the missing haunt the Muslim villages, where brambles now grow over their burnt out houses.

More than 1,000 people are still missing. These include women and children, but are mostly men.

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Amongst them are about 400 of the 3,000 men believed to have been murdered as prisoners in detention camps set up as part of the systematic ethnic cleansing. These camps were exposed by ITV News and Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian newspaper, in 1992 – reporting that drew international condemnation of the war.

Those camps were only a few miles from the mass grave that is now being examined.

"This must be the end of the chapter," says Fikret Alic, a former detainee from the detention camps I first met as a prisoner in Trenopyle camp 1992. He believes the bodies of the dead he watched being loaded onto trucks from the Keraterm camp will be found soon.

And another former detainee, Kemal Pervanic, who survived another camp, Omarska, stood graveside with me and shuddered: "This could have been me. We are looking at a crime that couldn't stay hidden, they tried to cover it up. But bodies don't lie."

Nasiha Klipic hopes the grave will contain the bodies of her three nephews, brother and husband, all still missing from the war, some of them prisoners from the camps.

Her tears fall as if they were taken from her yesterday. "I want them brought home. Please God, they are in this grave."

ITV News is an international partner of NBC News. Penny Marshall was one of the first journalists to report the existence of the Bosnia detention camps in 1992, earning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. This article was first published by ITV News.