SEJKOVACA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Denisa Hegic pulled her scarf around her nose to guard against the stench and drew back the plastic shroud. Shaking, she reached down to touch her mother’s skull and caressed it.
The last time she touched her mother she was bleeding on the floor of the family home, slain by Bosnian Serb soldiers storming their tiny village in northwestern Bosnia. On Wednesday, mother and daughter were reunited in a cavernous building used to house the remains of victims newly excavated from the mass grave in Tomasica, 125 miles northwest of Sarajevo.
“I found her body,” said Hegic, who is now 30.
Hegic’s experience is being repeated by many survivors of Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war this week, as experts begin allowing families to view the remains meticulously pulled from the earth and identified through DNA analysis. Hundreds of families are expected to make the sad pilgrimage to see the dead.
So far, 430 victims have been found in the Tomasica grave, a vast pit about 30 feet deep and covering 54,000 square feet. The mass grave contains victims of Bosnian Serb military units who killed Muslim Bosniaks and Roman Catholic Croats in hopes of creating an ethnically pure region.
Many believe more people were originally buried there. Diaries confiscated from former Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic suggest that some of the bodies in the Tomasica pit were dug up and moved, which now complicates efforts to identify the dead.
But some progress has been made. Family members coming to view remains are also offering statements to local prosecutors to assist in efforts to prosecute Mladic, who is being tried on war crimes charges at the U.N. tribunal in the Netherlands. The tribunal has sentenced 16 Bosnian Serbs to a total of 230 years for the crimes committed in the closest town, Prijedor, but no one has yet been held responsible for the killings in Hegic’s village of Biscani, which is nearby.
On July 20, 1992, when Hegic was 8, people in Biscani heard the Bosnian Serbs were coming. Her parents hid their only child in the basement. When the soldiers came, they shot her mother, her father, her grandparents, her three uncles and her three cousins.
An aunt pulled her away from mother’s bloody body.
“My aunt was there with my mother, but she managed to escape and took me with her,” Hegic said, her green eyes misty and red as she recalled the day.
They ran, but were caught. Eventually the two survivors were sent to a Nazi-style camp with thousands of others. But international journalists working in Bosnia at the time embarrassed Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic with images of starving people at the gates of the camp, and he was forced to shut it down and free those inside.
Hegic and her aunt, survived. She eventually settled in Germany and married a boy from her village that she knew as a child.
They both gave DNA samples to identify relatives who died in the attack. They were called Tuesday and drove back to Bosnia as soon as they heard. They found themselves early Wednesday, waiting with others, looking for corpses, as they have been for 22 years.
Here, at the Sejkovaca Identification Center, they bring the families in one at a time, where they are faced with bodies placed on shelves, preserved in salt and covered in plastic. Some of the corpses are only partially decomposed, a result of soil heavy in lime.
The stench makes the viewings difficult. Most people spend only a short amount of time with the dead. They will wait to mourn, gathering for a mass funeral in July.
Hegic was no exception. She could bear only a few minutes and buried her face in a tissue after she said goodbye to her mother, for a second time.