The Grave at Vukovar

A war crimes tribunal sent forensic scientists to investigate mass graves in the former Yugoslavia. What happened there?

"Bones," forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow once said, "are often our last and best witnesses: they never lie, and they never forget." Snow first discovered human bones at Ovcara, a farm outside Vukovar, Croatia, in 1992, after having been directed there by a man who claimed to be the survivor of a massacre. Attempts to investigate the site were thwarted until a peace accord was signed in December 1995, ending the war that had gone on there for four years.

In late summer of last year, an international tribunal set up by the United Nations Security Council to investigate war crimes in the former Yugoslavia sent forensic anthropologist William Haglund and teams of scientists, including Snow, to the area to study several mass graves. The exacting work at the Ovcara grave site included making a precise map of the location of every object found, including bones and bullets. Bodies were placed in bags and sent to a morgue in Zagreb.

While work was going on in the countryside, Snow set up shop at the morgue, parsing the bones so that identifying characteristics of each body could be recorded. He also took descriptive information gathered from family and friends of people who were missing and entered it into a database he had developed years earlier to keep track of victims of an airline crash. Comparing the two sets of information will enable researchers to identify the remains.

The war crimes tribunal and the families of victims are anxiously awaiting the results of the investigation.

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