Harrowing return to mass graves in Bosnia

Roland Wessling, 46, was part of a group of forensic specialists who returned to the Bosnian region of Srebrenica last month, where more than 8,300 people were killed in July 1995.

On the 20th anniversary of the first forensic specialists going out to excavate the mass graves, a group of 15 experts who worked there in the 1990s and early 2000s returned to reflect on their experiences.

Between 800 and 1,500 bodies were discovered in individual mass graves in Srebrenica, a former spa town, which was a United Nations safe haven protected by the Dutch army.

With many ethnic groups populating what is now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, thousands of Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, were killed in and around the Eastern town of Srebrenica during the Bosnian War (April 1992 – December 1995).

And at the age of 28, then a masters student at Bournemouth University, Mr Wessling first went out to the Srebrenica region to excavate graves in 1999.

In just four weeks of his eight-week trip, he excavated 416 bodies. When he returned in 2000, he was part of an excavation team that unearthed a further 2,000 bodies.

Mr Wessling, a lecturer at Cranfield University, said: “Going back was a mixture of emotions really.

“On the one hand you have a little bit of nostalgia for these things because it was a great operation. I met some of my best friends but of course you are reminded of all the horror that happened during this time.

“When you excavate mass graves you obviously see the darker side of humanity. What people do to each other is very horrific and you are in contact with that on a daily basis.

“You see the gun shot holes in the heads, you see someone’s last effort to hide between another person and then they are shot so you see really truly horrific things.

“When you are excavating you have to distance yourself from that because as a forensic scientist you have to be neutral. It is your duty to not get emotional about it. But of course, afterwards, and for some people before, you do have to deal with it – you can’t bottle it up.”

According to the Gloucester Street resident, the highest number of people to escape individual massacres was two at a time, meaning less than dozen survived.

As part of their visit, the group returned to the town of Visoko, the site of a temporary mortuary where forensic scientists worked from 1997.

The town has a “Square of the Srebrenica Genocide Victims”, which includes an amphitheatre, a fountain and a memorial plaque by the promenade.

The memorial also recognises the work done by the forensic specialists in identifying the victims.

On meeting survivors, Mr Wessling, a German native born in Hamburg, said: “Going out there and meeting survivors – that was tough.

“Until then we had excavated all the victims and suddenly you met one of the very few people who managed to get away.”

The delegation which visited Srebrenica was led by Robert McNeil, who sits on the board of Remembering Srebrenica Scotland, a charity set up to raise awareness of the genocide.

Having worked in Iraq, Cyprus and Colombia, among other countries, Mr Wessling said: “I’ve worked in lots of different conflicts but you can’t become deeply emotionally involved in every single one of them.

“However, the visit now has certainly strengthened my desire to help keep the memory of Srebrenica alive.”