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Human Rights Center's Eric Stover Documents Bosnia's Mass Graves

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted December 09, 1998

"My terror of forgetting is greater than my terror of having too much to remember." - Holocaust survivor

"If you see vengeance, dig two graves." - Chinese proverb

Muslim women

Muslim women in Srebrenica await news of husbands and sons.

So begins Eric Stover's book on the mass graves of Bosnia illustrated by Magnum photographer Gilles Peress.

Released this summer by the Zurich-based publisher Scalo, "The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar" has been translated into French and German and will soon be available in Serbo-Croatian.

Director of the campus Human Rights Center and adjunct professor of public health, Stover started investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia in 1992 as head of the international organization Physicians for Human Rights.

During 1994-96 he led international forensic teams on exhumations of mass graves in Bosnia and Croatia, finally returning home to spend six months in bed with severe hepatitis. He undertook the mission to provide evidence to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This month he meets with the tribunal's president in The Hague to discuss how to better communicate the tribunal's work to survivors of ethnic cleansing.

Stover and associate director of the Human Rights Center Harvey Weinstein will also meet in Sarajevo with university researchers from Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia to launch a study on how divided communities in the former Yugoslavia and relate to the pursuit of justice and accountability.

A genial, relaxed man of 46 whose desk holds books of Yeats poems and haiku as well as "The Laws of War," Stover says he has to "compartmentalize" his feelings in order to live with what he has witnessed during his 20-year career documenting human rights atrocities.

mass grave

Forensic anthropologist William Haglund removes a decomposing body from a mass grave in Pilica, Bosnia.

"The Graves" focuses on the two worst war crimes on European soil since World War II, says Stover. Despite bullying and resistance by Serbian authorities, the timidity and inertia of UN and then NATO forces, and the threat of sniper and mortar fire, Stover and his teams went about their grim business.

Seven to eight thousand Muslims were killed after the Bosnian Serb army seized the UN-declared safe haven of Srebrenica, says Stover. About 200 patients and staff taken from a Vukovar hospital were summarily executed. Stover estimates there are hundreds of mass graves in Bosnia, of which close to 200 have been discovered.

"It's a privilege to do something concrete to help families who want to know what happened to their loved ones," says Stover. "This is work that must be done."

The work will go on for decades, he predicts, until the full extent of the murders is clarified, bodies identified, families notified, and perpetrators brought to justice.

Stover has led investigations of mass graves in Rwanda, Argentina, Guatemala, and Iraqi Kurdistan, but Bosnia proved much harder for forensic scientists to take in many ways, he says.

Instead of clean bones, the forensic teams had to remove decomposing bodies and body parts from often wet, muddy pits. Sometimes workers slipped and fell, almost drowning in gore. "It was as if the top had slid off the caldron, and the workers had tumbled through black air to the deepest and darkest corner of the Inferno," writes Stover.

Because of ongoing fighting and lack of either UN or NATO protection of the grave sites, villagers and relatives could not accompany the forensic teams. "In Latin America, investigators have been supported by villagers and family members in constant attendance," says Stover. "This gives immediate meaning to our work."

Under the pressure, conflict flared among team members. Some couldn't take the horror of what they found, and left.

Stover returned to Bosnia with Peress in 1997 to conduct interviews with witnesses, victims and families of the missing. "For all its awfulness of incidental detail," wrote the London Observer, "(The Graves) must also rank as one of the most powerful and affecting accounts of the Yugoslav wars."

Stover was galvanized into a life defending human rights in 1976, when he was imprisoned for one sickening night during the military takeover in Argentina. In 1985 he testified for the prosecution in the trial of the military junta of that country.

"Witnesses from the Grave: The Stories Bones Tell," a book Stover co-authored with Christopher Joyce, describes finding and identifying the remains of notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in Brazil, where Stover accompanied an investigative team from the Simon Weisenthal Institute.

Another book, "Land Mines: A Deadly Legacy," resulted from Stover's ground-breaking report on the victims of land mines in Cambodia. His research helped spark the international movement to ban land mines.

Stover has testified at Congressional hearings on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, mass killings in Iraq, and human rights in Latin America.

Now, along with Weinstein and Human Rights Center research fellow Jody Ranck, he's helping to develop community-based programs for justice and reconstruction in post-genocide Rwanda.

After two decades of work in the trenches of the human rights movement, Stover says he took up his post at Berkeley with mixed feelings.

"Academia had been antithetical to my life," he says, "but now I want to close the gap between activism and the academy, between practice and theory. Students are the most valuable resource at Berkeley. Since creativity and leadership are essential to activism, we seek out and support students who can make significant contributions to the human rights movement."


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