PARIS – Every culture wants to remember its dead. Every family needs to be identified who is missing to reach the end. Perhaps that is why a wartime mass grave offends something deeply in the human conscience.
It is possible to say with little certainty about hundreds of bodies were discovered last week at Izium, in a pine forest in northeastern Ukraine, other than that they are the beginning of a long story. Restoring human dignity to the most dehumanized scenes – faceless corpses piled up, lives reduced to nothingness, the stench of abandonment – is a painstaking forensic endeavor.
For months, perhaps years, work will continue to collate DNA samples, collate debris, determine the cause of death and determine what crimes may have been committed by Russian forces. ran away a week ago. Any mass grave – from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Argentina to Guatemala – asking our humanity to recover individual lives ends there.
Anjli Parrin, Associate Director of the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said: “On the one hand in the UK you see the Queen’s solemn burial and on the other hand, mass graves rooted in mass violence. “They are two extremes that remind us that the idea of someone missing, buried anonymously, violates the basic instinct to honor the dead.”
As President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia retreats, evidence of atrocities may emerge. That seems to be a pattern in Moscow’s war in Ukraine, most recently in Izium.
The post-apocalyptic scene last spring in Bucha, near Kyiv, with dozens of corpses scattered in black plastic bags beneath mistletoe-laden birch trees has proven to be a prelude to a scene. other troubles.
The excavation of a burial site in the pine forest, after more than five months of the Russian occupation of Izium, has uncovered a mass grave of Ukrainian Army soldiers – 17 of them, according to an inscription on the holy tree. price. There are also 445 individual graves that are mostly unmarked. Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliamentarian for human rights, spoke of the “genocide of the Ukrainian people”.
But the crime of genocide – which entails “the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” in the words of the 1948 Genocide Convention – not easy to prove. Other international crimes, including crimes against humanity and extrajudicial executions, may also have occurred.
It took nine years for the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia to rule on the 1995 Serbian murder of more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys around. Srebrenica constitutes genocide. It was the worst single massacre in Europe since 1945.
It was also a foretold massacre. To any reporter covering the war there, as I did, it has long been clear that Bosnia’s so-called “safe zone” under UN protection is not such a thing. . The blue helmets of the United Nations army have become a symbol of helplessness. The horror, as it happens, is merely a reenactment, on a different scale, of the Serbian army chasing and massacring Muslims in Bosnia three years earlier, at the start of the war in 1992.
Izium, if the war in Ukraine is long and brutal (even for as many years as possible), is unlikely to be the final site of countless graves lost in the woods. The horrors emerging in Ukraine are also nothing new for a country with a deep history in the field, including at Babyn Yar, the ravine in Kyiv where more than 33,000 Jews were killed by Germany. Nazi massacre in 1941.
My colleague in Bosnia, Elizabeth Neuffer of the Boston Globe, who was later killed in Iraq, wrote about the mass grave of Cerska 17 miles northwest of Srebrenica in “Crimes of War,” a book edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff:
“The corpses were dressed in civilian clothes. They had gunshot wounds to the back of their heads. Their rotten hands were tied behind their backs.” She continued: “Every part of the human skeleton – about two hundred bones and thirty-two teeth – has a story to tell.”
They will go to Izium, forensic pathologists, ballistics specialists, forensic dentists, anthropologists, dowsers, police investigators, National and international authorities intend to establish the violence that created those graves.
It is difficult to determine the cause, manner and circumstances of death in war. I learned a lot of that.
Ms Parrin, who is working on mass graves in the Central African Republic, said: “Not only is it difficult to collect evidence, but it is also preserving it. “You are labeling, numbering, and photographing in conditions of great stress and trauma, and you have to demonstrate a chain of surveillance behavior – who passed what to whom and who locked it in which office and when.”
It is very easy to make mistakes. Identity confusion is not unusual.
Before Bosnia, there was Argentina, which I mentioned in the mid-1980s. Buenos Aires then awoke within the realm of a national nightmare. Every conversation seems to end in tears as parents, haunted by desperate fantasies, recall their children being “disappeared” by military ranks. Many of the tens of thousands of “desaparecidos” that were dropped from planes into the South Atlantic between 1976 and 1983 are still unknown.
So the Argentinian military leader turned “disappear” into a transitive verb and the ocean into a mass grave. I sit and listen. That’s what journalists do: listen in silence, wait for clues, apparitions unfold, faces collapse like a passive building.
The grief of the bereaved is overwhelming. The sudden disappearance was too much to bear. There is no goodbye and no proper means of mourning. The mind twists toward desperate actions.
I dispel the belief that, for the bereaved, disappearance in an anonymous mass grave turns every living thing into a person who can resemble a lost child, whose death can never be accepted. receive completely.
Before Argentina, there was Lithuania. My grandmother is from Zagare, a small town in Lithuania famous for cherries. The last Jew there, Aizikas Mendelsonas, died in 2011. When he was born in 1922, there were almost 2,000 Jews in Zagare, with seven synagogues.
The Nazis put an end to all of that after pushing their troops into Lithuania in June 1941. On October 2, 1941, the Jews of Zagare were ordered to enter the main square before being sent into the woods for executions. decide.
In 1944, the Soviet Red Army, upon entering Lithuania, searched a mass grave in the woods outside Zagare and found 2,402 corpses (530 men, 1,223 women, 625 children, 24 infants), as I discovered while researching a book on my family. A sign in the woods indicates “The Grave of the Holocaust Victims”, now also commemorated by a monument on the main square.
My family’s assumed European fate, if they don’t leave Zagare in time, is to die anonymously in an unnamed ditch. Maybe that’s why mass graves haunt me.
These things still exist, nominally or not. Two decades after Srebrenica, a French photographer, Adrien Selbert, showed me pictures of the town, now gathered in a book called “Srebrenica, From Night to Night”. They had captured a town weighed down by the past, unable to shake it off, gripped by a sort of sullen languor. Lost dogs roam the empty streets. Neon signs and street lights twinkle into the blanks.
It is clear that all the bullets the Serbs fired at their male victims constituted an equal amount of violence against their female survivors, who were left with unshakable pain. .
What Russia has done, in Izium and elsewhere, is to forge a Ukrainian national identity stronger than ever, with wounds that will remain etched for generations.