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  • The Graves, Srebrenica and Vukovar
  • Richard Pierre Claude
The Graves, Srebrenica and Vukovar, by Eric Stover and Gilles Peress (Zurich: Scalo, 1998), 329 pp.

In this book, science writer Eric Stover and photojournalist Gilles Peress confront the reader with evidence of recent atrocious carnage carried out in the former Yugoslavia in the name of “ethnic cleansing.” Complimenting Eric Stover’s narrative of the exhumation process of mass graves, are Gilles Peress’ accompanying photos, which are gutwrenching and startling in the realism with which they present the faces of survivors and intertwined cadavers dumped in and near the star-crossed villages of Srebrenica (Bosnia) and Vukovar (Croatia).

In bringing the reader photographically face-to-face with victims and survivors of monstrous crimes, the authors make a very unusual addition to the human rights literature. The volume effectively succeeds, on many levels, in combining historical elements graced with full character development of the principals in a presentation that reads like a novel. Moreover, this piece of riveting photojournalism and very readable text is enhanced with accessible explanations of the science employed in the exhumation process.

As a science thriller, The Graves places the reader side-by-side with forensic anthropologists, Bill Hagland, Clyde Snow, and their associates, and their hunt for evidence of culpability that is revealed gradually by the harrowing routine of daily exhumations and painstaking examinations that is conducted near a Bosnian and a Croatian village, where civilians were wantonly murdered and their bodies deposited in mass graves. Stover’s account, reflecting site visits and many interviews, makes the reader feel like a silent, but haunted, [End Page 538] witness, of such carnage. For example, Stover recounts listening to Marko, an informant, describe the slaughter by Serb soldiers of Croatian patients driven out of the Vukovar hospital and onto the killing fields of the Ovcara farm. At the same time, the author’s literary zoom lens gives the vicarious witness a distressing closeup:

As the archeologists dug deeper, they discovered bodies wearing smocks and white clogs, garb common to hospital employees in Europe. Some of the bodies bore signs of previous injuries: a thigh bandaged in gauze or a broken arm set in a plaster cast and sling. A pair of broken crutches lay on top of one body. Another had a catheter dangling from its pelvis. 1

The only crime the victims committed was that they were not Serbs. In other cases, usually on the basis of the words of survivors, the author acquaints the reader with other criminal actions by Croats and Bosnian Muslims.

The scores of high resolution photos in this book are terribly sad; they are pictures from hell bringing to mind Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s description of the Balkan conflict in the early 1990s as a “problem from hell.” Among the reasons for his judgment is the frightful scope and hateful manner of human slaughter involved. Of course, wasting human beings is what war is all about, and such depravity is nothing new. For example, to note a historical counterpart, large-scale carnage was also the distinctive marker of the Crimean War of 1854 to 1856, sometimes called the first modern war because of the fire power used. The scope of senseless and inhumane cruelty, personally viewed on the battlefield in 1859 by Henri Dunant inspired him to propose the establishment of an international body for the aid of the wounded—an idea that was finally realized in the Geneva Convention of 1864 and the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross. While witnessing mass atrocities can indeed be a crushing human experience, Durant’s case suggests that it can also stir the conscience and energize the will to creative action.

Visions of human slaughter from the same nineteenth-century battlefield also brought the Strasbourgeois artist, Paul Gustave Doré, to use his meticulous and photography-like sketches to dispatch pictures from the war zone, prompted by a “people must see this” kind of moral imperative. In turning from life to art, from The Crimea to Dante’s Inferno, Doré’s skills of artistic steel-plate engraving are remembered today for unrolling an aesthetic panorama of misery and cruelty. 2...

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pp. 538-540
Launched on MUSE
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