Analysis Military

A Delta tale; the massive grave

Dedication for this write goes to sister Susan H.
Srebrenica_massacre_memorial_gravestones_2009_1

“Paw-paw and Meema were buried side-by-side at the Palms cemetery; they would have wanted it that way because they were partners in life, after all. And isn’t it oh so cozy and romantic?” That I have heard more than just a couple of times, and seen it as well; the internment of family members and lovers close together, a semblance of eternal love and commitment. It’s all just a gesture among the living, you see; it means absolutely squat to the departed.

“WE’RE MAKING AN EXCURSION!” Barticus shouted over the wop-wop of Blackhawk rotor blades. I just nodded in an exaggerated fashion without even asking where. I didn’t have to: “THE BOSS WANTS TO SEE ONE OF THE MASS GRAVES AT SREBRENICA!” I understood, as there were mass graves dotting the countryside there in Bosnia just after the cease-fire in 1996. I knew they were all around, but had neither the time or drive to ever visit… and mass graves are just not places of the visiting sort.

Srebrenica_massacre_memorial_wall_of_names_2009_2
Wall of names at the Srebrenica Genocide memorial

As the news spread, the guys began fidgeting and fishing for modifications to accommodate the new activity. I pulled a video camera from my bag and held it up: “I’ll RECORD THE EVENT!” Exaggerated nods were returned. Barticus, who had relayed the plan change to our chopper had been to Bosnia before. He oddly pulled out of a tube of toothpaste from his travel backpack.

He put a dollop on a finger. I calculated that he was going to give his teeth a finger brush. “GOTTA HAVE NICE MINTY BREATH FOR THE DEAD, EH BARTICUS?” I cracked irreverently. Barticus looked up at me, but otherwise proceeded to smear it on his upper lip just under his nose. He handed it around the chopper. Veterans of Bosnia did the same and the rest of us followed suit. We all looked ridiculous, I must say. I began to chuckle and grin around to the boys on the bird. Barticus just looked at me with no expression, a thing that made me instantly uneasy.

More words are often spoken with a closed mouth and open eyes.

Our chopper put the hammer down and passed the chopper to our front, the chopper with the general in it. It was our policy to never take the boss to a cold-call location. Without an Advance at Srebrenica, we would at least dash out ahead and get men on the ground to receive him.

ICMP-PIP
Much of the remains of the Srebrenica mass graves are only fragments or commingled body fragments, since they were recovered from secondary mass graves. The photo depicts one section of the refrigerated mortuary.

Our chopper flared hard over the street as we dumped out and spread out in a quick-time route-step to the exhumation dig. My camera was tightly strapped to my left hand; my assault rifle was in the care of my right. Our chopper always made unscheduled landings in streets, sure to cut down on dust and potential brown-outs, but more so because of the millions of uncharted land mines spread throughout the country.

The grave appeared to be every bit as much an archeological dig site. Well, it actually was, if you think about it. As we got nearer, I realized why I had Colgate toothpaste spread on my upper lip; the fragrance was palpable. My instincts were acute in advising me not to go, but my whole career in Delta I was wrought to always go when I didn’t want to. That was just how it was.

There were six adjacent holes with a wide wooden plank running down the center length of the six on which to cross over and observe. I looked at Barticus’ still expressionless face for guidance. D-Man motioned us to cross over and look, then pick up security positions around the grave site: “Every man goes and every man looks,” he instructed.

Hardline Serbians and Army of Jugoslavia recognized that the Bosnian residents of Srebrenica were all family and neighbors, friends and acquaintances, friends and lovers… so wouldn’t it be positively romantic and cozy to bury them all side by side? Better yet in a side-by-side configuration such that they were touching again for eternity? That would only do for the nearly 8,000 residence interred from Srebrenica.

And there they lay.

They were wearing their Halloween masks, all of them. A frightful ghoulish lot they were. They lay hand-in-hand, head-against-head, head-in-lap, head-on-chest, chest-against-chest, back to back, leg-over-back, leg-over-face, leg-over-leg… a pile of death orgy. All the neighbors came to this gathering: the dads, uncles, moms, aunts, brothers, sisters, boys girls… all God’s chillun got wings. Such little ones, so small — impossibly small some of them — the chillun were.

Exhumation_Site_in_Čančari_valley
Exhumation of the Srebrenica massacre victims

Impossibly small because some of them were in fact dolls. Moms will be more compliant in their executions if they are allowed to keep their children with them. Children are more compliant in their executions if they are allowed to keep their toys with them. Made no difference to Serb gunners; just made their job easier. I observed that the young boys in Srebrenica that year fancied those little cup toys with a ball attached to a length of string that you would swing around and try to catch the ball in the cup.

But their arms, where were their arms? …none of them had arms. Ah, there they are, all behind their backs secured by ligature. None of the men wore shirts and I noted one Misses had her hands secured behind her by a length of beads that she had perhaps been wearing that day — that last day of Srebrenica. Burying this town folk together was a gesture by the Serbs who would go on living; it meant absolutely squat to the dead.

Exhumations_in_Srebrenica_1996
Exhumation of the Srebrenica massacre victims

Our helo screamed as it heaved upward and forward, nose down and twisting the sky. Barticus handed me a clump of wet napkins that he had just used to wipe the toothpaste off his lip. “HERE,” he shouted, “YOU LOOK RIDICULOUS!” I grinned a mandatory grin as I wiped my lip. “WELCOME TO BOSNIA!” shouted Barticus, and this time I had the missing expression.

In the by-and-by of that flight, I regained consciousness of the fact that I still had my video camera strapped to my left hand. Why… the thought of it hadn’t so much as crossed my mind even for a nano-moment at the grave. But then mass graves do not make the best travel memorabilia… not in the least.

The job occupied the rest of my day well enough, but eventually, I was done for the day and back at my safe house late that night. I made coffee despite the hour, as I felt quite certain the Sandman would not be punching my ticket that night. I heard the rush of a sudden heavy rain outside the house and felt a distinct urge to be out in it.

Srebrenica_Massacre_-_Exhumed_Grave_of_Victims_-_Potocari_2007
Exhumed Grave of Victims 2007; gesture means nothing to the departed

Stepping into the backyard, I was inundated immediately toe to head… my coffee suffering the dilution of the deluge. The downpour was at such strength that I could scant see to the yard’s back wall. I was honestly okay with that; I was okay with not seeing anything, anything at all, ever again! I stood and soaked and sipped and sighed, and with each sip, my coffee tasted more and more like the night sky.

And yet it happened.

By Almighty God and with honor,

geo sends

Photos for this write are courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

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Cheezewiz
Member

The dark realities of graves, excavations, and the stories behind them are truly overpowering. I have had merely a glimpse of a few graves and mortuary affairs missions, and they still haunt me. Thanks for sharing the realities of Bosnia and Mortuary Affairs missions..

Cheesewiz

JoyB
Guest
JoyB

While packing up my grandma’s things, I came across a packet and a small deep blue box. In them were some mementos of my grandfathers, love letters home to his girl, his Hellcat patch and stripes, Nazi coins and notes, and a pack of pictures that he took when he served in the 12th Armored Division. My Grandma has never shown me any of it while she was alive and at first, looking through the pictures, I couldn’t understand why. The first pictures are of Grandpa, when he was just Duncan, the young soldier at the barracks with his buddies,… Read more »

Brandon Mac
Guest
Brandon Mac

If you’ve not had the occasion to and find yourself near Abilene, TX, toy should check out the 12th AD museum.

rynobucket
Guest
rynobucket

Man, Geo. Somber Enlightenment, Sir.

“It’s just a gesture for the living, you see. It means absolutely squat to the departed.”
Truth.

Miche
Member
Miche

Cher geo, I asked you once why Americans were there in that time and place. Your answer then was as complex and sobering as your articles now. No pithy quips at my disposal, just deep, inarticulate thinking, about your words, about this time and place, about people. And feeling gratitude for your willingness to share. <3

Susan B
Member

You summed up my own thoughts well, Miche. Thank you for finding the words to George that I was stumbling to find.

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Miche has a beautiful way of articulating words like an artist creates beauty on canvas. ❤️

Susan B
Member

(like) I’ve actually read this story a few times. I don’t want to give George a trite answer nor do I want to…well, let’s leave it at that. I want to really understand my own reaction to the story and to what he masterfully included and what he left out. I just finished reading a Britannica Encyclopedia article on Kosovo. Next is the one on Serbia. That’s a long one and my brain phased out before I could start it. 🙂 Then again…I should probably leave Miche’s comment stand for mine. lol

Miche
Member
Miche

Susan, geo’s article on Bob Horrigan and a frigid swim across the Rijeko River came along about the same time as Dan Carlin’s NPR interview on a Hardcore History podcast about how WWI got started in that part of the world. I had vague memories about this war happening while I was in high school on the other side of the world, but the light bulb kind of went on when I realized geo was actually there. My curiosity was piqued, and I launched an investigation about Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, etc. similar to yours ^. I was puzzled why France… Read more »

Susan B
Member

History has always fascinated me, too, Miche. Either outright conquest or insidious internal division has spawn the great tragedies. Conquest was usually for the natural resources or industrial wealth of other nations. The internal divisions were usually for power and greed of those within the nation, or from without to gain political sway on the global stage. Either way…it leads to people being marginalized and dehumanized so they may easily be controlled or erased. When the Soviet Union took over the Slavic nations, they forced them to emigrate throughout the Union so there remained no unity that would rise up… Read more »

Susan B
Member

Sorry Miche. I completely got the Yugoslav history wrong. It was Communist but separate from the USSR. Duh! I don’t know why it always ran together in my head. Something didn’t seem right and I realized it was Tito that had ruled them and caused them all their grief. Glad I caught it before you thought I was a complete idiot. 🙂 Unfortunately, there is no way to go back and edit one’s comments. 🙁

Mason
Member
Mason

Eyes open, mouth closed. Chest tight with sadness and anger.

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

geo, on a podcast once you mentioned that you retired when you were told you were going back to Bosnia. I think I was reading the “The Butchers Trail” at the time, and I had asked you something just before not realizing you had been there with Delta. I think of the words you said in a previous article, and I have read from you before, “you can’t un-see something.” I continually wonder why this went on for so long, and no one helped. But one thing I am sure of is that the souls of the dead; the mom’s… Read more »

shooten1st
Guest
shooten1st

Another very sobering account Geo. The story of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia wasn’t told well then by our press and is almost forgotten now. Thanks for bringing it back into focus. I’ve always seen it as another chapter in a religious war that’s been going on for a millennia. The next chapter is yet to be written. Tito was able to hold it in with his iron hand for a while. Freedom and independence are a big responsibility. Thank you again.

susanh
Member
susanh

Geo, I am truly honoured and absolutely tickled pink that you dedicated this article to me. Thank you. What you have written about here is beyond my capacity to truly grasp. I cannot get my head around the evil that occurred there; the deep hatred that drove men to commit such atrocities against men, women and children. The vile rapes and the slaughter, the utter callousness against those who were often their neighbours. It is incredibly important that these acts are not forgotten – those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I am sorry you have… Read more »

JoniS
Guest
JoniS

I can only relate to such a site is from watching movies such as Band of Brothers when Easy Company comes upon a concentration camp and having my mom relate her experience of traveling to Austerwich. A site he said carried great horror and sadness still to this day. I can’t imagine seeing such in person without it having such deep impact on your soul. I knew immediately why the need for Colgate. I also know why you needed coffee later and the cleansing rain. Thank you for sharing your story George. Provides for deep thought. And some prayers.

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Joni, the realization that I slept safely in my bed while the atrocities of pure evil went on makes my heart heavy.

rosedalearts
Guest

I feel so much somber reflection from this window into history.
I’m glad the downpour came afterward.
-Jess

Ray Inabnitt
Guest
Ray Inabnitt

George, this reminds me of similar sights we had in the streets of Port-Au-Prince. Bodies lay bloating and rotting on top of bodies. When picked up, their arms and legs simply pulled off in our hands. They were then loaded into trucks and deposited in a mass grave outside of town.

We didn’t use toothpaste to cover the stench. Vicks Vapo Rub was the go-to for us.

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Ugg, Ray, I just had a conversation with a co-worker who is retired Army, about geo’s article. My friend was in Bosnia 1995 into 1996. He mentioned the Vicks and said that he is not able to tolerate the smell of it to this day. Port-Au-Prince was awful. I have a close friend who’s son was there at the time of the earthquake as a missionary and stayed for over a year after. Bless you, Ray.

raymondinabnitt
Guest
raymondinabnitt

Mic-Mac, I was there in late 1994 thru 1995. Civil war had torn the place completely apart. The place was a complete mess from folks fighting in the streets, burning and pillaging any place they could. I was long retired from service when the earthquakes hit.

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Ray, I am alarmed at myself that I didn’t recall the coup in Haiti and the years of turmoil and bloodshed. The first thing that came to mind were the mounds of bodies shown on 60 Minutes after the earthquake.

homanj1
Member

I’m a Vick’s man myself. I understand.

homanj1
Member

Geo-Homo sapiens is a phuqed up species. What we do to ourselves is a amazingly pathetic. I was in Scotland in July and visited the Culloden Battlefied. There were mounds where my related clansmen were buried in mass graves in 1746. For what? The Scots are still trying to claim independence from the Brits now. Hell, William Wallace was almost 500 years before that. Same song, different verse. In the meantime, I’m in Puerto Rico as I write this. These people deserve better.

Recon 6
Guest
Recon 6

Geo… I’ve often wondered why ?? ppl make such a fuss over a dead person… not counting combat fatalities as there is always a story attached, but ppl in the most general of terms… I do not attend funerals and I def will Not have one of my own as my plan has already been established among family… since the dead don’t know jack squat all the reverence in the world won’t matter… still, you always give us so much to ponder… overpowering bruh…6

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