Bosnian volunteers join forensic experts searching for remains of war victims in lake

LAKE PERUCAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — It's a grim legacy of the Balkan wars: Dozens of skeletons exposed after a manmade lake was partially drained for maintenance.

On Wednesday, shovel wielding volunteers joined forensic experts searching for more remains of Bosnian war victims on the muddy banks of Lake Perucac in eastern Bosnia.

The search began a month ago after the water level was lowered for dam work, exposing a quarry of human skulls and bones — the remains of people killed at the start of the 1992-1995 war and thrown into the Drina river, which divides Serbia and Bosnia.

The find prompted forensic experts to appeal for volunteers to help and they have so far pieced together 73 full skeletons.

Amor Masovic, the head of the Bosnian Institute for Missing Persons, said that in the nearby town of Visegrad, 824 Bosniaks — Bosnian Muslims — were killed by Serbs at the start of the war. The conflict pitted Bosniaks, Serbs and Croat ethnic groups against each other in battles for control of Bosnia after it split from Yugoslavia.

Most were then thrown from a bridge and their bodies got lodged in the banks of the artificial lake, a dammed section of the Drina, a few kilometers (miles) downstream.

Masovic said the killings were so frequent that the management of the hydroelectric plant across the border in Serbia appealed in 1992 over the radio that whoever in Bosnia was responsible should "stop throwing bodies into the lake because they were clogging up the culverts in the dam."

"We expect Serbia to provide an answer to what happened to those bodies," he said.

The servicing of the Serbian dam will last until mid-September when the water level will start rising again. But with the help from about 100 volunteers, Masovic said his team will be able to inspect the 72 miles (116 kilometers) of shore line.

Some 50 public employees from Sarajevo — transit, landscaping and mortuary workers — have volunteered to help for the past 10 days, traveling five hours back and forth every day.

On Wednesday they were joined by another 46 people who responded to an appeal nailed on the gates of mosques in Sarajevo. Armed with shovels and other tools, the volunteers braved the heat, dust and the strict fasting rules of the holy month Ramadan. No food, no water until the sun sets.

"They offered us easier work because we are fasting," said imam Nezim Halilovic, who led the group. "But we asked to be given the hardest, the most difficult jobs to do. ... To do this is our Islamic duty."

Landscaper Sabit Besirevic, 40, was born and grew up in Visegrad. He fled when Serb forces occupied the town in 1992 but his parents stayed behind.

Besirevic was particularly gentle while excavating.

"It could be Mom's or Dad's," he said while digging in the dried mud in an area between two yellow flags that mark spots where human bones were found. "They were killed in 1992. I never found them. They could be here."

"While I'm digging, I fear I might hit their bones with my pick ax," he said. "It's difficult to describe how I feel. It's really difficult."

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Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report from Vienna.