It was more likely a mix of local knowledge, thorough research and a little bit of help from nature.

It has been 25 years since the Serbian military killed over 8,000 Bosniak Muslims in a manner that constituted a genocide, according to the United Nations. 

Using excavators and bulldozers, Serbian forces dug deep pits and buried bodies by piling them up by the dozen in several mass graves.  

A year after the genocide, the search for missing persons grew desperate but no one knew what fate they had met. In July 1996, however, Amor Masovic, who was part of a UN-approved team of war crime investigators, discovered a "surface mass grave" in which 266 bodies were found. All the victims were Bosniak Muslims who were killed by Serbian forces in cold blood. 

In the years that followed, more mass graves were uncovered across the country. Some Bosnians narrated different versions of how quite so many of the graves were found. One of the most intriguing oral histories on the search for mass graves featured blue butterflies and Artemisia, a weed that commonly grows in graveyards. 

In Bosnia, a few years after the genocide, some villages and towns witnessed a sudden surge of blue butterflies. In a bizarre turn of events, this swarm led investigators to mass graves. 

Although the claim sounds mythic, a Bosnian author, Zeynep Hamzic, wrote an article in August 2015, in which he stated that out of "500 mass graves that were found in Bosnia, 300 were found with the help of blue butterflies". 

A profile of senior forensic anthropologist, Margaret Cox, published in 2004 by the British publication The Independent, touches upon the correlation between butterflies and mass graves - the claim, though, does not come from Cox. The author of the article, Harriet Warner, was simply paraphrasing Cox as saying "butterflies are the by-product of what she terms 'geophysical anomaly.' We know it by its common name: a mass grave." 

TRT World reached out to Cox to directly verify the claim but did not hear back from the forensic anthropologist until this article was published.

Amor Masovic, a Bosnian politician and a leading mass graves investigator, told TRT World that none of the mass graves his team uncovered had anything to do with the flying creatures.

The process of excavation 

"Some mass graves were on the surface, some were in deep natural pits, some in inaccessible forest lands, caves, canyons, water reservoirs, waste landfills, even septic tanks," Masovic said.

Speaking at a conference hosted by the Institute for Islamic Tradition of Bosniaks in 2015, Masovic gave a detailed description about how these graves were uncovered. 

"One of the drastic examples of natural pits is the one in which we found 16 victims. A survivor showed us the pit. None of his family had survived the massacre and this pit which is about 80 metres deep is located near a village called Konjic. We found the remains of his spouse and 16 other victims," he said. 

Another mass grave Masovic found in the late 1990s, was in a village called Kljuna near Nevesinje. In it, there were fifteen women and one man. The youngest victim, according to Masovic, was 65 years old and the oldest was 102.

"They were all executed in the village Kljuna near Nevesinje. So all villagers escaped the village but senior citizens could not escape by climbing and crossing the mountain. They somehow found refuge in Kljuna. During the night the Serbs came and slit their throats and killed them all. Their bodies were left on the surface for years. After six years we spotted them since they were visible on the surface." 

Until 2015, Masovic had investigated over three hundred locations for mass graves. In the early 2000s, when he was examining the Drina River on the border with Serbia for possible mass graves, his search proved fruitless for several weeks. "Sludge, sedimentation had covered the bodies in the river, " he said. 

Things, however, changed over the summer. That year, the extraordinarily hot temperatures meant the heat dried up the sludge, making the earth crack, and exposing the human bones underneath. 

"It was as if the earth wanted to release these remains after hiding them for so long," Mosovic said.  

Another major mass grave his team unearthed was at Lake Perucac in 2001. It was an extensive search operation carried out at a time when the government was reconstructing a hydroelectric dam there.  Masovic requested that the authorities prolong the reconstruction period so his team of two thousand volunteers could search 2.2sq kilometres of land, part of which bordered the Republic of Serbia. 

"We managed to lower the level of water by 18 metres," Masovic said, adding that apart from the victims of Bosnian genocide, they found the remains of victims of World War I.

Masovic says some mass graves were found after the UN seized the personal diary of Serbian military general, Ratko Mladic, who oversaw the genocide. Masovic calls the graves noted down by Mladic in his diary as "secondary graves."

"The bodies in these graves were removed from one mass grave to another under the supervision of Serbian forces," he added.  

Twenty-five years on, as Bosnians are still finding ways to commemorate those lost in the genocide, the symbol of blue butterflies goes some way to representing thousands of victims who were inhumanely placed into unmarked graves.  

In May 2020, an online art exhibition titled, "Blue Butterflies", was hosted by the International University of Sarajevo. It shone a light on the process of mass grave discovery, and echoed the views of Bosnian author Zeynep Hamzic, who claimed that blue butterflies became the main key in unearthing 300 mass graves.

Source: TRT World