first person:

The phrase ethnic cleansing has been familiar for almost a decade to everyone who listens to the news or reads newspapers. The words are bland and have an acceptable, almost politically correct feel to them. The reality of ethnic cleansing, however, is quite horrific - as I discovered.

My part in this nine-year-old story began on a cold Sunday morning at Leeds Bradford airport last November. By lunchtime I was in Croatia as part of a United Nations forensic team investigating massacres following the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

I am used to horror. For 15 years I have been a pathologist, dealing most days with individual cases of personal tragedy. As a young pathologist I helped with the identifications of the 56 people who died in the Bradford City football stadium fire in May 1985. But my experiences in Croatia left me deeply disturbed.

After an uncomfortable night on a hard bed in Zagreb, the multinational team was briefed at 8am on the incident we were to investigate. The chief investigator was from the former Czechoslovakia and his translator was Canadian. Security was provided by a huge Frenchman - ex-Special Forces, allegedly. Scenes of crime was co-ordinated by a South African. The team of bone specialists was led by a Peruvian and the four pathologists were from Ireland, England and Indonesia.

The team was completed by two cockney mortuary technicians with mandatory warped sense of humour.

The incident we were investigating had occurred nearly nine years previously in a village inhabited by several hundred Serbs and Croats three hours from Zagreb. The village is 20 kilometres or so from the now infamous town of Vukovar, close to the Serbian border. In the summer of 1991 Croatia declared independence. Germany immediately recognised the new country and this triggered a short but vicious war with Serbia.

After several months' siege Vukovar fell to the Serbs in November 1991. When the 'hot' fighting had died down, and after the massacre of several hundred patients and staff from the hospital, the more sinister job of ethnic cleansing started. Croats who had lived for years with Serb neighbours were encouraged to 'depart' or just disappeared. Much of this was undertaken by Serb paramilitaries known as Tigers, led by Zeljko Raznatovic - known as Arkan - who at one time organised football hooligans.

Eyewitnesses described this group as smart, clean-shaven, with clean uniforms and short hair, unlike the usual conscripts of the Yugoslav National Army. The Tigers would move through a village and remove entire families, never to be seen again.

After the war, parts of occupied Croatia were handed back by the Serbs. Memories returned and sites of possible mass graves were investigated.

Our team looked into a report that an unknown number of bodies were to be found in two wells several kilometres from the village. One of the wells was dry and was 8m deep; the other contained water and was approximately 24m deep. The team recovered about 40 bodies from the two wells. One man worked in a hole more than 36m deep in appalling conditions, dredging for bones and clothing which were hoisted to the surface in buckets.

The remains were sealed in body bags to prevent tampering with evidence and then transported to a modern mortuary in Zagreb.

The forensic team set to work examining the remains and gathering information to build up a picture of the incident.

Many of the bodies were nothing but skeletons. Those which had been dumped in the dry well were well preserved and similar to the 'ice man' found in snow in the Austrian Alps at the same time as these events were occurring in Yugoslavia.

We X-rayed the remains, identified possessions and found bullets and shrapnel fragments. Clothing was documented, washed and recorded, dental charting undertaken and anthropological measurements made. Some cases had pitiful possessions with them - a comb, a cigarette lighter, a crucifix, even an occasional ID card. Information from the 10,000 missing persons files was collated with our findings to identify the disappeared.

Even for experienced pathologists the work was complicated and the findings difficult to interpret. It was also physically demanding as we would often work 12 hours with only a short break for a sandwich. Even for a hardened pathologist like me the smell in the mortuary was appalling.

At the end of two weeks we had built up a picture of ethnic cleansing in practice.

After the fall of Vukovar, the Croats, mainly in family groups, had been arrested mostly at night, having to dress hastily with layers of warm clothes and boots in the bitter Balkan weather. Some had hidden quantities of money in their clothing. The ages ranged from 17 years to over 70. The men and women had been taken out of the village and subjected to beatings with clubs and rifles resulting in skull and limb fractures. They had then been shot at close range in the back of the head with an AK47 rifle. The dead and the dying had then been tipped into the wells and grenades dropped down, presumably in the hope of destroying the evidence.

Careful forensic work showed that this was not a case of civilian deaths associated with war operations - 'collateral damage' - but of torture and cold-blooded execution-style murder.

When we had finished the work and collated the results I flew back to Bradford, and life as a district general hospital pathologist, having had a glimpse of man's inhumanity to man.

I am often asked, as a doctor who could instead be treating the living, why do pathology, particularly criminal pathology? Each member of the forensic team had a wish to see justice done for the victims of an appalling crime which occurred almost a decade ago. I hope my work in documenting injuries and gathering evidence will be used in the International Criminal Court when Arkan and the other alleged murderers are brought to justice.

The UN forensic team continues to work in Bosnia Herzegovina where hundreds of massacre sites still await investigation. Kosovo, I am sure, will provide further harrowing evidence of the reality of ethnic cleansing, 50 years after the world said it would never happen again.

This article first appeared in Bradford Hospitals Today.

Dr Jan Lowe is consultant histopathologist, department of pathology, Bradford Royal Infirmary.