Monday, July 02, 2007

Bosnia's Book of the Dead: Numbers and Memory

Last week, the Research and Documentation Centre of Sarajevo (RDC) released their findings regarding population loss in BiH as a direct result of the 1991 to 1995 war. The project, known as Bosnia’s Book of the Dead lists over 97,000 Bosnians who died as a direct result of the war.

The RDC’s approach:

The database is the result of years of research and acquisition of government and military records from all of the belligerents; as well as visits to grave sites; and other sources related to the war and the casualties. The database looks at patterns regarding the war, not only with regard to the overall casualties and casualties based on ethnicity, but also based on gender, war time status, age and geographic location. The RDC’s database has been highly praised by several experts who reviewed the methodology and the database; praising both the methodology and accuracy of the data and the non-bias, non-partisan stance of the RDC. However, as is not surprising with data projects like the Bosnia Book of the Dead; there still are some naunces and inconsistancies with the database.
While the database debunks the allegation of 200,000 casualties; it should also be understood that 97,000 is not the maximum number of people who died during the war. The RDC’s approach and methodology was a conservative and careful one; therefore; it is possible that someone may have died; but there is not enough information to confirm their death; such if the death was not reported in the first place. Even today; over 10 years since the end of the war; mass graves are still being found in parts of eastern Bosnia. Furthermore; the RDC's database as presented in June 2007 only looks at direct casualties of the war. Therefore; cases of starvation, death due to lack of medical equipment; and war related accidents etc, were not included on this list. The RDC's project is still ongoing, and family of the missing and deceased can still submit relative data on their loved one(s).
Beyond the number of victims; another issue is the war time status of the victims. The RDC’s database found that approximately 60% of the victims were military personnel (soldiers, police officers) and 40% were civilians. It is very important to note; that in this context soldiers is not in every single case synonymous with combatant. The soldier/civilian refers to the victim’s war time status at the time of their death. In other words; having a victim being listed as a soldier; does not necessarily mean that he or she died in combat; or that their death did not involve any violation of international humanitarian and military law. The number of civilian victims across the entire country is also underreported; as families sometimes in an effort to get basic necessities that were open only to families of fallen soldiers reported their loved ones as being soldiers rather than civilians. While analyses have acknowledged some margins of error (such as underreporting of civilian death tolls) with the final conclusions; they note the problems stem from the data the RDC was relying on; rather than the RDC’s methodology and approach.

The Politics of Death:
The database serves to not only to attempt to give a name to each victim of the war; but to also put to rest the political manipulation of death tolls and misconceptions of the war. In many ways, there is a new war that is taking place over memory and perceptions of the war. In this "new war"; casualty statistics have at times been manipulated or exaggerated to try prove a political point. As mentioned above, the RDC's data; already shows that the allegation of 200,000 casualties as a result of the war, is false. Another area where the RDC's data has countered previous allegations is regarding Bosnian Serb civilian casualties in Srebrenica and Bratunac. In 2005, the Serb Radical Party (SRS) published a list alledging that 3,000 Bosnian Serb civilians were killed in Bratunac and Srebrenica. The list recieved quite a bit of attention; and at times was reported on uncritically in the larger media. However, the RDC's data confirms the statement made by the ICTY that the allegation of 3,000 civilian casualties is a gross exaggeration of the facts.
In many ways, the misuse of casualties and the exaggeration of casualties to try to prove a political point is not new. Take for example, Jasenovac during WWII. Jasenovac was a death camp in Croatia, created by the Ustasha government that was allied with Nazi Germany. According to the US Holocasut Museum; between 56,000 and 97,000 people; primarily Serbs, Roma, Jews; but also a number of Bosniaks and some politically oppositional Croats were killed there. A horror by any standard. However, during the rise of nationalism in the 1980s; some nationalist Serb politicians exploited Jasenovac for their own political purposes. To that end the number of people killed at Jasenovac was exaggerated; and even more; the atrocities that were committed against Serbs at Jasenovac was used to either justify or at least mitgate the atrocities being organized and carried out by Serb paramilitary groups during the wars of the 1990s. It should also be noted that some nationalist Croat politicians played down the atrocities committed at Jasenovac for political purposes as well. An honest, and unbiased look at war time casualties; such as the one the RDC has been trying to provide; will allow for an honest look at the war; devoid of propoganda.

A War Story
Statistics cannot and do not tell the entire story of a war; and indeed, statistics taken out of context can be manipulated to fit a number of purposes. However, the high standard of research provided by the RDC in in conjuncture with reports, eyewitness testimony, and other forms of evidence can help provide a basic understanding of the war.
The pre-war population of Bosnia was 43% Bosniak, 31% Bosnian Serb and 17% Bosnian Croat. Of the 97,000 direct victims of the war; 65.88% were Bosniak, 25.62% were Bosnian Serb, 8.01% were Bosnian Croat and the remaining 0.49% were “others” primarily Roma and Jews. Of the Of the at least 30,684 civilian victims; 83.33% were Bosniak; 10.27% were Bosnian Serb and 5.4% were Bosnian Croat. To be sure, as the data shows, civilians from all ethnic groups were killed during the war. However; the RDC’s database shows the fallacy of portraying the war as a strict “civil war” where “all sides” bear equal responsibility for atrocities or suffered in the same proportions. In many ways, the RDC’s data merely confirms the reports of the extensive UN Commission of Experts report; that atrocities were committed by and against people of all ethnicities; but there was in no sense any equivalency between the belligerents. While the RDC’s published data does not contain information on perpetrators; the data can be used to help assert some basic facts about the war. Primarily, the RDC’s data shows the manifestations of the “ethnic cleansing” policy. Of the four years analyzed by the RDC; April, May, June, July 1992 and July 1995 were the only months in the entire study where civilian deaths out numbered military deaths. The spring and summer of 1992 was the period where the only military force of any significance was the JNA-VRS; and more significantly, it was the period where those forces as part of a systemetic policy organized by the Bosnian Serb leadership; carried out pogroms against primarily Bosniaks; but also Bosnian Croats. According to the RDC’s data; out of the total civilian casualties in the entire country between April and June 1992; 86% of the victims were Bosniaks. From August 1992 to June 1995; across the country as a whole; military deaths outnumber civilian deaths; and the number of casualties decreased across the country. Both the total death toll and the civilian death toll increases dramatically in July 1995; when the Srebrenica Massacre took place. The manifestations of ethnic cleansing is made even more apparent by looking at geographic locations as well. The country was divided into 6 geographic regions; the Podrinje region accounted for 30.61% of the total casualties during the war. The Podrinje region in eastern Bosnia alongside the Drina extends from Bijeljina to Foca and includes Zvornik, Vlasenica, Srebrenica, Bratunac, Gorazde, and Visegrad; on the border with Serbia; the Podrinje region was strategically targeted by Serb paramilitary groups. Towns that have become synomymous with some of the biggest atrocities of the entire war. The Pounje region in northern Bosnia; consisting of the Prijedor region; accounted for 14.88% of the total casualties. The numbers are even starker when it comes to civilian casualties, 45% of all civilian casualties occured in the Podrinje region; and 18.10% occured in the Pounje region. As it is for the entire country; the ethncitity of the victims; particularly civilian casualties, also shows the nature of the war. In the Podrinje region; 94% of all civilians killed were Bosniaks; in the Pouje region; 88% of the civilian victims were Bosniak. This should not in any way belittle the suffering of any victim. It does however show, that the portrayal of the war as a civil war where all sides were equally guilty and committing atrocities in the same proportion is absolutely false.

The Sarajevo Story:
After the Podrinje region; Sarajevo and outlying suburbs and towns, which were under siege by the VRS for the entire duration of the war, making it the longest siege in modern history, accounted for more deaths than any place else in the country. 15.36% of all deaths occured in the Sarajevo region; as did 14.12% of all civilian casualties. In Sarajevo, 20% of the civilian victims where Bosnian Serbs. Undoubtedly many of them were killed by VRS sniper fire and shellings; during which time the defense of Sarajevo was led by an ethnic Bosnian Serb. Some of the Serb civilian victims were killed by Bosnian paramilitary forces and gangs though. Exactly how many is unknown; but in order to prevent manipulations in any direction; and for the sake of the victims; there should be an effort to find out. This does not change the nature of the war; nor does it change the fact that the VRS besieged Sarajevo for 3 years, causing deaths to Bosnians of all backgrounds.

Other areas of study:
While the ethnic identity and geographic location of the victims has prompted the most reporting; other areas of the RDC's findings regarding demographic facts relating to the war are also worth further study.
One is the gender of the victims, in a war where the majority of the casualties have been reported as military, it is not surpising that most of the victims were males, (it should also be understood that there were female soldiers and casualties amongst female soldiers as well.) However, even amongst civilian victims; the vast majority, 76.40% were males. The only region where where male to female victims in more proportional is Sarajevo; where 37.01% of the civilian victims were female. During the ethnic cleansing campaign, civilians of all ages and both genders suffered; one only has to look at the organized rape campaign against Bosniak and Bosnian Croat women to see painful manifestations of that. However, adult males,particularly those between the ages of 18 to 45, were much more likely to be sent to a concentration camp or killed outright in a mass execution. Civilian males were much more vulnearable than females to be killed in a massacre. The targeting of civilian males in massacres is what Adam Jones has coined a gendercide. All over the world, including Darfur today, civilian males of battle age (18-45 year olds) are the most vulnearble to be murdered. The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia is one of the more pronounced showings of this specific targeting of men. Beyond looking at the research from a gender scenario, age is another one. 3,372 direct victims of the war were under the age of 18. 41% of all child victims were from the Podrinje region; many of the child victims from the Podrinje region were killed in Srebrenica between 1992 to 1995. 19% of all child victims were from Sarajevo. Beyond providing a name to the children killed during the war; the RDC's research also looks at the issue of child soldiers. 13.70% of all children killed in the war were listed as soldiers at the time of the deaths. The plight of children during the war; and in particularly of teenage soldiers, including survivors is another issue that should be addressed.

Hopefully, the RDC's database will help disprove some misconshrewed notions about the war; and will help show the hard data behind political manipulation. However, even if the RDC does not achieve any of this; and even if politicians continue to manipulate and use the death tolls for their own purposes; the RDC has already accomplished something. Behind all of the statistics and demographics is a human being. The RDC's list makes apparent the tremendous human toll and suffering caused by the war. We owe it to the victims to never forget.

* You will notice that I have not addressed other regions in this post; namely Mostar and Central Bosnia. This should NOT be interpreted that I find these areas unimportant; indeed I hope to re-edit this article and add information about regions I missed; in order to give a more complete overview of the RDC's data and the war itself.

* The RDC's research can be found at


Daniel said...

Dear Shaina,

Srebrenica enclave was genocide in progress since 1992 and up to the culminating point (fall of the enclave) in July 1995.

Simon Mardel, a WHO doctor who was based in Srebrenica at the time, wrote:

"People are completely trapped. The water supply from higher up the valley is now cut off. The present situation can only be described as an impending holocaust."

On June 21st 2007, a four-year study by the internationally evaluated the Bosnian Book of Dead concluded that 8,460 Bosniaks were killed in Srebrenica; 6565 (or 77.6%) were civilians (including 441 children ranging from infants to teens) and 1,895 (or 22.4%) were soldiers.

The Research and Documentation Center also concluded 480 Serb deaths around Srebrenica; 329 (or 68.5%) were soldiers and 151 (or 31.5%) were civilians.

PS: Few days ago I sent you an e-mail advising you about my new e-mail change (and reasons for change). Have you received it? It starts with admin@******.com


Shaina said...

Thank you for your comment. Have you had a chance to look at all of the RDC's data?
As far as I know, Srebrenica 1992-1995 is the only municipality to have its own special published document; for understandable reason.

However, I hope in the future the RDC will also publish indvidual munciaplity accounts for Bratunac, Vlasencia, Visegrad, Zvornik, Prijedor and Mostar.

Daniel said...

Numbers of dead vary by municipality, you can check here:

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The Bosnian Book of the Dead was finally released in Sarajevo today by the Research and Documentation Centre (RDC) after almost four years of work.
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