Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Radio Free Europe has a valuable case study on the politics behind counting war casualties. The article details the work of Mirsad Tokaca, a contro-versial Bosnian figure whose careful studies put the casualty figures of the war over Bosnia-Herzegovina at about 97,000, less than half of the official government tally of 200,000. Moreover, while most commentators act as if the 200,000 represents noncombatant dead among Bosniaks, the ethnic group against whom it is widely accepted that genocide took place, the database concludes that of the war's direct victims, almost 40,000 were civilians and 57,500 were military victims. Of the civilian victims, some 33,000 were Bosniaks, 4,100 were Serbs, and 2,200 were Croats.

Tokaca's work has taken place under the auspices of a non-governmental organization, the Research and Documentation Center, whose key report "Human Losses in Bosnia-Herzegovina 1991-1995" is also known as the "Bosnian Book of the Dead." The 200,000 estimate (beware of round numbers) was promulgated by government officials during the war and reiterated by the global media and Western scholars. By contrast:

"Tokaca's database is the only one in existence that offers the war dead sorted by name, place, and circumstances of death. Civilians, soldiers, women and children, of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims alike. The list contains 14 separate streams of information, free of ethnic prejudice, and based on facts, not estimates.

Patrick Ball, director of the Human Rights Program at the U.S.-based Benetech Initiative, has said the "richness and depth of this database is astonishing." Ball, who has worked with nine truth commissions around the world, said the RDC database "could have a significant impact on how the history of the Bosnian war is understood."
But many in Bosnia are not happy with his findings:
"Smail Cekic is one of Tokaca's critics. The head of the Sarajevo-based Institute for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law, Cekic questions Tokaca's research methods and accuses him of "fogging the essence and size of the genocide" of Bosniaks. He also says Tokaca "covers up" the depth of what he calls the "demographic disaster" committed against the regional populations, believing that Tokaca should include in his statistics those members of society who would have been born to those who were killed.
I'm with Tokaca. I suspect that much of the backlash against his analysis is due to the notion that a finding of "only" 30,000+ civilian dead would undermine claims that Bosnian Muslims suffered a genocide, but the concept of genocide is based on intent, not scale. Moreover, seems to me that 30,000 dead is plenty to justify outrage. While the argument that his database is weighted toward deaths is valid, the same organization is indeed investigating "indirect victims" separately, another pathbreaking exercise. Either way, it's important to base such claims on accurate data, and incredibly difficult - politically and logistically to find that data in conflict and post-conflict zones. The courage it has taken for him to stand up for unbiased reporting in that society is an inspiration.

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