Establishing the number of victims in the Yugoslav wars of succession
by Slavica Ðukic
Over the past decade, the governments of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, political parties, war-veteran and religious associations, and the media, have all offered different estimates of the number of those killed in the recent wars. According to the head of Documenta, Vesna Teršelić, ‘postwar governments are united in manipulating the number of victims, and the only way of ending this manipulation is to establish the truth’. This has prompted three NGOs - Documenta from Croatia; Information and Documentation Centre (IDC) from Bosnia-Herzegovina, headed by Mirsad Tokač; and Foundation for Humanitarian Law from Serbia, headed by Nataša Kandić - to undertake the pioneering task of researching and establishing the true number of victims of the wars waged during the 1990s in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. The data must contain precise information on every individual dead or missing person, including their name, date and place of birth, nationality, civilian or military status, gender and age, place and circumstances of the tragedy. The three NGOs have secured foreign funding for their work. Up to now the Norwegian government has been particularly generous, but help has come also from other international humanitarian foundations.
The Bosnian experience has shown that, when official government information is subjected to careful scrutiny, the number of those killed or missing in war drastically declines - even in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the killing and violence were particularly gruesome. The Sarajevo IDC has advanced furthest in establishing the true number of war victims in 1991-5. Tokača was involved in this work already during the war, as part of a government team. He left his post when he realised that the Sarajevo government was trying to manipulate the number of victims. In April 2004, he formed the non-governmental IDC and found an international source of funding for establishing the true number of the victims of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Three years ago, when Tokača began to create his own data base, official sources were quoting around 300,000 dead. Tokača’s activists combed through the official documentation and found that certain names on the list of missing persons appeared more than once.
The work of establishing the real number of war victims is nearing its end, and the results will be published on 1 April this year. IDC has a data base containing the name of each person killed or missing, their photograph, and a more or less precise description of the circumstances of their death, as well as the name of witnesses who have confirmed this, with reference to the place of burial in those cases where a grave exists. Following 1 April the victims’ dossiers will be available on the internet.
The IDC data-base as of 31 December 2006 contains the names, and a description of the manner of death, of 97,826 victims, of whom 66.11% are Bosniaks, 25.54% are Serbs, 7.85% are Croats, and 0.5% are others. Most of the dead and missing are soldiers (59%), rather than civilians (41%). ‘Our statistics do not include those who died during the war from frost and hunger, or babies who died in incubators due to electricity failure’, says Larisa Musulin from IDC.
In the case of Serbia, the demanding project of establishing the number of dead and missing has been carried out by the Foundation for Humanitarian Law led by Nataša Kandić. Her organisation is right now busy trying to establish the number of dead and missing in Kosovo in the period 1998-2000. According to Dragan Popović, who administers the project, the Foundation has by now documented 9,702 people dead or missing during the war in Kosovo. Of this number, as things stand now , 4,903 killed and missing are Albanians and 2,322 are Serbs, with the rest either belonging to other nationalities or their ethnic identity remaining uncertain. ‘According to a rough estimate’, Popović told Globus, ‘between 10,000 and 12,000 Albanians and around 2,500 Serbs were killed or went missing in 1998-2000. Our research will show the extent to which this estimate is close to the truth.’
In Croatia, the work of impartial assessment of the number of dead and missing has not yet begun. Vesna Teršelić, who leads Documenta, an organisation that unites a number of NGOs, has confirmed for Globus that the work will begin this year, as soon as the necessary finances are secured. It is interesting that the numbers quoted by the two Croatian government bodies responsible for collecting this information during the war, the ministry of health and the ministry of defence, are gradually being scaled down. Up to the year 2000, the number of dead and missing was judged to be between 16,000 and 17,500. After 2000, when the government commission for the dead and missing started to filter and scrutinise the data in response to the trials in The Hague, the number of dead and missing in the war in Croatia was reduced by 3,000.
It was found, in fact, that the same name would appear several times on the list of dead and missing; that people who died during the war but were not its direct victims were also included, as were people who committed suicide or were killed in non-war conflicts, or who died or went missing outside Croatia, mainly in Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to the head of the governmental commission for imprisoned and missing persons, Colonel Ivan Gruić, when testifying in The Hague, the identity, place and manner of death has been confirmed from a variety of sources for 12,400 people killed during the war in Croatia, while one may say with reasonable certainty that 1,121 missing people are in fact direct victims of the war. One can say on this basis that the Croatian government reckons with the death and disappearance of 13,500 of its citizens. The Documenta activists will have to check each of these 13,500 names, and add to this list information on ethnic Serbs killed or gone missing in operations Flash and Storm, as well as those who died or went missing on the territory of the so-called SAO Krajina.
This report appeared in Globus (Zagreb), 2 February 2007