Serbia and the issue of war casualties

Author: Marija Vidic and Jasamina Lazic
Uploaded: Friday, 28 October, 2005

Article translated from Vreme (Belgrade) discussed the reluctance of the Serbian authorities to confront the issue of war casualties

According to the late Croatian president Franjo Tuđman. Croat war casualties amounted to 23,000 dead and 57,000 missing soldiers and civilians in Bosnia-Herzegovina and 13,500 dead and missing in Croatia itself. Biljana Plavšić, former president of Republika Srpska, estimated the number of those who died in Bosnia-Herzegovina as 120,000, while her fellow citizen and political opponent Haris Siljadžić, former foreign minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina, reckons that some 200,000 died in their republic. Slobodan Milošević and his officials, by contrast, have never bothered to offer any estimate of the number of war victims on their side - perhaps because, according to them, Serbia and FRY were not involved in the wars of 1991-5. After the NATO bombing in 1999, the only conflict in which FRY formally took part, Milošević announced that 462 soldiers and 114 policemen had been killed. FRY officials rounded up the total number of casualties, i.e. including civilians, to 1,500 dead and 5,000 wounded.

The director of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Vojin Dimitrijević, believes that Serbian officials will never publish even their own estimate of the total number of victims. He told Vreme: ‘We live in a society in which the influence of those who made the wars and who glory in them is still strong. This is most visible in the case of Srebrenica. There is a strong tendency in Serbia to minimise the number of Bosniaks killed, as established by the United Nations, and to maximise the number of Serbs who perished as a result of Naser Orić’s raids. The idea is to show that the Serbs had the right to take revenge, because of the extent of their own casualties. But there is also an attempt to minimise the number of Serb victims, in order to suggest that the war was not as "costly" as all that.’ Thus, for example, according to Dimitrijević, the official number of soldiers who died in the course of the NATO bombing is kept low as a proof that the FRY army suffered relatively few casualties, while as part of the same war propaganda the number of civilians, being innocent victims, is inflated.

Regarding the number of Serbian soldiers who died or went missing during the wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the number often mentioned is 2,300. This includes JNA conscripts and members of the paramilitary formations organised by the Serb Radical Party, the Serb Renewal Movement (Serb Guard), Dragoslav Bokan (White Eagles) and Arkan (Serb Volunteer Guard). Most of them, around a half, died in the battle for Vukovar. Most experts agree with the figure.

According to the director of the Fund for Humanitarian Law Nataša Kandić, the difficulty in establishing the true number of dead and missing derives from the fact that the war was not waged on the territory of FRY, while all JNA soldiers were supposed to withdraw from Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in May 1992 when these countries were internationally recognised. ‘The files kept by the state organs, i.e. the army and the police, will never be published, because they contain information about war crimes; and most of those who committed war crimes were members of the army, the police and the various special units employed by the state. It is unfortunate that they have not provided data about the victims.’ Nataša Kandić insists that the ministry of the interior is in possession of such data, but refuses to share them. She recalls the publication of the Black Book, the White Book and the Book on Terror, but says that given their political nature the data they contain are not reliable. She backs up her argument that proper data do exist by referring to the trial of Milošević and the excellent organisation of his defence team, which in her view relies on the army, police and state security organs. She also recalls the story that military archives were destroyed during the NATO bombing, but claims that if so they were deliberately allowed to be destroyed.

The former director of the federal statistics bureau, Srđan Bogoslavljević, told Vreme that the number of war victims could have been established relatively easily had the last census been conducted at the same time in all the successor states. The census was supposed to be organised throughout the former Yugoslavia in 2001, but in both Croatia and Serbia this was in fact done at different times during 2002, while no census results have been published for Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo. In Kosovo, moreover, no census was conducted even in 1991. Consequently there exists no single framework for establishing an overall list of victims, so it would be necessary for all the states involved in the war to agree to a joint and comprehensive action in this regard.

Translated from a longer article in Vreme (Belgrade), 8 September 2005

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