Analysis 19 Jun 07

JUSTICE REPORT: Bosnia's Book of the Dead

Twelve years after the war ended, Bosnia and Herzegovina is getting close to ascertaining the total number of those who died.

By Nidzara Ahmetasevic in Sarajevo

Almost four years since work began on the Population Loss Project 1991-1995, the Research and Documentation Centre, IDC will present the Bosnian Book of the Dead in Sarajevo on Thursday, June 21.

Justice Report can reveal that, as of the end of June 2007, the book contained 97,207 names of Bosnia and Herzegovina's citizens representing victims of war.

The rich database classifies war victims by status, ethnic affiliation, gender, age and so on.

Although analysts consider that the database will reduce the possibility that the numbers of war victims could be manipulated for political reasons, they, at the same time, warn that the database is still not complete.

In any case, a brisk discussion is expected in Bosnia in Herzegovina about the possible ways of using the data for the determination of truth and for reconciliation.

Mirsad Tokaca, IDC president, has said that the aim of the project was to identify each single victim and prevent any type of manipulation of numbers, which he considers has been the case for years.

"This is not a story about numbers, but about citizens who died during the past period," Tokaca told Justice Report.

Three international experts - Patrick Ball, Ewa Tabeau and Philip Verwimp - all with rich experience in similar projects, have reviewed the database and have assessed it favourably.

"This database represents an extraordinary achievement of all those who were involved in its preparation," the experts have said, adding that some improvements are still possible.

The trio considers that the data collected by IDC gives a "good overview of war happenings related to victims and the way the individuals died".

Verwimp, a researcher in the field of political economy in developing and post-war countries, human rights and genocide, warns that the IDC database does not mean that work on determining the number of war victims in BiH is over.

"Many consider the number of 97,207 as the overall total of victims of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, which is not correct. For several reasons, this number should be seen as an approximation of a minimum and not as a complete total," he told Justice Report.

Tabeau believes that the information from the database can be an efficient tool for fighting myths about the war.

"These results might be an extremely efficient tool in fighting myths, but only if there is a will in the society to deal with the past in terms of facts, not myths," said Tabeau, who worked as a project manager in the demographic unit of the Hague tribunal's prosecution office. In this role, she studied the demographic consequences of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, with a main focus on the number of victims during the wars in this region.

However, even though more than 90,000 names have been included in the database, the IDC does not consider that its work on the project has been concluded.

"The database remains open and whoever contacts us and offers new data we are willing to consider it and add new names," said the IDC's Tokaca.

Playing with numbers

Similar databases exist in several post-war countries. In 1999, research was undertaken to determine the exact number of victims in Rwanda, Kibuye province, and the project was called Victims of Genocide in Kibuye.

Similar efforts have been undertaken in Northern Ireland in 2000, in South Africa within a Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in El Salvador in 1997 and in Guatemala by the Commission for Historical Clarification in 1998.

Justice Report has found out that similar databases might soon be available in Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo, where work is already being done along the same lines as those applied in BiH.

Twelve years after signing of the Dayton Peace Accord, the exact number of victims of the three and a half year-long war in Bosnia and Herzegovina has still not been determined. During the war, local authorities in Sarajevo publicly mentioned, on several occasions, that about 200,000 people had been killed.

Up to now, this estimate is the one mentioned most frequently by the domestic and international public, although it has been denied by various parties on several occasions. However, it is not the only estimate we have. Thus, estimations varied from 25,000 to 250,000.

According to Tokaca, this "playing with numbers" was the main reason why the IDC decided to collect details and names of victims.

It is significant that local authorities have not done much to help the research, although they did not try to prevent it. Instead, the Book of the Dead has been compiled with support from foreign governments, mainly those in Norway and Switzerland.

The research itself started in 2004. More than 240,000 pieces of data have been collected, processed, checked and compared in order to get the final number of more than 96,000 of names of victims, belonging to all nationalities.

"We are not publishing the number but rather the names of BiH citizens who died in the period from 1991 to 1995. Our intention is to stop talking about numbers and start talking about people," Tokaca has said and added that the IDC, while researching the population loss, registered all BiH citizens who were killed or disappeared due to direct military actions or were murdered in detention centres.

"This group comprises of soldiers and civilians. What is important to us is that the total number has its structure, a range of details and explanations. For almost every case, we explained the time and geographic dimension of death, distance from place of residence to place of death, formation in which soldiers were," the president of IDC Sarajevo explains.

IDC data indicates that, out of the total number of victims, 57,523 were soldiers and 39,684 civilians. The total number also includes names of 3,372 children who died during the war.

According to this data, 89 per cent of victims were men and ten per cent were women. Most victims were aged 25 to 35.

In terms of ethnicity, 65.88 per cent were Bosniaks (64,036), Serbs 25.62 per cent (24,906), Croats 8.01 per cent (7,788) and others 0.49 per cent (478).

The research was done in several ways. Most pieces of information were collected through direct contact with witnesses, families of victims, through newspaper articles, various registers and also by visiting of cemeteries. Tokaca says that his researchers have visited more than 400 cemeteries in order to collect names of victims.

It is interesting that the database also contains 512 names of BiH citizens who died in Slovenia and Croatia during 1991. Tokaca says that most of them were members of the Yugoslav People's Army. In addition, the names of 16 persons - who were wounded during the war and died in 1996 from their wounds - have also been registered.

"According to available data, the highest number of victims - more than 30 per cent of the total number (28,666) - died in Podrinje, and the second highest number (14,656) perished in Sarajevo," Tokaca explained.

In addition to the names of victims, many other indicators about the war in BiH can be derived from the database. It is therefore obvious that most civilian victims - 45,110 - died in the period May to August 1992.

"Srebrenica was just a finishing act," says the president of the IDC, adding that the centre's data suggests that 6,886 people were killed in the July 1995 massacre.

Shortfalls and instructions

Although they consider the database to be of great importance and the biggest one referring to the war in BiH, Ball, Verwimp and Tabeau have pointed to certain shortfalls that can be corrected.

Evaluators have noticed that there were no standardised documents used in the collection of data which can "possibly be one of the reasons for some errors in the database".

"Although this database is the biggest one ever compiled on victims of war in BiH, it should not be used as the only source of information, but it should be complemented with other sources. Only this way, we can prevent creation of biased statistics and an historically incorrect image about the war in BiH, and [prevent the general public from being misinformed]," the evaluation concludes.

The three experts consider the errors they have discovered to be minor, and claim that most mistakes are actually not caused by problems in the database but rather in the information provided, i.e. they are caused by non-existence of reliable data or its parts.

In any case, the evaluation has come to an important conclusion - that the research has been done with no ethnic partiality.

Ball, Tabeau and Verwimp identified a lack of data in some cases as the first problem in the IDC database.

"About 85 per cent of cases are relatively complete (82,257) while 15 per cent are less complete (14,638). The data on civilians is less complete than data on soldiers," they indicate in the conclusion.

Explaining the terms complete and less complete, Verwimp has said that data on dates of birth and death are missing in case of some victims.

Probably the biggest problem in the database is how to define the status of victims. For IDC researchers, the only possible way was to rely on existing official registers, mostly military.

According to available data, 40 per cent of war victims in BiH were civilians and 60 per cent were soldiers or members of police forces.

Tokaca explains that he is aware of this shortfall. However, he says that the existing registers are unreliable.

During and after the war, many families asked that their family members be buried as soldiers, for various reasons, although they died as civilians or as soldiers away from front lines. The most common reason for these requests was access to social support for families of killed soldiers.

When registering such cases, IDC was governed by the official data that was available.

The evaluation indicates that such practices lead to over-reporting of soldiers and under-reporting of civilians.

"It is important to emphasise that "status in war" does not provide correct insights in relation to victims of combat versus non-combat situations, neither does it inform about legitimate victims of violations of the International Humanitarian Law, IHL," the evaluators say.

"Status in war is a simple measure of whether or not a person was a member of a military/police formation at the time of death, or generally was a defender, or a civilian. As such it offers a good basis for a further more specific investigation into this issue. We therefore advise that this part be improved," it is said.

Facing the past

For many, the true value of this database is that all who want to can search for the names of family members and friends who were lost in the war. This way, they can find the date and place of death, and the circumstances in which the person died.

Experts consider that the database can be a valuable source of information for people who study the war in BiH, but it can also be used as a relevant source in court processes, both before domestic and international courts. However, Tabeau notes that it cannot be used at every stage of the legal process.

"The Bosnian Book of the Dead can be used at certain stages of investigations. It is premature to speak of many other purposes of the database, such as using it for purposes of evidence where detailed information records about victims and perpetrators are required, and without supporting it with additional sources of data," Tabeau told Justice Report.

She thinks that the database is important for fighting myths and demystification of various wrong statements about the war.

"The education of the entire society regarding the past is improved," she said. "One more advantage is that young researchers can learn from this project and apply this knowledge in the future."

Nidzara Ahmetasevic is a Justice Report editor. Justice Report is an online publication of BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina. Balkan Insight is BIRN’s online publication.

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