Research shows Bosnian war death toll guesses severely inflated
Estimates of the number of people killed during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war were severely inflated, and the true figure was half that of what was previously believed, researchers said Thursday.
Although more than a decade has passed since the end of the war, only rough estimates on the number of casualties existed, ranging anywhere from 25,000 to 300,000, said Mirsad Tokaca, head of the research project, the only scientific research conducted into the issue so far. The widely accepted figure was about 200,000.
However, a three-year investigation by the Sarajevo-based non-governmental Research and Documentation Center revealed that the true figure was 97,000, he said. The figure could rise by a maximum of another 10,000 due to ongoing research, he added.
Ewa Tabeu, head of the Demographic Unit research team of the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, said the project’s figures were the minimum number of war deaths. Although not complete, “it is the largest existing database on Bosnian war victims,” she said.
Tokaca said the group began their research in 2004 in an effort to prevent death toll numbers from being used for political purposes.
“To avoid manipulation with numbers not based on facts, which then appear as an additional element for incitement …, we launched this project to establish the truth,” he said.
The project, called “The Bosnian Book of Dead,” was funded primarily by the Norwegian government.
“Truth and knowledge are crucial prerequisites for reconciliation,” said Norwegian Ambassador to Bosnia, Jan Braathu. “The long-term consequences of not facing the past on a basis of established truth are alarming.”
Other funders were the Swedish Helsinki Committee, the U.S. government, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Dutch government, the United Nations Development Program and the non-governmental Heinrich Boell Foundation, the group said.
Casualty figures from other conflicts in the region, especially during World War II, were often manipulated by politicians, and statistics and death tolls were used to justify attacks against other ethnic or religious groups.
Tocaka’s team worked for three years with thousands of sources, collecting 21 different facts about each victim, including names, nationality, time and place of birth and death, circumstances of death and other data.
According to the group’s research, 97,207 people were killed during the Bosnian war. Of those, about 60 percent were soldiers and 40 percent civilians. Some 65 percent of those killed were Bosnian Muslims, followed by 25 percent Serbs and more than 8 percent Croats. Of the civilians, 83 percent were Bosnian Muslims, 10 percent were Serbs and more than 5 percent were Croats, followed by a small number of others such as Jews or Roma.
The figures include both the missing and those who died due to military activities or torture. The project does not include people who died during the war in accidents, through reckless handling of weapons, due to starvation or lack of medication.
“What comes to mind are 12 babies that died in Banja Luka because the hospital had no oxygen or six civilians in Gorazde who died because an airdropped American humanitarian aid package fell right on them,” Tokaca said. “Such cases were not counted as they are regarded indirect deaths.”
Tokaca’s team of 20 people conducted thousands of interviews, visited 303 graveyards and went through records of all three armed forces involved in the war as well as other sources.
“This study was done to change the perception of the past and to allow us to overcome the hotheads and switch to calm dialogue,” Tokaca said.
The research was concluded in June 2006, but it took several months for an international team of experts to evaluate the data.
Patrick Ball, a member of the evaluation team who took part in the work of nine truth commission across the world, said Tokaca’s database “is better than any I worked with so far. The project continues but I do not expect his number to rise for more than 10,000 cases.”