What do the figures for the Bosnian war-dead tell us ?
Earlier this year, the Research and Documentation Centre (RDC) headed by Mirsad Tokaca in Sarajevo released the semi-final results of its extensive investigation into the death-toll of the Bosnian war. The investigation, the most well documented to date, gives a body count of 97,207 war-dead in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the period 1991-95. This number is then broken down into different categories and combinations thereof: year, month, region, municipality, nationality, gender, age and status (i.e. civilian or military), with a more detailed treatment of the Srebrenica municipality. The figures tell us much about the character of the Bosnian war.
1. Do the RDC’s figures vindicate the genocide deniers ? Since the figure of 97,207 is about half of the figure of 200,000 Bosnian war-deaths that has been commonly accepted since the Bosnian war, and since it has been clear for a couple of years that the RDC’s research would produce roughly such a figure, its work has for some time now been eagerly seized upon by Bosnia genocide deniers and apologists such as Ed Herman, David Peterson and Nebojsa Malic as supposed ‘vindication’ for their position. This being the case, and since the RDC’s findings are broadly supported by those of a second scientific investigation, carried out by Ewa Tabeau and Jakub Bijak of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, we hope that they can now be taken by all sides in the debate as an essentially reliable basis from which to draw conclusions about the Bosnian war.
For reasons that should not require too much explanation, a body count will almost always give a lower death-toll than a scholarly estimate of total deaths. This is because a body count only takes into account documented deaths, rather than all the deaths that are likely to have occurred but for which documentary proof is lacking. In the words of Philip Verwimp, an expert who has evaluated the RDC’s figures: ‘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.’ In the case of the RDC’s study, the discrepancy is not likely to be so great, because years of research have eliminated most of the ‘unknowns’. Tokaca has stated that the final figure for the Bosnian death-toll may rise by up to 10,000 as research continues. Still, for purposes of comparison, the figure of 97,207 falls into the same category as the figure for Iraqi dead provided by the Iraq Body Count website (approximately 80-87,000 civilian dead at the time of writing) rather than the figure of over 600,000 Iraqi dead in the study appearing in the Lancet last year (NB my purpose here is not to compare death tolls, but to compare methods of their evaluation).
The RDC’s figure of 97,207 includes only those definitely documented victims defined as direct casualties of war in the strictest sense. It does not include indirect victims of war: e.g. those who died of hunger, exposure or lack of medicine as a result of war conditions; those killed by incompetent use of weapons; military suicides; civilian and military accidental deaths; victims of armed quarrels; etc. The total number of Bosnians who died as a result of the war is therefore substantially higher than the RDC’s figure, and the proportion of civilian fatalities greater.
This should be borne in mind when considering the arguments of deniers from the Chomsky-Pilger school, who will happily treat the figure of 97,207 as though it were equivalent to their own favourite estimates for the victims of ‘Western imperialist’ crimes, e.g. 200,000 East Timorese victims of Indonesia, two million or more Indochinese victims of the US, one million Iraqi dead in the current war, etc. For example, Noam Chomsky’s oft-cited figure of 200,000 East Timorese deaths resulting from the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, a figure broadly supported by John Pilger, apparently includes deaths from famine and disease or ‘enforced starvation’ (to use Pilger’s words) – such deaths were not included in the RDC’s study of the Bosnian war-dead.
Any evaluation of the death-toll of a genocide should, indeed, take into account those killed by disease, hunger and exposure as a result of conditions deliberately imposed by the perpetrators for that purpose. Thus, for example, the figure of six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust includes those, such as Anne Frank, who died from disease, hunger or exposure as the result of Nazi-imposed conditions in the camps and ghettos. The figure of 97,207 Bosnian war-dead does not therefore include all the civilian victims of the genocide.
I make these observations by way of a preliminary, in response to those who enjoy playing the numbers game with regard to the Bosnian genocide. Whether 100,000 or 200,000 died in the Bosnian war should have no bearing on our recognition that this was a terrible crime, or on whether we consider what happened to have been genocide. But if numbers cannot be used to confirm or deny a genocide, they can tell us a lot about when, where and how most of the killing occurred, who were the principal perpetrators and who were the principal victims.
2. What was the national composition of the victims ? The most striking fact to emerge from the study is that 83.33% of civilian deaths in the Bosnian war were Muslims (Bosniaks). In total, 33,070 Muslim civilians were killed, as against 4,075 Serb civilians, 2,163 Croat civilians and 376 civilians of other nationalities. Muslims were the only one of the three principal Bosnian nationalities who suffered higher civilian than military casualties. Thus, 51.64% of the Muslim dead were civilians, as against 27.77% of the Croat dead and 16.36% of the Serb dead.
The RDC has not compiled data on who carried out the killing. Nevertheless, it is indicative that in both absolute and proportional terms, more Serb civilians were killed in the Sarajevo region than in any of the other six regions of Bosnia-Hercegovina that the study considered. Thus, in the Sarajevo region, 1,091 Serb civilians and 2,927 Serb soldiers were killed. We can compare this to the region of Podrinje, in one part of which Naser Oric, a Bosnian commander frequently singled out as particularly guilty of war-crimes against Serb civilians, was active. In Podrinje, a total of 849 Serb civilians and 4,711 Serb soldiers were killed. Muslim, Serb and Croat civilian casualties in Sarajevo all peaked in the same year – 1992 – and fell in subsequent years. Civilian casualties were highest in Sarajevo in the early stages of the war, the spring and summer of 1992. Due allowance must be taken for the Serb civilians killed by Bosnian Army or Croat soldiers, in particular by rogue commanders such as Musan Topalovic-Caco, but the conclusion is inescapable: the single largest killer of Serb civilians during the war was the Serb siege of Sarajevo.
Taking into account all those Serb civilians killed by Serb forces in Sarajevo and elsewhere (such as in the Tuzla massacre of 25 May 1995), as well as those killed by Croat forces, then the number of Serb civilians killed by Bosnian Muslims during the whole of the Bosnian war across the whole of Bosnia cannot have been very different from the number of American civilians killed by fundamentalist Muslims on the single day of 11 September 2001. Which should serve as a salutary lesson for those who like to equate the moderate Muslims of Bosnia with the fundamentalists of al-Qa’ida. The relatively low Serb civilian death-toll in the Bosnian war is testimony to the fact that, while the Bosnian Army was sometimes guilty of war crimes, it did not pursue a policy of deliberately targeting Serb or Croat civilians.
3. Where were the epicentres of the mass killings ? The RDC’s figures confirm that the most intense phase of the mass killings was the spring and summer of 1992, and that the epicentres of these mass killings were the Podrinje region – broadly speaking East Bosnia – and the Prijedor municipality in north-west Bosnia (we are leaving aside, for the moment, the special cases of the Srebrenica massacre and the siege of Sarajevo). Podrinje accounted for nearly thirty per cent of all Bosnian fatalities, followed by the Sarajevo region, with just over fifteen per cent. In Podrinje, 94.83% of civilian casualties were Muslims. The killings here peaked in the period April-September and particularly May-June 1992. Podrinje was the region adjacent to Serbia; not only were all Bosnian Serb forces formally under ‘Yugoslav’ (i.e. Belgrade’s) military command until 19 May 1992, but units from Serbia were centrally involved in the killing in this region: notably, the Uzice Corps of the Yugoslav People’s Army, based in Serbia’s city of Uzice, and the paramilitary forces of Zeljko Raznatovic-Arkan and Vojislav Seselj. The RDC’s figures therefore corroborate the fact that Milosevic’s Serbia spearheaded the programme of mass killings in Bosnia.
Further to the west, 5,209 residents of the Prijedor municipality were killed in the war – more than three times the number of any other municipality in the Pounje region. Prijedor municipality was serviced by the notorious concentration camps of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje, whose exposure by Western reporters in the summer of 1992 was a decisive moment for international perception of the Bosnian war. Deniers, such as Thomas Deichmann and Mick Hume of Living Marxism magazine, have for long concentrated their efforts on attempting to exonerate these camps. Although their attempts have been totally discredited by ITN’s victory over Living Marxism in the libel trial of 2000, they are still endorsed by Noam Chomsky, among others.
4. What do the RDC’s figures tell us about Srebrenica ? The RDC’s figures broadly vindicate the particular attention that observers and scholars of the Bosnian war have given to the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre. We have already noted that the Sarajevo region accounted for over 15% of the total Bosnian death-toll (a figure that includes not only the victims of the siege, but also the dead, of all nationalities, in Serb-held municipalities such as Pale and Trnovo). The RDC gives a figure of 6,886 for deaths in the Srebrenica municipality in the month of July 1995 when the massacre occurred – which can be compared to a mere thirteen deaths in the municipality in June and twenty-three in August of the same year (NB some who initially survived the massacre were hunted down and killed in subsequent months). Since the Srebrenica massacre was carried out in multiple locations on the territory of several municipalities, the figure of 6,886 deaths should not be seen as encompassing all the deaths in the massacre, but merely those who were killed on the territory of the Srebrenica municipality itself.
The RDC classified some of the Srebrenica victims as soldiers rather than as civilians. Tokaca admitted that difficulties had been created for the RDC’s system of classification by the fact that some of the victims’ families had chosen to classify them as soldiers, even when they had been civilians, in order to improve the families’ access to social support. Nevertheless, the perpetrators massacred captured soldiers and civilians alike. In genocide, as I have noted elsewhere, the civilian vs soldier/combatant distinction is frequently an artificial one; one need only think of the Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; or the millions of Soviet POWs deliberately starved to death, killed through exposure or otherwise murdered by the Nazis – the most infamous Nazi death-camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was originally built to house Soviet POWs, and these were the first to be gassed to death there.
The RDC’s figures suggest that approximately 4,800-5,000 civilians and 1,500-1,700 soldiers were killed in the Srebrenica municipality in July 1995. These were almost all Muslims: only 22 Serbs and 1 Croat were killed in the Srebrenica municipality in the whole of 1995.
The RDC divides the ‘military’ deaths into those defined as killed in combat, those killed outside of combat and those killed as POWs. This division simply reflects the victims’ status according to the military registers and other sources upon which the RDC based its figures; it does not represent any kind of evaluation as to whether the victims in question really were killed in or out of combat, or as POWs. As has been made clear, ‘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.’ Thus, the RDC’s figures for Muslim soldiers killed ‘in combat’ in Srebrenica includes both genuine battlefied deaths and the much more numerous victims of the massacre who did not receive POW status.
These figures can be compared with those for other regions where heavy fighting took place (unfortunately, the RDC’s website does not provide such detailed information for individual municipalities other than Srebrenica). In the region of Posavina, the town of Bosanski Brod was captured by the Serbs in October 1992; civilian and military deaths on all sides across the whole of Posavina in October 1992 were 593. In the region of Vrbas, the town of Jajce was captured by the Serbs in October 1992; civilian and military deaths on all sides across the whole of Vrbas in October 1992 were 291. In the autumn of 1994, there was heavy fighting around the ‘safe area’ of Bihac in the Pounje region, with the Serbs appearing poised to take the town and NATO launching unsuccessful air-strikes; the highest combined civilian and military death toll for all sides across the whole of the wider Pounje region in any one month in 1994 was 554 in November followed by 386 in December. The Bosnian Army waged a bloody and unsuccessful offensive to break the siege of Sarajevo in June and July 1995; the combined civilian and military death toll for all sides in the Sarajevo region for these two months together was 533.
In other words, Muslim losses in Srebrenica, both civilian and those classified as ‘military’, were massively out of proportion to those in other municipalities where heavy fighting took place, far beyond anything that can be explained away as simply the result of combat. By the RDC’s figures, the destruction of approximately 6,886 Muslim lives in July 1995 cost the Serb forces something between 0 and 22 casualties.
As we noted above, these figures encompass only the deaths in the Srebrenica municipality, not all the victims of the massacre who perished in other municipalities of the region. The RDC’s figures show that 10,333 people from the Podrinje region were killed during 1995; that over 93% of these were Muslims; and that 9,328 out of the 10,333 were killed during the single month of July, compared with 225 in June and 171 in August. These figures do not include people from other regions of Bosnia killed in Podrinje, and do include people from Podrinje killed in other regions, but this only very slightly distorts the figures as in both cases the numbers involved are very small. The deaths of people from the Podrinje region in the month of July number over 9,000 more than in any other month of the year; this works out as an ‘excess’ Muslim death toll of over 8,000 in the month of the Srebrenica massacre. The RDC’s figures thus confirm the already established figure of over 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre.
5. Was Bosnia a ‘three-sided war’ ? The Bosnian war is often presented as having been a three-sided war, between Serb forces, Croat forces and the predominantly Muslim Bosnian Army, but the RDC’s figures remind us that this is somewhat misleading, and that the so-called ‘Muslim-Croat war’ of 1992-94 – i.e. the war fought between the Bosnian Army on the one hand and the Croat Council of Defence (HVO) and regular Croatian Army on the other – was, in scale and bloodshed, very minor in comparison to the war involving the Serb forces.
The Muslim-Croat war was essentially waged in only two of the seven regions of Bosnia as defined by the RDC: Central Bosnia and Neretva. Muslim and Croat civilian casualties in the whole of these two regions throughout the entire period 1991-95 were 2,908 and 786 respectively. These figures include those Muslim and Croat civilians killed by Serb forces, which must have comprised a substantial proportion of the total: nearly half of all deaths in these regions occurred either before the first serious clash of the Croat-Muslim war (the HVO’s seizure of the town of Prozor from the Bosnian Army in October 1992) or after the war ended in March 1994. Neretva, for example, experienced by far its highest monthly death-toll in June 1992, when Bosnian and Croat forces were still fighting together against the Serbs. Some municipalities in both regions were not even encompassed by the Muslim-Croat conflict – in these all Muslim and Croat casualties must have been the work of the Serb forces.
When all this is taken into consideration, the Muslim-Croat war cannot have claimed more than 2,000 civilian lives at the most generous estimate, or about 5% of the total civilian casualties of the Bosnian war as a whole. If this is added to the 3-3,500 Serb civilians killed by Croat or Muslim forces, then we have a total civilian death-toll at the hands of the Croat and Muslim forces combined of 5,500 maximum. This amounts to just under 14% of the total civilian death-toll. At least 86% of civilian deaths in the Bosnian war were the work of the Serb forces. They include the overwhelming majority of Croat as well as Muslim civilian victims. This is worth pointing out to those who like to claim that ‘all sides were equally guilty’.
To describe the Bosnian war as a ‘three-sided war’ is therefore something of an exaggeration; it was essentially a two-sided war within which there were some smaller-scale conflicts among the ranks of one of the two sides. The Bosnian Croat military (HVO) remained throughout the war, formally, a constituent part of the Armed Forces of Bosnia-Hercegovina. In some areas such as Tuzla, Bihac, Tesanj and Olovo, the HVO remained loyal to Sarajevo throughout the war; and in some areas, rogue Muslim military forces also waged armed rebellions or clashed with Bosnian regular forces – these included Fikret Abdic’s forces in Velika Kladusa and the forces of Musan Topalovic-Caco and Ramiz Delalic-Celo in Sarajevo. Some of these rebel forces, including the rebellious portions of the HVO and Abdic’s forces, collaborated with the Serb forces. There were only ever two sides, but some Croat and Muslim units switched sides at least once (In the Spanish Civil War, too, there were armed conflicts between different factions of the Republicans, though to the best of my knowledge none of these actually fought alongside the Nationalists against other Republicans).
6. Who were the victims ? The Bosnian war was not a war between Muslims, Serbs and Croats, but a war fought between the defenders and the destroyers of a unified Bosnia-Hercegovina. 381 Serbs, 436 Croats and 69 other non-Muslims/Bosniaks died as Bosnian Army soldiers – nearly 3% of overall Bosnian Army losses (the figures do not include foreign volunteers from outside of Bosnia, such as the foreign mujahedin). The role of Serb and Croat soldiers in the Bosnian Army was more significant than the role of the foreign mujahedin, though this is not often admitted by those who like to highlight the role of the latter. 478 Muslims, 73 Serbs and 17 other non-Croats died as HVO soldiers – nearly 10% of total HVO casulties – most of them, presumably, in the period before the outbreak of the Muslim-Croat war, when the HVO was itself a multinational force resisting the Serb attack. The Serb forces – the Yugoslav People’s Army and Army of the Serb Republic – were the least multinational in terms of their losses: 252 non-Serbs – mostly Muslims – died fighting for them, amounting to just over 1% of the losses of the Serb armed forces.
The Bosnian war involved an attack upon Bosnia-Hercegovina by an aggressor, and the aggressor’s strategy involved getting Bosnians to kill each other so as to further the partition of their country into three ethnically homogenous portions. Those Muslims who slaughtered Serb civilians were, therefore, aiding the aggressor, and there is reason to believe that some of these may have been doing this deliberately. In my book, How Bosnia armed, I discussed the possibility that high-ranking Muslim and Croat officers of the Bosnian Army and HVO may have been consciously working, as agents or allies of Belgrade, to destroy inter-ethnic relations and partition the country. All 97,207 Bosnian war-dead, as well as all those other Bosnians who died as a result of the war, were victims of the aggression waged by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, supported by the regime of Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and aided and abetted by the Western alliance and the UN. The war came to an end when the Serb side started losing, and when the Bosnian side abandoned resistance to partition. The victims of the war were Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Bosnian people.
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