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Disputes over war casualties in former Yugoslavia

Vanessa Pupavac

It is no surprise that the ethnic conflict in former Yugoslavia has included disputes over the number of victims of each group. This brief, critical analysis of disputes over the numbers killed is not intended to minimise the suffering of the victims in the war, but to highlight how the manipulation of figures exacerbates divisions. The issue of the numbers of dead is not an academic debate, but is clearly related to each side's war propaganda and winning the moral high ground, not just in their own domestic constituency, but with international audiences.

An examination of the figures being put forward, which range from 25,000 to 280,000 killed, reveals a vast divergence both in terms of the total number of dead and the proportion of deaths suffered by each ethnic group. Disputes over the numbers of dead on each of the sides continue with the lack of hard evidence, exhibited by the vagueness of the figures and their inconsistency. For example, from late 1992, Bosnian government sources commonly quoted 200,000-250,000 as the number killed in the war, whilst the official Bosnian Institute for Public Health was citing about 140,000, increasing at the rate of about 2,000 a month from April 1993. The names on the electoral registers in many constituencies, whose numbers the rival ethnic groups have sought to maximise, have not been consistent with the numbers of killed and missing also claimed by them.

The links with propaganda and the figures of dead become clear when one examines some of the claims which have subsequently turned out to be false; for example, claims by Bosnian sources of 10,000 victims in a gas attack at Gorazde or 70,000 killed in Bihac (widely reported in the US); claims by Serbian sources of a mass grave at Pakrac Poljana containing 1,700 people which turned out to be military trenches; or Croatian claims of a massacre in the town of Makarska on the Adriatic coast in an area away from danger. These and other propaganda claims justified the war effort, promoting fear and hatred between the ethnic groups, and made agreements harder to reach resulting in actual subsequent deaths.

Nationalism and the manipulation of the statistics of the second World War

Before there were any casualties in the current war, nationalist propaganda drew upon the idea of victimisation at the hands of their fellow South Slavs, in particular during the Second World War. One of the earliest manifestations of ethnic conflict arose in disputes over the statistics on the wartime victims. The postwar Yugoslav state had based its legitimacy on the ideal of the Partisans and the common suffering of the South Slav peoples under foreign occupation and manipulation and their common struggle against fascism. In the name of brotherhood and unity, the authorities did not want to single out the wartime Croatian Independent State as worse than the quisling regime in Belgrade under the Nazis, or one ethnic group above another as being greater collaborators or as having suffered more in the war. The experiences of the ethnic groups in the war were equated and parallels were drawn between the wartime Croatian and Serbian quisling regimes, and the Croatian Ustasha and the Serbian Chetniks.

The scale of the deaths in Yugoslavia fifty years ago led the authorities to suppress the figures for the sake of reconciliation but this later facilitated the manipulation of the figures by nationalists (Bogosavljevic, 1996). On the one hand, Croatian nationalists, for example the current President of Croatia, Franjo Tudman, in his book The Wastelands, sought to minimise the numbers of Serbian and Jewish victims of the Ustasha wartime regime of the Independent State of Croatia, in particular the number of those killed in Jasenovac concentration camp, and claimed greater Croatian losses. On the other hand, Serbian nationalists challenged the equation of the experience of the Serbs during the war. They had some grounds as they were targeted, in a way that the Croats were not, by the Nazis, as 'untermenschen' along with Jews and gypsies, but Serbian nationalists exaggerated the numbers of Serbs killed, minimising the role of non-Serbs in the Partisans and their losses. Belgrade newspapers in the late 1980s and 1990-1991 campaigned for the reinvestigation of the numbers of Serbs killed in the Second World War and were saturated with articles about the discovery or cover-up of mass graves from the Second World War, arousing fears of genocide by identifying the contemporary Croatian nationalists with the Ustashas. The mutual recriminations directly attacked the Partisan myth which had underpinned the legitimacy of postwar Yugoslav state.

The importance of the Second World War in propaganda in the current conflict is suggested by some of the worst atrocities by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992-1995 corresponding to previous outrages fifty years ago, for example, in north west Bosnia, where many Serbs were slaughtered or deported to Jasenovac camp. Parallels with the Second World War have been extremely important in winning the hearts and minds of both domestic constituencies and international audiences. Comparison of the actions of enemies with those of the Nazis has been a key tactic by nationalists on all sides.

Changing politics and changing victims

Although perceived parallels with the tragic events of the Second World War have aroused fear and promoted hatred and brutal responses, the direction of the current conflict has not been driven by revenge for the past. Developments have resulted in different interpretations of the character of the war at different times by the participants. Although the war has generally been perceived in terms of a war of Serbs against non-Serbs, the war has been more complex than this with there being, at various times, fighting between Croats and Muslims, as well as among Muslims. (It is beyond the scope of this article to consider the wider causes and nature of the conflict. For a useful analysis of the issues leading up to the war, see Woodward, 1995.) There have been changing alliances, notably with the Serbs in some areas assisting Croats against Muslims from late 1992-1994 and cooperation from 1993-1995 between Serbs and the Muslims loyal to Fikret Abdic in Velika Kladusa in north-west Bosnia, who broke with Sarajevo. The state of cooperation or alliances led leaders and ordinary people to alternatively downplay or highlight casualties of the conflict, and to make or withdraw accusations of genocide against each other.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Serbian media claimed that a campaign of genocide was being waged against them and exaggerated or invented stories of Serbian victims, but, in 1995, when there were actual victims of Croatian military offences, the official Serbian media gave minimal coverage to their plight. The Belgrade evening news of May 1995 only briefly mentioned Croatian Operation Lightning and the flight of Serbian refugees from Western Slavonia nineteen minutes into the programme. This was because the Serbian authorities were then trying to distance themselves from the war and any responsibility for its consequences, in relation to both Serbian and non-Serbian victims alike.

The use of figures has depended upon whether the figures are to emphasise suffering or strength, or whether they are for a domestic constituency or an international audience. For example, Naser Oric, former commander of the Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica has questioned the figures of 6,000 to 8,000 killed commonly cited in the Bosnian and international press in relation to Srebrenica, suggesting that they are far lower (Oslobodenje, 24/25 August 1996). Presumably Oric does not want to be considered a disastrous military leader for having lost so many men and he has gone against the higher figures. Similarly a Muslim parliamentary candidate standing for re-election in the 1995 elections boasted that the Muslims had killed over 100,000 Serbs soldiers during the war, as evidence of the power of the Bosnian government.

International figures

It is unsurprising that there are such vast discrepancies in the casualty figures cited by different sides in the war; however international sources on the numbers of victims in the war also vary greatly. The most commonly cited figure in the media is between 200,000 and 250,000 Bosnians killed, which the journalist Nick Gowing has traced back to Bosnian government officials. Whilst articles in the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) yearbooks contain the figures of 140,000 and 200,000 as the total number of Croats, Muslims and Serbs killed, research published in the SIPRI yearbooks suggests that between 30,000 to 50,000 have been killed (see SIPRI, 1995; 1996). The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Commission on Missing Persons believe there are currently about 20,000 missing persons according to the ICRC tracing requests, although in a press conference in Washington on 7 November 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Senator Robert Dole, who heads the Commission, cited the figure of about 40,000 missing persons. The divergence of the figures reflects their status as estimates. There has been a lack of investigation to back up many of the figures cited. In fact, many of the figures contained in international reports are based on local sources and have not been independently verified.

There has been uneven documentation of human rights abuses, which has been reflected in the major international reports. For example, the UN Commission of Experts, upon whose evidence the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia was set up, did little independent research and only invited submissions and considered existing reports. Areas which have come under the spotlight of the international media and human rights organisations have received attention and witnesses have been sought and interviewed, whilst other areas ignored by the media and NGOs have been neglected.

The earlier dominant position of the Serbs led to a view of the war as Serbian aggression and a tendency to overlook Serbian losses. There were heavier Croatian and Muslim losses in the earlier period of the war but as the Croatian and Bosnian armies became established they were able to inflict losses on the Serbs. However, the early view of the war has persisted.

The international media coverage, mainly from one side in the conflict, has created a certain dynamic in that subsequent investigations chose their remit based on issues already being highlighted. For example, the remit of the EU Investigative Mission into the Treatment of Muslim Women in the Former Yugoslavia led by Dame Ann Warburton included investigations of Muslim and (unofficially) Croatian rape victims, but did not include Serbian women. The EU team was itself critical of this fact, but the limited scope of investigations was repeated in other international commissions looking into atrocities. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia did not initially feel it needed to set up an investigation of crimes against the Serbs because its first field investigations were selected on the basis of the material and evidence of the UN Commission of Experts, which had not highlighted Serbian victims (see ICTY, 1994: 27-28).

Most of the early international reports, for example the EU Mission report, based their estimates of victims on a limited number of interviews and domestic documentation. The conclusions of these international reports were then cited in local reports as further substantiated proof. During the war, there tended to be a circular substantiation of evidence and repetition of estimated figures rather than a scientific gathering of additional evidence through independent research.

Promoting conflict and casualties

The international reports legitimised domestic figures which were to promote divisions and marginalise moderates on all sides. Firstly the international endorsement of exaggerated Bosnian or Croatian figures gave succour to Serbian nationalists who could dismiss accusations of atrocities by highlighting inaccuracies in the reports and then put forward their own exaggerated figures. Secondly by comparing the Serbs to the Nazis, the idea of negotiation with them became seen as treachery although it could have saved lives since, at least until 1995, the Croats and Muslims were militarily weaker and therefore vulnerable in the face of Serbian forces. Thirdly by appearing to ignore Serbian victims, the international community encouraged Serbs to turn to ultra-nationalists, such as Vojislav Seselj, who seemed to be the only ones voicing concern for their plight. In the same way that Serbian nationalists in 1980s challenged the equation of their actions and suffering during the Second World War with that of the other ethnic groups, there have been objections by non-Serbs to comparison or equation of their actions with the Serbs or their losses with Serbian losses. For nationalists on all sides, equation is associated with the postwar Yugoslav policy of ensuring that any statements or actions balanced or equalised the ethnic groups.

Establishing the numbers dead is not the end of the issue. With the end of the war, it is not only the parties in the war who need to examine why so many were killed. International initiatives need to be analysed to see how these policies contributed to the deaths. International recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia legitimised ethnic nationalism and precipitated ethnic conflict descending into war by withdrawing support for multi-ethnic Yugoslavia and endorsing the idea of states based on single nations in circumstances where each republic, except arguably Slovenia, was in itself a multi-ethnic entity. For those who were to become minorities in the new states, the status of minority was considered an abrogation of their previous citizenship rights. This was clearly dangerous in a situation where Serbian forces (at least initially) had military superiority, having inherited the bulk of the JNA=s (Yugoslav Peoples= Army) weaponry. The number of deaths of the citizens of Sarajevo and Muslims in Srebrenica cannot simply be related to the conduct of Serbian forces, but is linked to the disastrous 'safe areas' policy which forced refugees to remain in war zones, neither demilitarised nor safe, causing thousands of avoidable deaths.

The international contribution to the statistical debates is not without its own agenda. Talk of concentration or death camps and implicit or explicit comparisons of the atrocities in Bosnia to the deeds of the Nazis is to rewrite the unique horror of the systematic extermination under the Holocaust. Discussion of the barbarity of the parties in the war in Yugoslavia helps give a sense of moral superiority in the West. Whilst the war in Yugoslavia is considered in terms of mass rape and genocide, the Gulf War is referred to in terms of computer games and the Iraqi casualties as >collateral damage=. As the Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova points out, the scale of killings in the war in former Yugoslavia in comparison to wars involving NATO or US troops suggests that the Balkans have not monopolised barbarity:

In seventeen days, American technology managed to kill, in what Jean Baudrillard claimed was merely a television event, at least half the number of total war casualties incurred by all sides during the two Balkan wars [...] With the ease which American journalists dispense accusations of genocide in Bosnia, where the reported casualty figures vary anywhere between 25,000 and 250,000, it is curious to know how they designate the over three million dead Vietnamese (see Todorova, 1997: 6-7).


A dispassionate investigation and documentation of the victims of the war on all sides is required to undermine the nationalists= claims and promote future understanding and reconciliation. Furthermore, a critical analysis of the pattern of the killings and the impact of international initiatives is imperative to ensure appropriate responses to minimise the number of casualties and not endanger lives in conflicts in the future.


Srdan Bogosavljevic (1996) >Nerasvetljeni genocid=, p. 159- in Nebojsa Popov (ed.) Srpska strana rata: Trauma i katarza u istorijskom pamcenju, Belgrade: Republika, BIGZ.

Oslobodenje (1996) 24/25 August.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (1995, 1996) Annual Report, Stockholm.

Woodward, S. (1995) Balkan Tragedy, Washington: Brookings Institute.

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (1994) Yearbook 1994, The Netherlands: ICTY, United Nations.

Todorova, M. (1997) Imagining the Balkans, New York: Oxford University Press.

Vanessa Pupavac
Department of Politics
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD
tel: 0115 951 5151, email: vanessa.pupavac@nottingham.ac.uk

The author has previously worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe.


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