Friday, December 10, 2004

Arithmetic of Horror

History again repeated itself in Balkans.

From late 1940s onwards, generations of former Yugoslavs believed in the official WW2 death toll of 1.7 million. When someone doubted those numbers, he usually believed the toll to be much higher, usually at the expense of his ethnic group. It took some forty years for those numbers to be disputed in the famous demographic study by Vladimir Žerjavić (Vladimir Zerjavic) and Bogoljub Kočović (Bogoljub Kocovic). They found out that the WW2 death toll for former Yugoslavia was 900,000 people. 1.7 million number was, in most likelihood, result of some creative arithmetic employed in order to extract as much reparations as possible from defeated Axis powers, namely Germany.

All those who saw 1991-95 wars as a repeat of 1941-45 may also see the repeat of creative arithmetic when it comes to death tolls. Most people today believe that three years of was in Bosnia claimed some 250,000 lives. For most of 1990s this number undisputed and even used during the war itself, especially by those friendly to the cause of Bosnian Muslim government. According to them, all those quarter million people were Bosnian Muslims.

After war, first serious attempt to establish the real truth resulted in decreasing of the toll. The number of dead was around 190.000 and it included everyone – Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, Croats, civilians and military alike, regardless whether they were killed in combat, as collateral damage or massacred as the part of ethnic cleansing.

Yesterday Mirsad Tokača (Mirsad Tokac),a chairman of Research-Documentaion Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina published the first result of the study, partially funded by Norwegian government. Although the exact number of the dead probably won't be known, it is, according to Tokača, "no less than 100.000 and no more than 150.000".

Just like in the case of former Yugoslavia 1941-45, the downgrading of the official death toll probably won't do much to decrease its emotional and psychological impact. Those who have lost their loved ones and had their lives shattered would probably care little with how many people they share their grief.

When WW2 death tolls are compared with 1991-95 (or, in case of Bosnia, 1992-95) death tolls, it is clear that, despite the use of more destructive weapons and greater intensity of the conflict, the actual numbers of people killed were significantly lower. This isn't much of a surprise – the medical science has advanced in half a century, allowing the successful treatment of previously fatal wounds and other injuries; nearly fifty years of preparation for Soviet invasion left former Yugoslavia covered with plenty of bomb shelters and other civil defence infrastructure; modern communications and roads allowed for relatively simple extraction of civilians out of harms way; presence of foreign humanitarian organisations prevented the large-scale famine and disease; extensive use of prisoner exchanges, as well as the presence of world media in the latter stages of conflict discouraged atrocities, at least on WW2 scale. Thankfully, many of the horror stories associated with Bosnian War were nothing more than propaganda.

But, again, this doesn't mean that those who survived the war are any less traumatised. On the contrary, it could be argued that the sufferings of those who survived 1991-95 are actually worse than those in 1941-45.

For example, losing a child in 1940s usually meant one mouth less to feed and not the destruction of someone's family. Most of those who were tortured in 1940s were farmers, accustomed to all kinds of physical hardships, unlike the spoiled city children of 1990s. Destruction of someone's home in 1940s usually meant the loss of a wooden shack or worse, rather than losing hot water, television, telephones and all marvels of civilisation people took for granted before 1990s.

If we take this into account, number begin to mean very little. Just like the current mess in Iraq looks much worse for the Americans, despite significantly lower bodycounts.


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