THE BOSNIA CALCULATION: How many have died?
Not nearly as many as some would have you think .
By George Kenney
[The NY Times Magazine, April 23, 1995, pp.42-43]
[ George Kenney, a Washington writer, resigned
from the State Department in 1992 to protest
United States policy in Yugoslavia. ]
ALL TOLD, HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE DIED IN BOSNIA? For news organizations
and policy specialists, the easy answer is 200,000. As someone who have
followed the conflict closely from the begining in a proffesional
capacity, I'm not convinced. Bosnia isn't the Holocaust or Rwanda; it's
A relatively large number of white people have been killed in gruesome
fashion in the first European blowup since World War II. In response, the
United Nations has set up the first international war crimes trial since
Nuremberg. But that doesn't mean the Bosnian Serbs' often brutal treatment
of Bosnian Muslims is a unique genocide, as the United Nations and the
Bosnian Muslims have charged.
There can be no minimizing of what the Serbs have done in Bosnia. Their
punishment of the Muslims far outweighs any Muslim transgression. For
there to be peace in the long run there must jusitice. Yet the more
serious the charge, the more effort we must make to get the facts right .
We should think twice before revising historical fact into a fearful epic
that plants the seeds for a future war.
By my count, the number of fatalities in Bosnia's war isn't 200,000 but
25,000 to 60,000 -- total from all sides. What surprises me is not that
the popular figure is so inflated -- informed people can and will argue
about it for some time to come -- but that it has been so widely and
The notion of hundreds of thousands of deaths emerged late in 1992, when
"ethnic cleansing" was in full swing and journalists suspected the State
Department of concealing its knowledge of a Bosnian killing field. It
didn't. Its real failure was knowing nothing and not wanting to know.
In August 1992, shortly before I resigned as acting head of the State
Department's Yugoslav desk, I wrote a memo suggesting that we send teams
to investigate, and was rebuffed. At that time my most dire concern was a
C.I.A. report predicting up to 150,000 deaths through the winnter if the
West did nothing. Leaked in September, the report seemed tame next to a
prediction of 400,000 deaths, made by the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees Special Envoy, Jose-Maria Mendiluce, a man, one senior United
Nations official says, "gifted with theatrical flair." As it turned out,
the winter was exceptionally mild. Few died.
Nevertheless, revelations of ethnic cleansing, combined with the C.I.A .
and United Nations predictions, created expectations. Images of a killing
field lingered, personified in grim photographs of skeletal Muslim men in
Serbian concentration camps. That backdrop made it easy for Haris
Silajdzic, then Bosnia's Foreign Minister, to give the first big boost in
the number of deaths. In December 1992, he told journalists that there
were 128,444 dead on the Bosnian side (induding Croats and Serbs loyal to
the Bosnian Government). He evidently got the figure by adding together
the 17,466 confirmed dead and the 111,000 that the Bosnian Institute of
Public Health had estimated to be missing. An able politician, Silajdzic
understood the benefit of apparent slaughter. In the West, it meant
political support; in the Islamic world, much-needed donations to
lubricate the Bosnian war machine.
At first, such high numbers didn't take. But on June 28, 1993 -- as near
as I can pin it down -- the Bosnian Deputy Minister of Information, Senada
Kreso, told journalists that 200,000 had died. Knowing her from her
service as my translator and guide around Sarajevo, I believe that this
was an outburst of naive zeal. Nevertheless, the major newspapers and wire
services quickly began using these numbers, unsourced and unsupported (Mea
culpa: I used the figure of 200,000 dead in articles and speeches for a
while in 1993.) An inert press simply never bothered to learn the origins
of the numbers it reported.
Today, Silajdzic, now the Prime Minister, routinely talks about genocide
and the "Bosnian holocaust" with nary an eyebrow raised in his audience .
But there was no holocaust. For Bosnia, an area slightly larger than
Tennessee, to have suffered more than 200,000 deaths would have meant
roughly 200 deaths per day, every day, for the three-plus years of war .
But the fighting rarely, if ever, reached that level. After the Serbs
carved out the areas they wanted in 1992, fighting declined steadily,
reaching a virtual stalemate by autumn 1993. Now on the front lines,
combatants often shoot past each other, tacitly understanding that in a
low-intensity war nobody wants to get hurt.
Outright warfare, therefore, has probably resulted in deaths measured in
the tens of thousands, induding civilians. If there were huge numbers of
other dead, they would be accounted for only by systematic killing in
concentration camps or the complete, as- yet-undiscovered extermination of
Neither the International Committee of the Red Cross nor Western
governments have found evidence of systematic killing. Nobody, moreover,
has found former detainees of concentration camps who witnessed systematic
killing. Random killing took place in the camps, but not enough to account
for tens of thousand of dead. And, apart from the few well-known massacres
nobody sees signs of missing villages, either.
The Red Cross has confirmed well under 20,000 fatalities on all sides .
Extrapolating from that and from the observations of experienced
investigators in Bosnia, its analysts estimate total fatalities at 20,000
to 30,000, with a small chance that they may exceed 35,000.
Analysts at the C.I A. and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence
and Research put fatalities in the tens of thousands but hesitate to give
a more precise range until the war is over. European military intelligence
officers with extensive experience in Bosnia estimate fatalities in the
mid tens of thousands. From these and other estimates by generally
reliable relief workers, and given the arguments about the physical
impossibility of high numbers, I arrived at the range of 25,000 to 60,000
THE QUESTION OF HOW MANY FATALITIES there have been in Bosnia is far from
academic. Many wars, maybe all -- but this war especially -- are fought
for prestige and honor, not rational reasons. Many atrocities in the
former Yugoslavia have been justified as revenge for killings during World
War II. Yet the number of fatalities in Yugoslavia during World War II was
also never documented. In fact, interpreting those numbers today defines
your brand of ethnic nationalism. Thus, people in the Balkans think the
number of fatalities makes a difference -- and since they do, so should
we. The difference could be between getting a settlement in our lifetime
and waiting generations. Not to break the cycle is a grattuitous, even
Red Cross officials, normally secretive, surprised me by warmly
embracing a public airing of the question. Their worry is that obsessive
attention to Bosnia will come at the expense of the world's ability to
allocate humanitarian resources among similar or more serious wars. Of
perhaps greater long-term concern to them is that wild inflation of
Bosnian fatalities will discredit reports of subsequent atrocities.
There is always a tension between moral outrage at particular horrors
and the effort to put them into perspective. Michael Berenbaum, director
of the Holocaust Research Institute at the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum, deftly explains: "The Holocaust has raised our tolerance
for ordinary evil. This forces people to make their own plight more
Holocaust-like." Bosnia was an ideal candidate for such an image
make-over, since in the early confusion of ethnic cleansing and
concentrauon camps American uncertainty about what was happening made our
worst fears seem quite real.
Those who sounded the early alarm profoundly believe that "Never again"
means "Never again." Preventive concern, however, evolved perversely into
a distorted picture. My sense is that the chorus warning of genocide
gradually got taken over by those who sought to stampede the United Sutes
into unilaterally lifting the arms embargo against the Muslims. The
activists half-succeeded. Though there has been no unilateral lifting,
recent polls suggest that a large majority of Americans believe that the
Serbs committed genocide. It may already be too late to change that
Magnitude matters. As Berenbaum notes genocide with a small "g" (in
which we might lump Bosnia with East Timor, Liberia, Guatemala, Sudan and
Chechnya, among a score of others) is quite different from Genocide with a
big "G" (the Holocaust -- and, perhaps, Cambodia or Rwanda). To their
discredit, some advocates of lifting the embargo played down the
difference. The emotional resonance of Genocide obscured the dismal
possibility that arming the Muslims could inflame the war, killing far
more than had already been killed: after a supposed 200,000 deaths, it
didn't matter if additional tens of thousands died so long as we did what
was "right." Like the cruel Balkan leaders themselves, advocates of arming
the Muslims became strikingly callous.
In 1995, lacking the bodies, the charge of Genocide has worn thin. It
seems to have almost become sensationalism for its own sake. Apart from
any question of the number of fatalities, journalists have begun a hot
little debate about how "objective" coverage of Bosnia has been, about
whether it has tended to favor the Muslims. Several journalists with whom
I spoke expressed the uneasy feeling that something was obviously wrong .
In the words of the writer David Rieff, "Bosnia became our Spain," though
not for political reasons, which is what he meant, but rather because too
many journalists dreamed self-aggrandizing dreams of becoming Hemingway.
Who could do a reliable count? Probably not the State Department .
Unfortunately, Secretary of Stae Warren Christopher folded under pressure
from the interventionists and began-however furtively -- charging the
Serbs with Genocide. Having thus taken sides, the State Department can
hardly be expected to investigate reliably.
THE UNITED NATIONS IS WELL PLACED, but its officials have every
incentive to duck controversy. Western govermnents have repeatedly
shrugged off any responsibility for an authoritative count. The news media
can report figures only from others; it does not have the access needed to
compile its own numbers. And the Balkan people can't be trusted.
The only other possible sources are nongovernmental organizations like
the Red Cross, and their counting criteria vary greatly. But a neutral
source is important. As long as the world tosses around words like
"genocide" so loosely, the present tragedy will revolve endlessly.
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