War by Numbers
by George Szamuely
“In their search for hidden Iraqi arms, U.N. inspectors have so far faced little conflict, have found little evidence and have received little outside intelligence to guide them” (Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2002). However, stories about not finding evidence of weapons of mass destruction serve to reinforce the idea that the weapons are there but have yet to be found. Since it is logically impossible to prove one isn’t doing something Iraq will never be able to certify that it doesn’t have what the U.S. claims it has. Absence of evidence is proof of duplicity and thus of guilt.
It’s a ploy that was used again and again in the Balkans over the past decade. Back then Serbia, not Iraq, was crying out to be punished by the righteous nations led by the United States. Serbs were beyond the pale. Remember the 100,000 Kosovo Albanians they supposedly massacred? Defense Secretary William Cohen, State Department spokesman James Rubin and Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes David Scheffer all cited the 100,000 figure. The State Department at one point even published a report speculating that the number may be as high as 500,000. ABC News declared that the U.S. “has satellite pictures of close to 100 freshly dug graves.” There were the reports of satellite pictures of “mass graves pointing in the direction of Mecca.” Then just as NATO was about to march into Kosovo, the numbers were suddenly drastically revised downwards. The New York Times stated: “Photographs taken by United States spy satellites seem to show that Serbian forces dug up the bodies of their victims to hide evidence of a massacre in Kosovo.” The Washington Post said the same thing the same day. Recalling how Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon had “displayed a satellite picture from May 15 of what analysts concluded was a site that held 143 graves,” he was now displaying a different picture: “‘This second picture shows what appears to have been a bulldozing over this area,’ he said, pointing to a black splotchy section.” “Black splotchy sections” always look impressive to people untutored in scientific methods and numbers.
10,000 was the new estimate for dead Albanians. Bernard Kouchner, the first U.N. chief administrator in Kosovo, stated that it was likely to be 11,000. No one ever bothered to explain how these numbers were arrived at or why they were likely to prove more accurate than the previous numbers. But 10,000 soon became the officially accepted number to be repeated as incontrovertible fact. But problems arose right away. Where were the bodies? After months and months of the most relentless digging the world had seen since the building of the Panama Canal, Hague Tribunal Prosecutor Carla del Ponte announced that NATO had exhumed 2,108 bodies. A rather paltry number-yet the hacks jumped on this like a parched desert traveler at an oasis. Del Ponte was unable to say to whom these bodies belonged, what their ethnicity was, how they died or when they died. The tribunal then announced somewhat sniffily that “genocide is not a numbers game” and gave up on the tedious business of forensics altogether.
Numbers are only a “game” when they don’t add up to what you want them to add up to. Let us however play the “numbers game.” A report published in October by the Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights for the Council of Europe, Kosovo: The Human Rights Situation and the Fate of Persons Displaced From Their Homes, reveals some fascinating numbers. According to the report, “some 3700 persons” have gone missing in Kosovo, of which approximately 2750 are ethnic Albanian and 850 Serb, with the remainder belonging to other minorities.” In addition, the report stated, “since 1999, some 4600 bodies have been exhumed, of which only 2100 have been identified. 2500 remain, therefore, to be DNA tested, leaving a further 1200 still to be located and exhumed.” The report, interestingly, omits to give an ethnic breakdown of the 2100 bodies that have been exhumed. Let us assume that every one of the 3700 missing is dead. That would make the total number dead as 5800 (3700 plus 2100). Let us assume that the ethnic breakdown of the 2100 exhumed bodies is the same as that for the missing. That would mean 1561 of them are Albanians and 482 are Serb. That would make a grand total of 4311 Albanians dead and 1332 Serbs dead. Now, a fairly substantial proportion of those Albanians will have been murdered by the KLA for their alleged collaboration with the erstwhile Serb authorities or for their general refusal to play ball with terrorists and gangsters.
This is scarcely a secret. A recent article in Der Spiegel, citing as its source Kosovo Albanian leader Bujar Bukoshi, stated that “the cruelest cleansings took place among the Albanians. Under the pretext that they were ‘Serbian collaborators,’ the leaders of the KLA liquidated their political opponents.’.The number of the victims is estimated to be more than a thousand.” Now that is likely to be an extremely conservative estimate. So that leaves us with something like just over 3000 Albanians dead. But that number includes all of the Albanians killed by NATO bombs, those killed in combat, those killed in crossfire between the Yugoslav army and the KLA or due to accident, not to mention anyone who may have been killed for whatever reason before 1999. So the “numbers game” has now taken us not just far from the 100,000 massacred Albanians but even quite a long way from the 10,000 of recent NATO propaganda efforts. More significant, no explanation has been offered as to how those satellite photos were taken to prove something happened that never in fact happened.
Take another atrocity, one that has now become a byword for the sort of inhumanity that cries out for U.S. military intervention. Since 1995 the name “Srebrenica” has acquired the resonance that was once the exclusive domain of the word “Auschwitz.” Serbs seized the city and allegedly massacred 8,000 Bosnian Moslems. The origin of that number has always been a bit of a mystery. According to the 1999 U.N. report, “The mortal remains of close to 2,500 men and boys have been found on the surface, in mass graves and in secondary burial sites. Several thousand more men are still missing, and there is every reason to believe that additional burial sites, many of which have been probed but not exhumed, will reveal the bodies of thousands more men and boys.” 2,500, and no ethnic breakdown of the bodies. That’s a serious omission since Moslem forces based in Srebrenica, under the leadership of the notorious killer Naser Oric, had for years prior to 1995 been attacking neighboring Serb villages. Consequently, a lot of the bodies are likely to be those of Serbs.
The Hague Tribunal has already had one big Srebrenica trial. In August 2001 it convicted Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic of genocide and sentenced him to 46 years in prison for not preventing the crime of Srebrenica. “[B]etween seven and eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men were executed between 13 and 19 July 1995,” the court declared. “Despite the efforts which have been made, very few mortal remains have been found. Why? Because in the fall of 1995 measures were taken in order to attempt to cover up the scale of the crimes.” So how do we know what the scale was? Well, once again, there were the “aerial photographs provided to the Prosecutor. These photographs have made it possible: to identify the number of mass grave sites at the time the executions were carried out; and to note that other sites appeared after September 1995. The work of the experts has also made it possible to confirm the data by comparing the older mass graves with the more recent ones since the latter are always located in regions with more difficult access than those of the first group. There can therefore be no doubt about the deliberate desire to conceal the existence of mass graves and therefore the mass executions of civilians.” Lack of evidence is therefore proof of guilt. So, on the one hand, the Serbs allegedly carry out the most brutal massacres imaginable while innumerable U.N. personnel are in the vicinity, U.S. satellites orbit overhead and Hague prosecutors can’t wait to issue indictments against Serb leaders. On the other hand, they go to the most amazing amount of trouble to hide the evidence of their crimes. They speak on the phone in code, they bury and re-bury and re-re-bury the dead.
But the Krstic court had no choice but to offer speculation in place of fact. Here’s an example of its reasoning: “Although forensic experts were not able to conclude with certainty how many bodies were in the mass-graves” the experts were able to conservatively estimate that a minimum of 2,028 separate bodies were exhumed”.Identity documents and belongings” suggest that the victims were linked with Srebrenica” .In some cases, investigators were able to positively identify bodies in the graves as former Srebrenica residents on the basis of distinctive personal items found with the bodies such as jewelry, artificial limbs and photographs. Other artifacts found at the majority of the gravesites, such as verses from the Koran, suggest the presence of victims with Muslim religious affiliation.”
The evidence only suggests that the victims “were linked with Srebrenica,” whatever that may mean, but only in “in some cases” were bodies identified as belonging to Srebrenica “residents.” And the bodies were obviously all Muslims-why else would one find “verses from the Koran”? The absurdity of this is laughable. At times the court’s reasoning became truly bizarre: A demographics expert testified that the overwhelming majority of people missing from Srebrenica are men. The forensic examinations of the gravesites “associated with Srebrenica reveal that only one of the 1,843 bodies for which sex could be determined was female.” In addition, “there is a correlation between the age distribution of persons listed as missing and the bodies exhumed from the graves: 26.4 percent of persons listed as missing were between 13-24 years and 17.5 percent of bodies exhumed fell within this age group; 73.6 percent of persons listed as missing were over 25 years of age and 82.8 percent of bodies exhumed fell within this age group.”
Needless to say, the judges rejected the commonsense explanation that in any war the vast majority of the dead are likely to be male of more or less combat age and that the vast majority of the population anywhere in Europe is likely to be over 25 years of age. “The correlation between the age and sex of the bodies exhumed from the Srebrenica graves,” the court concluded happily, “and that of the missing persons support the proposition that the majority of missing people were, in fact, executed and buried in the mass graves.” Here’s a circular piece of reasoning if ever there was one.
“It is impossible to determine with precision the number of Bosnian Muslim men killed by Bosnian Serb forces,” the judges declared. Nonetheless, they had no doubt that the “total number of victims is likely to be within the range of 7,000-8,000 men.” This is likely to prove before long to be a highly injudicious statement. In November 2002 AFP ran a story that opened with a startling announcement: “DNA testing has helped speed up the identification of thousands of people killed in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) said Friday. Since being introduced in November a year ago, 1,200 victims have been identified, compared to 73 in six previous years, the commission said.” 73? Is that all? With so few bodies identified one really ought to hesitate before bandying about big numbers with such abandon. According to AFP, “there were still some 10,000 bags with human remains waiting to be identified, mostly people who died in the 1995 Srebrenica massacreâ€¦.. Some body bags contain complete bodies, some just body parts and many merely contain bones dug up from other gravesites.” How the wire reporter had established that the “human remains” were from Srebrenica was far from clear.
Over a month later the New York Times ran essentially the same story, but with a few notable additions and omissions. DNA, the Times reporter writes, “has helped forensic experts to match 1,500 more bodies to the list of 30,000 people still missing after Bosnia’s brutal war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives between 1992 and 1995.” Here the Times is deliberately muddying issues. How does it know that 200,000 were killed during the Bosnian war? Is the paper suggesting that 170,000 bodies have been positively identified and that 30,000 still remain to be accounted for? Or that 200,000 have been declared missing and are presumed dead? So does that mean that the 30,000 will eventually have to be added on to the 200,000? However, the story gets even murkier: “two-thirds of the bodies that remain unaccounted for have yet to be found.” This suggests “two-thirds” of 30,000 “have yet to be found.” Using the Times numbers we get 170,000 dead that have been positively identified, 10,000 bodies that remain to be identified and 20,000 that are still missing. But where does that 10,000 number come from? It sounds like the Times reporter confused the “10,000 bags with human remains” that AFP talked about with 10,000 bodies. “Just 73 victims from Srebrenica had been identified,” the Times states. Again, this seems to be a misinterpretation. AFP did not specify that the 73 came from Srebrenica.
The Times then quotes Gordon Bacon, head of the commission in Bosnia, as explaining that it’s very hard to know how many bodies there are. “Just 1,800 of the 4,500 body bags stacked in a morgue in the northern town of Tuzla contain a complete body,” Bacon explained. “The rest are just bits and pieces of co-mingled remains.” In other words, we have absolutely no idea how many bodies have been exhumed, let alone who they were or where they came from. The Times reporter didn’t like where all this was leading, so he resumed the familiar tale of Karadzc and Mladic.
In the last hundred years two world wars were fought in the Balkans, two Balkan wars, not to mention a number nasty civil wars. Dig a hole deep enough anywhere in the Balkans and you’re likely to hit a mass grave. The Times or the Hague Tribunal will of course keep telling us that they are all hiding the remains from Srebrenica.
Any lie will do to justify U.S. military attack. Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? It scarcely matters. Once the victim-country is conquered and occupied, no one will be much interested in the truth. By then a new victim will have been targeted.
Copyright George Szamuely 2003. For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .