Today, Good Friday 2012 is the exact 20th Anniversary of the first casualties of the Bosnian war of 1992-5 (two peaceful women demonstrators shot dead by Serb militia).
The 1939-45 world war which ravaged this continent (and in which most Europeans lost family members to violence) was the impulse that made all the countries of the world eager to found the United Nations, an organisation committed to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.
Whilst war continued to ravage the globe through the post-1945 years, Europeans could take some small satisfaction that the period 1945-92 was a period when few lives were lost in Europe through armed conflict.
It was not a totally peaceful period. For instance, in Northern Ireland, a protracted paramilitary campaign (and the state response to it) led to some 3,500 violent deaths over a 30-year period. Approaching 1,000 people have been killed in the violence of the Basque region of Spain. And throughout that time, many of us lived in constant fear of nuclear annihalation as the USA and Soviet Union conducted the nightmarish dance of the cold war – a dance of nuclear blackmail.
But the carnage unleashed in tiny Bosnia eclipsed all that. In less than four years, nearly 100,000 people were killed in that tiny country (population around 4 million). That’s one in every 25 people, and – since most victims were male – one in every 12 males.
On such anniversaries as this, the first task is to honour and respect the dead, and recall the enormity of the price they and their loved ones paid. Paying full attention to the human cost of war is not, in itself, sufficient to fulfil the aspiration of the UN charter – but it is an essential and non-negotiable component of it.
Full knowledge of war’s consequences does not flow automatically. It is the result of detailed and painstaking collection, sifting, and publication of information, location by location, victim by victim. Where accurate, comprehensive and detailed knowledge exists, this is often the result, not of government action, but of the committed labour of ordinary citizens, working through victim associations, humanitarian or human rights NGOs, to collect and organize information, very often unfunded or poorly funded, and sometimes under conditions of considerable danger.
So, for instance, the most detailed publicly available information regarding the identity and personal details of Bosnian victims is the result of the many years of work of a small Sarajevo-based NGO, which has presented the results of its work in a number of public outputs, including most recently the “Bosnia War Crimes Atlas” viewable on google maps:
The Oxford Research Group, with which I am proud to be associated, has recently begun to provide some co-ordination and support for the activities of such groups, who have joined together in an International Practitioner Network of casualty recorders (http://www.everycasualty.org/practitioners/ipn), of whom the Bosnian group is just one. This network currently has 36 member organisations, operating in conflicts all over the world, and united by an unshakable belief that no person should die unrecorded. – this belief is enshrined in a jointly promoted “charter for the recognition of every casualty of armed conflict” that is gaining considerable worldwide support (see: http://www.everycasualty.org/charter)
The wish to have war’s victims properly recognised is a wish that must be present in almost every family on the planet. Rare indeed is the family who has lost no-one in war’s violence. My own family is no exception. In early 1940 my uncle Jan Sloboda disappeared in southern Poland. It was long believed that he was one of the more than 20,000 people (mainly officers and community leaders) abducted and executed by the Russian forces in the forests of Katyn. For decades the Russian authorities denied responsibility, and blocked access of investigators to important data. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poles eventually got access to the data, and in early 2008, the Polish Government finally published a full list of the names of all the victims. There, on page 62 of the database, at entry number 2864 the following is to be found
ppor. Słoboda Jan
r. 1903 † Charków
Sub-Lieutenant Sloboda Jan, son of Jan, born in 1903, † Kharkow.
Our family had to wait 68 years for the certainty of knowing how our dear relative had died. But our desire for truth and recognition never died.
Now, with instant global communication, the internet, facebook, twitter, and the mobile phone network, detailed documentary information about deaths is far harder to hide, and far quicker to emerge. But even so, in many current conflicts involving our governments there is still no systematic, authoritative, and comprehensive public record of the dead. There is no such for Libya, far less for the larger conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will the families of victims there will have to wait 68 years for the acknowledged truth about who died and how? Surely not! It’s time to do for the victims of war worldwide what we routinely do for the victims of accidents or natural disasters.