Eight Years of Imprecision: Estimating the Kosovo War’s Death Toll
Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis - August 24, 2007 (pg. 3-6)

Analysis. By GIS Staff. The New York Times reported in 1999: "Ethnic tensions remain [high] in Kosovo, where an estimated 10,000 people were killed in a conflict that began with a crackdown on Kosovo Albanians who seek independence from Yugoslavia."<1> Eight years later, The New York Times was still reporting "Up to 10,000 people, the majority of them ethnic Albanian, are estimated to have been killed in a conflict between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Yugoslav forces".<2>

The New York Times reports with precision that 56,253 people were at Yankee Stadium for the game against the Mets, but after eight years they’re still estimating how many people died in Kosovo, even though the highest estimate of casualties would not even fill a quarter of the seats in Yankee Stadium.

The New York Times is not alone. A quick search of news and wire reports will reveal hundreds of articles saying such things as: “An estimated 10,000 people, mainly Albanians, died in the Kosovo war” ... “The 1998-99 Kosovo war killed an estimated 10,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians.” ... “An estimated 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, were killed in the 1998-99 war between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serb security forces.” ... “The Kosovo war killed an estimated 10,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians.”

An interesting exception is the Reuters agency, which recently dropped the estimate of 10,000 and began using language such as “Independent estimates say 7,500-12,000 people, mostly Albanians, died during Serbia's war against guerillas”.

The first person to put forward the generally-held estimate of 10,000 dead was the British Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, Geoff Hoon, at a press conference on June 17, 1999, a mere five days after NATO troops began their deployment in Kosovo.<3>

Six months later, the US State Department officially adopted the estimate of 10,000. The Department’s report reads: “On November 10, 1999, ICTY Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told the UN Security Council that her office had received reports of more than 11,000 killed in 529 reported mass grave and killing sites in Kosovo. The Prosecutor said her office had exhumed 2,108 bodies from 195 of the 529 known mass graves. This would imply about 6,000 bodies in mass graves in Kosovo if the 334 mass graves not examined thus far contain the same average number of victims. To this total must be added three important categories of victims: (1) those buried in mass graves whose locations are unknown, (2) what the ICTY reports is a significant number of sites where the precise number of bodies cannot be counted, and (3) victims whose bodies were burned or destroyed by Serbian forces. Press accounts and eyewitness accounts provide credible details of a program of destruction of evidence by Serbian forces throughout Kosovo and even in Serbia proper. The number of victims whose bodies have been burned or destroyed may never be known, but enough evidence has emerged to conclude that probably around 10,000 Kosovar Albanians were killed by Serbian forces.”<4>

As it turned out, the original 2,108 bodies found by ICTY investigators did not translate into the 6,000 anticipated by the State Department. War crimes investigators checked the largest gravesites first, so when the ICTY wrapped-up exhumations in the Summer of 2000, the total number of bodies found was 2,788.<5>

Although the State Department’s estimate of “about 6,000 bodies in mass graves in Kosovo” was off by almost 115 percent, the Department never bothered to revise its overall estimate of 10,000. As for the other categories of victims mentioned in their report, even if someone did try to conceal evidence of killings, the victims would still be recorded as missing persons regardless of whether their remains were found or not.

At last count, the International Red Cross listed 2,047 persons as missing from the 1998-99 war, including approximately 500 Serbs, 1,300 Albanians and 200 members of other ethnic groups.<6>

Patrick Ball, a US statistician testifying as an expert on behalf of the ICTY prosecution at the war crimes trial of former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic in The Hague, recently shed light on the methodology he used to estimate the Kosovo death toll. During his testimony, Ball conceded that the most recent documented total of combined dead and missing from the 1998-99 Kosovo war was less than 5,000 people. However, he estimated that the actual number of victims was much higher: 10,356. According to Ball, the point of his estimate was to “include those that are not documented and, in all likelihood, will never be documented”.<7>

When Milutinovic’s lawyer asked him to explain how the fewer than 5,000 documented cases of dead and missing persons could turn into an estimate of more than 10,000 deaths, Ball said: “It is very rare that very many people after a mass atrocity are identified, for dozens of reasons; among those, that the families don't see any point to report, there's not much -- they have little to gain by reporting anything, because all the witnesses have either fled or gone. Families may have left the country, what have you. There are many reasons, and each context has its own reason why relatively few people report.”<8>

Ball’s assumption that killings mostly went unreported is, however, refuted by his own experience. The ICTY provided his expert team with more than 10,000 reports (not confirmed cases) of killings in Kosovo. His team sifted through the reports and found that only 4,400 pertained to unique individuals.<9> The problem which Ball’s team encountered was not that killings went unreported, it was that they were reported excessively. The same individuals were reported time and time again so that the majority of the reports were duplicates.

Milutinovic’s lawyer followed-up Ball’s claim that most of the war’s victims went unreported by asking him how he was able to determine who was reported and who wasn’t? Ball responded saying: “Well, actually, the reporting rate can never be analyzed directly, sir. The reporting rate always has to be estimated, so you're correct, I never have direct evidence of the reporting rate, but neither does anyone else for any other country on Earth because the only way the reporting rate can be analyzed, whether it’s in Sweden, the best registry in the world, or in some very-difficult-to-document place is by estimating the total and then looking at your report totals and dividing into that estimated total. By its nature, the reporting rate is unmeasurable in any direct sense, so you're right that I don’t have that data, but that's a word game.”<10>

The fallacy of such reasoning is easily exposed. The same logic could be used to manufacture a crime wave in, say, The Netherlands. There were 160 reported cases of homicide in The Netherlands in 2006. But if the premise was outlined that only one in three homicides were reported, it would be possible to say that there were really 480 homicides. But why stop there? It would be just as easy to say that just one in five homicides are reported, and that would enable a claim that 800 people were murdered. It would be possible to say that there were as many homicides as could be imagined; all that would be necessary would be to pick the “right” reporting rate and multiply it by the number of documented cases.

The British medical journal The Lancet, which famously (and rather imprecisely) accused US-led coalition forces of killing anywhere from 70,000 to 500,000 Iraqi civilians since 2003, used somewhat better reasoning. A report in the journal estimated the toll of the Kosovo war to be about 12,000 dead. The analyst achieved this number by surveying 1,197 households from February 1998 through June 1999; on the basis that 67 of the 105 deaths reported in the sample population were attributed to war-related trauma, they applied the same war-related mortality rate to the rest of Kosovo's population and got the number 12,000.<11>

Counting the actual number of dead and missing from the Kosovo war is not an insurmountable task. For several years, the death toll of the Bosnian war was routinely estimated to be in excess of 250,000 people, but several years of careful research and documentation revealed that the actual death toll was more likely to be about 100,000.<12>

Estimated death tolls, whether for Kosovo, Bosnia, or Iraq, are notoriously imprecise and prone to political manipulation. The generally accepted Bosnian estimate turned out to be inflated by nearly 150 percent. In Kosovo there is a 37.5 percent discrepancy between the low estimate of 7,500 and the high estimate of 12,000, and the low estimate seems certain to be greatly inflated.

The fact that the Kosovo war does not have a precise death toll, more than eight years after the fact, cannot be attributed to anything other than a lack of political will.

The Kosovo war was shorter than the Bosnian war, and the number of victims was much lower, but we have not seen the sort of research and documentation project for Kosovo that there was in Bosnia. No one has made a serious effort to document the precise number of victims. KFOR (Kosovo Force), UNMIK (United Nations Missionin Kosovo), the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia), media outlets, foreign governments, and the Kosovo-Albanian authorities are all perfectly happy to rely on estimated death tolls, no matter how dubious the methodology behind them is.

The lack of political will to do a precise victim-by-victim count may be attributable to a fear that Kosovo’s estimated death toll could turnout to be grossly inflated like the original estimates for Bosnia were. Such a revelation would be unwelcome in many circles because it would undermine the case for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.


1. The New York Times; November 30, 1999: 3 Serbs Attacked, One Fatally, By a Mob of Ethnic Albanians.

2. The New York Times; March 22, 2007: Envoy Calls for Independence for Kosovo Ahead of a UN Debate.

3. The Washington Post; June 18, 1999, Friday, Final Edition: Kosovo's Albanians Returning In Droves; Serb-Led Offensive Took 10,000 Lives, Britain Estimates.

4. Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo: An Accounting; US State Department Report, December 1999.

5. The Guardian (UK); Friday, August 18, 2000: Serb killings 'exaggerated' by west; Claims of up to 100,000 ethnic Albanians massacred in Kosovo revised to under 3,000 as exhumations near end.

6. Beta News Agency; Fate of missing still unaccounted for. June 30, 2007, 09:40 (CET)

7. Milutinovic Trial Transcript; Tuesday, February 20, 2007; Pg. 10318

8. Ibid.

9. Killings and Refugee Flow in Kosovo, March. June 1999; A Report to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; January 3, 2002; Patrick Ball, Wendy Betts, Fritz Scheuren, Jana Dudukovich, and Jana Asher; Pg. 6.

10. Milutinovic Trial Transcript; Tuesday, February 20, 2007; Pg. 10319 – 10320

11. The Lancet; Vol. 355, June 24, 2000.

12. Tabeau/Bijak expert report to the ICTY; 2004.

Copyright 2007 Defense & Foreign Affairs/International Strategic Studies Association
Reprinted with Permission.