Realistically Estimating the Number of Srebrenica Massacre Victims –
July 3, 2013

Written by: Andy Wilcoxson

Like any war, the warring factions in the 1992-95 Bosnian war used hyperbole, exaggeration, propaganda, and outright lies to demonize their opponents. The Western news media uncritically regurgitated the propaganda spoon-fed to it by the Bosnian government and published absurd reports of 250,000 to 300,000 people killed in the war.

They went on repeating the myth of a death toll in excess of a quarter of a million for ten years after the war until cooler heads prevailed and sober research revealed that the death toll was really closer to 100,000 – less than half the number originally reported.[1]

It took ten years, from 1995 until 2005, for people to figure out that the death toll of the war itself was grossly exaggerated. If the death toll of the war could be exaggerated, then it stands to reason that individual events that happened during the war could have been exaggerated too, and the particular event that comes to mind is the Srebrenica massacre.

Unfortunately, the same sort of research and logical reasoning that debunked the exaggerated death toll of the Bosnian War itself has not been applied to what happened with regard to Srebrenica.

The reason why there isn’t any serious inquiry is because in 2001 the UN War Crime Tribunal in The Hague (ICTY) passed a verdict stating that it had been “proven beyond all reasonable doubt that genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war were perpetrated against the Bosnian Muslims, at Srebrenica, in July 1995.”[2]

By finding that “genocide” had been committed, the ICTY turned anyone who questioned the allegation that Bosnian-Serb forces “summarily executed 8,000 men and boys” in the “the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II” into a “genocide denier” and in some countries, especially in Europe, genocide denial is a crime.

Debunking the death toll of the Srebrenica massacre isn’t as simple as debunking the death toll of the war itself. When lists of victims were compiled and the numbers didn’t add up to anywhere close to 250,000 it was pretty obvious that the numbers had been fudged.

However, the Srebrenica massacre took place in the context of combat that was taking place in the area and legitimate combat casualties are being counted as if they were massacre victims that had been captured and executed by Bosnian-Serb forces.

The Dead and Missing

Prosecutors at the ICTY have compiled a list of 7,661 persons who were killed or reported missing in connection with the fall of the Srebrenica enclave.[3] Exhumations of Srebrenica-related mass graves have been going on for years, and at last count the ICMP have identified the remains of 6,838 persons through DNA analysis.[4]

When the Srebrenica fell on July 11, 1995 a column of 12,000 to 15,000 men from the enclave set-out to fight their way across Bosnian-Serb territory to territory held by their compatriots near Tuzla. The vast majority of men who were killed or reported missing were part of that column.

Of the 7,661 persons who were reported missing or confirmed dead, about 1,000 were captured from among the refugees gathered at the UN Base in Potocari, and the rest were from the column.[5]

The Column Was a Legitimate Target

There is no dispute that the column was a legitimate military target. The ICTY prosecutor’s own military expert readily admitted that the column did “qualify as a legitimate military target.”[6]

Even the prosecutors themselves acknowledged the military character of the column. Senior prosecutor Peter McCloskey told the court point blank, “It was a military column. You don't see any war crimes being charged on the attack of this column. And the head of this column was a military column and it did a hell of an attack on 16 July and many Serb soldiers were killed.”[7]

The Column Suffered Thousands of Combat Casualties

Thousands of the men in the column were killed in combat with Bosnian-Serb forces as they fought their way across Serbian territory towards Tuzla.

Carl Bildt served as the European Union co-Chairman of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia. He was the Prime Minister of Sweden 1991-1994, Co-Chairman of the Dayton Peace Conference and subsequently the first High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He wrote in his book Peace Journey that “when we eventually, in early August, began to understand what had really happened the picture became even more gruesome. In five days of massacres, Mladic had arranged for the methodical execution of more than three thousand men who had stayed behind and become prisoners of war. And probably more than four thousand people had lost their lives in a week of brutal ambushes and fighting in the forests, by the roadside and in the valleys between Srebrenica and the Tuzla district, as the column was trying to reach safety.”[8]

The UN Secretary General’s report on the fall of Srebrenica states that when “men began arriving in the Tuzla area, searching for their families. The Bosnian Government disarmed the survivors and transported them to collective shelters in the wider area of Tuzla. Members of UNPROFOR /UN Protection Force/ were able to interview a number of them, and report their accounts to the mission’s leadership. The men interviewed estimated that up to 3,000 of the 12,000 to 15,000 in the column had either been killed during combat with the BSA /Bosnian Serb Army/ or when crossing over mines, while an undetermined number among them had also surrendered to the BSA.”[9]

A contemporaneous report from the UN Protection Force Civil Affairs office dated 17 July 1995 corroborates the findings of the Secretary General’s report and states that those who had arrived at the Tuzla Air Base from Srebrenica had said that up to 3,000 of those who left Srebrenica were killed on the way mostly by mines and engagement with the Bosnian-Serb army.[10]

In addition to official UN reports, a contemporaneous videotape of interviews with the men from the column as they arrived in Tuzla has surfaced at the ICTY. When asked “How many of you got killed?” one of the survivors says, “There are, perhaps, two thousand missing, two, three, even more perhaps. I don’t know how many exactly” and another survivor says, “around two or three thousand at least."[11]

Richard Butler, the ICTY prosecutor’s military expert, conceded that a number between 1,000 and 2,000 people from the column killed in combat engagements “sounds reasonable.”[12] Even though he later admitted that he “never did an analysis as to how many people from the column were killed as a result of the combat operations.”[13]

What Became of the Remains of the Combat Casualties?

At his war crimes trial former Bosnian-Serb president Radovan Karadzic asked Jean-Rene Ruez, the officer in charge of the ICTY prosecution’s Srebrenica investigation, the following question: “Where were the combat casualties buried in July 1995?”

Mr. Ruez answered, “This I don't know. I repeat, we were not looking for combat casualties but to identify the detention sites, the nearby execution sites, and the successive burial places of these prisoners.”[14]

What Ruez meant by “successive burial places” was the practice of exhuming and reburying Srebrenica massacre victims to conceal evidence of the killings. In ICTY jargon “primary graves” are the graves in which the victims were placed immediately after or at the time of their execution. A “secondary grave” is one in which the bodies are placed after they've been removed from the primary grave and placed into secondary graves.[15]

“Secondary” Graves May Not Be Secondary for Everyone in Them

Dr. William Haglund was the senior forensic advisor to the ICTY prosecutor and a forensic anthropologist who personally oversaw the ICTY’s exhumation of many Srebrenica-related graves. He was asked by Judge O-Gon Kwon of South Korea if it was possible that combat casualties could have been buried in secondary graves along with massacre victims exhumed from primary graves and Dr. Haglund admitted, “That's possible, yeah.”[16]

Judge Kwon also asked Dusan Janc, a Slovenian police inspector who investigated Srebrenica for the ICTY prosecutor, “if somebody might have brought some other corpses to [a] secondary grave, do you exclude that possibility?” And Janc also conceded “that possibility can't be excluded for sure.”[17]

In 2009 Janc prepared a report detailing the connections between the primary and the secondary graves.  According to the data published in his report, out of the 5,358 persons identified by DNA analysis as of 2009; more than two-thirds -- 3,582, were buried in secondary graves and the rest were either buried in primary graves or found on the surface. The remains of 517 people were found in more than one grave. There were 207 DNA connections between a primary grave and one or more secondary graves. There were 13 DNA connections between one primary grave and another primary grave, and were 297 DNA connections between one secondary grave and another secondary grave. [18]

There is no doubt that DNA and other forensic connections (soil, pollen, artifacts, etc…) exist between certain “primary” and “secondary” graves.  The question is to what degree the graves are connected to one another. Just because some of the bodies in a secondary grave are connected to a primary grave, it doesn’t mean that all of the bodies in that secondary grave came from the primary grave.  According to the data published in Annex C of Janc’s report, less than 6% of the bodies found in the secondary graves had a DNA connection to a primary grave.[19]

The Proximity of the Secondary Graves to Known Battle Fields

The possibility of combat casualties being placed in the secondary graves along with massacre victims is seems quite probable in light of the fact that the secondary graves are, without exception, located in the immediate vicinity (5 kilometers or less) of places where combat associated the fall of Srebrenica and combat associated with the column is known to have taken place.

The following map is an amalgamation of several maps tendered into evidence by prosecutors at the ICTY.[20] The yellow markers denote secondary graves and flames denote places where combat took place. Red markers denote primary disturbed graves where remains were taken from, and white markers denote primary undisturbed graves where no remains were taken. Red lines show the path taken by the column. The blue lines show the enclave boundary and the Bosnian Army’s forward lines around Tuzla. The orange lines are the positions held by the Bosnian-Serb army. The red shaded areas are where surface remains have been found.

View Larger Map

As you can see from the map, the secondary graves are located very close to the enclave boundary where fighting took place between July 6th when the Bosnian-Serb Army first attacked the enclave until July 11th when Srebrenica fell, or in areas where the column was known to have fought with the Bosnian-Serb Army on its trek towards Tuzla.

Put simply, the “secondary” graves are located in precisely the area where one would expect to find combat casualties associated with Srebrenica.

We know that there were thousands of combat casualties because the men from the column said so when they arrived in Tuzla. It would seem likely that those casualties would have been buried in graves close to where the fighting had taken place, which is exactly where the “secondary” graves are located.

Persons wishing to hide evidence of the massacre may have attempted to exploit battlefield clean-up operations in the weeks and months following the fighting by placing the remains of massacre victims in graves intended for the burial of combat casualties.

I say “attempted to exploit” because the people who attempted to re-bury the massacre victims did a rather sloppy job of it. Dusan Janc told the Tolimir trial chamber that of “the excavation of the primary graves, not a single one of these primary graves was a complete one. There were a lot of bodies left there, and a lot of bodies were taken apart, so a lot of body parts were found in these primary graves and also in the secondary graves. So that's how it was done. None of these primary graves was re-exhumed in its entirety.”[21]

The ICTY has collected thousands of documents and heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses about events surrounding the fall of Srebrenica. Unfortunately, very little information and testimony concerning the individuals who actually constructed these graves has been adduced and so we’re left to speculate about how the remains came to be in those graves. Are they combat casualties collected from the battlefield, or are they massacre victims robbed from primary graves in an effort to conceal evidence of killings?

Obviously it’s a combination of the two.  If the combat casualties weren’t buried in the graves in the immediate vicinity of where the fighting took place, then where did their bodies go? There weren’t thousands of remains left on the surface. The “secondary” graves are the only logical explanation for where their remains could have gone.

The Ratio of Combat Casualties to Massacre Victims

As I’ve previously documented, the most likely number of prisoners to have been captured by the Bosnian-Serb Army was between 3,000 and 4,000. [22]

The Serbs could not have executed more prisoners than they captured, and there is strong evidence that the number of prisoners taken to Zvornik was somewhere around 3,000.  

The only contemporaneous documentation that exists concerning the number of prisoners is the Zvornik Brigade’s July 18th combat report where Commander Vinko Pandurevic writes that “During the last ten days or so the municipality of Zvomik has been swamped with Srebrenica Turks (Muslims). It is inconceivable to me that someone brought in 3,000 Turks of military age and placed them in schools in the municipality, in addition to the 7,000 or so who have fled into the forests. This has created an extremely complex situation and the possibility of the total occupation of Zvornik.”[23]

If anything, Pandurevic’s estimate of 3,000 prisoners seems credible in light of the fact that the combined floor space of all the buildings in Zvornik that were used to detain the prisoners was only 1,866.91 square meters.[24] It would have been a pretty tight squeeze to cram 3,000 military aged men into that amount of space, but it’s possible.

Alija Izetbegovic himself estimated the number of massacre victims to be about 3,000. A month after the fall of Srebrenica Izetbegovic met with Haris Silajdzic and Rasim Delic at the Bosnian Presidency and he said: “The number of people killed is most probably somewhere around 3,000. This is the figure that has been mentioned from the first day there. In fact, we intercepted a very clear Chetnik (Serbian) telephone conversation, obviously authentic, where they say: ‘there was a massacre here yesterday. It was a real slaughterhouse.’ So, how many, 300? ‘No, add another zero’, said one Chetnik to the other. He was talking about the massacre of 3,000 people - one Chetnik to another.”

Izetbegovic reiterated that “This is according to the Chetnik information, which in this case could be the most reliable. This is their information, where they speak to one another about what happened. The man who took part in the massacre talked about it. He was telling someone else. This conversation is available if you are interested. It is one month old.”[25]

Unfortunately, no intercept resembling the one Izetbegovic is quoting from was ever tendered into evidence at the ICTY. The fact that Izetbegovic is quoting from an intercept that the Bosnian government never turned over to the ICTY is smoking gun evidence that they withheld intercepts that undermined their allegation of 8,000 massacre victims, but that’s another story.

It seems likely that the 3,000 prisoners in Pandurevic’s report are the same 3,000 people that were said to have been massacred in the intercept that Izetbegovic was quoting from.

Of course the 3,000 prisoners around Zvornik weren’t the only prisoners to be killed. There was also the massacre at Kravica warehouse. The Kravica warehouse had a total floor space of 589.5 square meters[26] and part of that space was occupied by material being stored inside of the warehouse.[27] This would suggest that the warehouse could have held up to 600 or 700 prisoners. There were also a few smaller incidents that all together total about 200 people, like Cerska, the infamous video of the six prisoners being executed by the Skorpions paramilitary group near Trnovo, etc… but the most significant episodes of mass killings associated with Srebrenica are by far what happened around Zvornik and at Kravica warehouse.

The ratio of combat casualties to massacre victims is probably somewhere in the 50/50 neighborhood. The total number of dead and missing is 7,661. There are credible reports of 2,000 to 4,000 members of the column getting killed in combat. The exact numbers are impossible to establish, but if you divide 7,661 in half you get 3,831 which falls within the range of 2,000 to 4,000 combat casualties and within the range of 3,000 to 4,000 massacre victims.

The figure of 8,000 Srebrenica massacre victims is every bit as exaggerated as the figure of 250,000 dead in the war itself. The evidence is there, and it’s only a matter of time until it the truth comes out. Even the ICTY itself is starting to backpedal. Eleven years after the Krstic “genocide” conviction was handed down, the Tolimir trial chamber estimated that the death toll of the massacre could have been as low as 4,970.[28] Their number is still too high, but at least it’s starting to approach the neighborhood of reality.

[1] Deutsche Presse-Agentur,  Bosnian war "claimed 100,000 lives," November 21, 2005

[2] ICTY Krstic Verdict, 2 August 2001, Para 598

[3] ICTY Tolimir Exhibit P01794

[5] Prosecutor v. Zdravko Tolimir, Prosecution's Final Trial Brief, para 378

See also: Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic, Judgment, 2 August 2001, Para. 66

[6] OTP military expert Richard Butler, ICTY Popovic trial transcript, 23 January 2008, pg. 20244-20245

[7] Lead prosecutor Peter McCloskey, ICTY Popovic trial transcript, 1 November 2006, pg. 3382

[8] Carl Bildt, Peace Journey: The struggle for peace in Bosnia, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1998, p. 66

[9] Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly resolution 53/35 The fall of Srebrenica, A/54/549, 15 November 1999, para 387

[10] ICTY Tolimir Exhibit P00588

[11] ICTY Tolimir Exhibit D00280, time code 00:12:09-00:12:30, 00:17:00-00:17:57

[12] OTP military expert Richard Butler, ICTY Popovic trial transcript, 23 January 2008, pg. 20251

[13] OTP military expert Richard Butler, ICTY Karadzic trial transcript, 20 April 2012, pg. 27775

[14] Chief OTP Srebrenica Investigator Jean-Rene Ruez, ICTY Karadzic trial transcript, 1 February 2012, pg. 24001

[15] Dean Manning, ICTY Krstic trial transcript, 26 May 2000, pg. 3551-3552

[16] Dr. William Haglund, ICTY Karadzic trial transcript, 31 January 2012, pg. 23953

[17] Dusan Janc, ICTY Popovic trial transcript, 01 May 2009, pg. 33543-33545

[18] ICTY Popovic exhibit P04490

[19] Ibid., Annex C (207 ÷ 3,582 = 5.78%)

[20] Krstic exhibit P00159 (Map of enclave boundary, and Route taken by column according to prosecution witness R), Popovic exhibit P02996 (Map showing location of primary and secondary graves), Krstic exhibit P00002 (Map produced by Bosnian Serb Army showing route taken by column, Confrontation lines, Where the VRS entered the enclave, and where the Bosnian Serb Army had its positions), Krstic exhibit P00549 (Map produced by Richard Butler showing enclave boundary and locations where combat took place on 14 July 1995), Krstic exhibit P00613 (Map produced by Richard Butler showing enclave boundary and locations where combat took place on 15 through 16 July 1995), Map produced by the Bosnian Government in cooperation with the ICMP showing locations were surface remains were found.

[21] Dusan Janc, ICTY Tolimir transcript, 14 May 2010, pg. 1784

[23] ICTY Popovic Exhibit P00334

[24] ICTY Popovic Exhibit 4D00653

[25] ICTY Oric Exhibit D300

[26] ICTY Popovic Exhibit P04529

[27] PW-111, ICTY Popovic trial transcript, 7 February 2007, pg. 6988

[28] ICTY Tolimir Judgment, 12 December 2012, Para. 570



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