What we can learn from the dead in Syria

Published April 1st, 2015 - 01:09 GMT

Last week in “The numbers game: Counting the dead in Syria” Al Bawaba investigated who is counting Syria’s dead and what methods they are using to address major discrepancies in reported death tolls.

Syria is now in its fifth year of a bloody crisis that has claimed thousands upon thousands of lives; the latest and most quoted figure from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights exceeding 210,000.

Aside from the variation in numbers and the variation in counting techniques, questions remain: What do these numbers actually reveal about the conflict? Who is being killed, where and how? Are certain groups more vulnerable than others? The last point is of particular importance in Syria, where both rebel and government forces have been accused of using unethical arms, such as chemical weapons.

And one question stands out more than most: Does counting the dead actually matter?

What do the numbers show?

Numbers don’t just reflect how many are people dying, but paint a vivid picture of who, where and when deaths are occurring.

In 2011 protests that started in Daraa quickly spread across Syria’s towns and cities. Government forces were unrelenting and unforgiving in much of their response. Firing on protesters to quell the demonstrations soon turned into intensified ground assaults, city blockades and sweeping arrests that resulted in mass killings.

By 2012 the country had plunged into civil war, but the battleground was still changing massively. That January, a fledgling Jabat al-Nusra carried out its first suicide attack in the country on several police buses in central Damascus headed to squash an anti-government riot, according to a Stanford University project that maps militant groups in the country. Like many that happened in the conflict’s early days, the al-Qaeda affiliate’s first attack targeted military or security personnel. But the conflict changed again, increasingly targeting civilians.

Who are the victims?

2013 saw the country’s borders flooded with foreign fighters with interests spanning the opposition, the Assad regime and other plans entirely, a process that still rages on today. Non-militants have been at the center.

“Since the outset, civilians have borne the brunt of the suffering inflicted by the warring parties,” according to a report released in February by the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. The Commission noted that earlier bombings of 2011 and 2012 were mostly directed against military or security targets, like Nusra’s Damascus attack. But this is no longer the case.

For example, In 2014 terrorist groups killed scores of civilians with suicide and car bombs in the governorates of Homs and Hama.

The general trend has been picked up by monitoring groups and is backed up by SJAC: “Now all parties are committing violations. … The vast majority of the victims are actually civilians.”

Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) stated in its report last year that it was clear from all the groups’ numbers, that more men were dying than women. 85.1 percent of their figures were male victims, 9.3 percent female victims.

Yet other groups have noticed a change in this split, with the percentage of women being killed creeping up. According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, more than double the women have been killed by the regime this year compared with 2013-2014.

What’s the cause of death?

The government’s armed tactics have also changed, as has the response to the violence and the fragmented landscape on which it unfolds. Gun shots are still the most common causes of death, according to monitoring group Syria Tracker. Yet torture, aerial bombardment and even the use of chemical agents have shaped the way the war is fought and how people have died.

At Syria Tracker, deaths are grouped into cause-of-death categories such as "artillery," “bombardment" or "torture," making it easier to spot trends or patterns. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has similar categories such as explosion, field execution, gunshot.

They also paint a portrait of where, when and why killings are happening. In its 2014 annual report, the Syrian Human Rights Committee said violations tended to drop when international talks were taking place, but increase following opposition advancement on an area or before the Syrian army’s attacks.

Why do the numbers matter?

Syria is in the midst of a full-blown war and no one knows when peace will come. The number of deaths is uncertain. No one denies that atrocities are being carried out; TV screens and news columns are filled with photos and reports of suffering. But apart from the chilling reminder of a bloodbath taking place within Syria’s borders, is it really necessary to count how many people have died and how they died? Does the death toll really matter?

Yes, it does — and for different reasons.

Firstly, groups count to remember the dead. Of course most people are familiar with the famous quote by former communist leader Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” While the catastrophe in Syria hasn’t yet killed millions, the meaning of the saying is painfully relevant.  

When the first people were killed after protests turned to violence in Syria back in 2011, the news was met with shock, condemnation and sadness. As the death toll rose and the news of killings became more common, the shock factor disappeared. On top of this the news of Daesh’s infamous and rapid rise started to dominate headlines, shifting focus to a new side of Syria’s crisis. The number of dead became just that — a number.

But behind the death toll, there are moms, dads, daughters, sons, friends and colleagues. There are families mourning for their loved ones that the world seems to have forgotten. Some groups that have gone to great lengths to remember those that died, to preserve their names and their memories.

Such was the goal of an initiative launched by a small group of Syrians called “How Many  More?” They take the conflict’s memorial to social media, tweeting the names of thousands of Syrians who have died since the fighting broke out.

To mark the fourth anniversary of the conflict earlier this month, supporters and members of the group stood in front of the White House to read the names of 100,000 Syrians who have been killed. Each day was dedicated to various groups killed in Syria.

Counting the dead also has more practical implications. In a conflict that, according to the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil protection, has triggered the world's largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, documenting casualties allows humanitarian organizations to chart where and what kind of assistance is needed, and can provide insight into what’s next to occur.

Can data keep groups accountable?

It’s hard to imagine post-conflict Syria right now, but when that time comes the evidence collected about those that have been killed will serve to help prosecute perpetrators of violence.

In February, UN investigators announced that they were considering publishing names of around 200 alleged war criminals. “It is unconscionable that Syrians should continue to suffer as they have for the last four years and have to live in a world where only limited attempts have been made to return Syria to peace, and to seek justice for the victims,” said Paulo Sergio Pinheiro,  who heads a commission that looks into Syrian human rights abuses.

The Commission’s report stated that it hoped putting alleged perpetrators “on notice” would act as a deterrent to people committing such crimes and “help to protect people at risk of abuse.”

Although people are dying, the sense of justice people hold is not. Many people are optimistic that collecting data now will make prosecution easier when eventually peace comes to war-ridden Syria.

One group, Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), collects and preserves its data for when justice mechanisms are established. With the advent of new technologies, a lack of documentation is not the problem. The groups director, Mohammad al-Abdallah, told Al Bawaba that documentation is “also very important for any truth telling mechanisms in the future, [as] having a reasonable transition plan would require sufficient amount of documentation.”

But justice and accountability can mean different things to different people, especially given a backdrop of mass killings, torture and indiscriminate bombing campaigns. “It could mean, simply, learning what really happened. Accountability could also mean a criminal trial for perpetrators. Or it might mean having the worst perpetrators removed from public office,” HRDAG says on its website.

Whether it’s about honoring the dead, tracking down those responsible, or simply understanding the volatile landscape faced by civilians still living inside Syria, documenting death in Syria, and knowing what killed them has become a necessity in a war that shows no signs of slowing down.


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