Counting under fire: the untold story of Syria's casualty data

Annie Slemrod

Middle East Editor

Counting the dead in a warzone as complex as Syria is so challenging that the UN abandoned the task in early 2014, saying it could no longer stand by the accuracy of its source material.

But several other organisations are determined to keep tallying casualties to the best of their abilities, even if these are hampered in numerous ways by the continuing conflict.

Data from four such groups, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), and the Syrian Center for Statistics and Research (SCSR), formed the basis of a report – which also took into account the Syrian government’s figures -- commissioned by the UN and published last year which said that between March 2011 and April 2014 there had been 191,369 documented violent deaths in Syria related to the conflict.

IRIN spoke to three of these organisations about their work. (The Observatory declined to comment for this article.)

“Sometimes we go to see bodies, we check photos, ask families and speak to hospitals,” said Bassam al-Ahmad, Turkey-based spokesman for VDC, which pays 15 trained researchers inside Syria to gather and where necessary double-check casualty data from doctors, hospitals and other sources.

VDC’s own total number of dead since March 2011, when nonviolent protests against Bashar al-Assad began to turn into all-out war, is 124,388, including 88,713 civilians.

A stark illustration of the challenges of this line of work came in December 2013, when the VDC’s head, human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, was abducted at the organisations’s Douma headquarters. She has not been heard from since.

Identifying civilians

Distinguishing civilian from combatant casualties is an important but difficult task, one which VDC does its best to accomplish by getting as much information as possible from witnesses and other sources.

As Ahmad noted, combatants do not necessarily have to carry weapons to be counted as such.

“When the spokesman for [militant Islamist group] Jaysh al-Islam was killed, he’s not a fighter but he was counted as a combatant,” he said.

“Lots of [former] civilians are combatants now,” said Wael Ajeli, spokesman for SNHR, which reports 179,291 civilian deaths in Syria since March 2011.

They “picked up arms to fight the [Assad] regime and joined different groups,” he added, explaining that some had since “tried to reintegrate into civilian life.”

Mind the gaps

The differences between organisations’ body counts is partly attributable to their varying level of presence across Syria.

“We are weak in Raqqa,” Ahmad said of the northern city dominated by the so-called Islamic State (IS). But better in other areas, such as the northeastern province of Hassakah. “There’s one guy there who spends all day collecting this kind of information.”

The SOHR, whose Syrian network is coordinated from London, and which says a quarter of a million people, including 115,627 Syrian civilians, have been killed in the war, is “stronger than us in some areas,” according to Ahmad. He added: “we can bring in information from some places that they can’t.”

Some 6.5 million people in Syria are internally displaced. Such large-scale forced population movements, said Ahmad, make it “hard to find people who are living a normal life,” with settled networks of contacts and regular access to the internet to report in on their findings.

Tareq Bilal, the SCRS’s Germany-based general director, said his group has 122 volunteer researchers inside Syria, spanning all of the country’s 14 governorates except Tartous and Suweida. The group has counted 117,089 civilian deaths so far.

SCRS categorizes its sources as primary – mainly its own researchers and trusted eyewitnesses – and secondary – which include less reliable witnesses, government death lists, and media reports.

Two sources, at least one of which is primary, are needed before SCRS includes a reported fatality in its public lists. Other reports are recorded, but not made public. For Bilal, such rigour is important, because “you want to get as close to the truth as possible.”

Challenges

But even getting to the scene of a killing is often a challenge.

“Sometimes a violation takes place a long distance away and you need a car to get there,” Bilal said, explaining that sometimes “we just don’t have enough cameras, papers and pens.”

And there are times when the war interferes more dramatically. Bilal told of a researcher whose attempts to upload fresh data into an overseas server was thwarted when a shell struck his office. The researcher survived, he said, but “we lost a huge amount of information and data to that.” As a result, the lost information is excluded from SCRS tallies.

While the researcher’s office may not have been deliberately targeted because of his work, all the groups IRIN spoke to said they faced hostility from various parties to the war.

Targeted

“We are not very popular with anybody, either the regime or the armed opposition, because it is a nasty conflict, it's a dirty conflict and lots of parties are involved,” SNHR’s Aleji told IRIN.

“I would assume none of them want human rights activists observing and documenting violations and abuses and counting the numbers of detainees, of incidents of enforced disappearances, and the casualties.”

Ahmad agreed, noting that IS had “targeted media, activists and documenters systematically” in Aleppo and Raqqa, where “they are worse than the [Assad] regime. One of Ahmad’s workers was abducted from Raqqa in January 2014, he says, and has not returned.

Bilal also recounted the targeting of “many” researchers, some of whom had been arrested and “some are still arrested, we don’t know if they are still alive.” He said one of his researchers was killed by IS.

"We are not popular with anybody, either the regime or the armed opposition, because it is a nasty conflict, it's a dirty conflict, and lots of parties are involved."

A less violent form of hostility against these groups is a frequent accusation that the source of their funding, and their status as activists, means they are biased in favour of the opposition. In response, Bilal said SCRS’s “human rights work,” including counting the dead, was carried out by volunteers so didn’t require funding. Other research they perform, including surveys, requires funding from sources he did not name. Aleji at the SNHR said: “we don’t use any support from a government or organization, we are totally independent.” The VDC could not be reached for comment on its funding.

Undercounting

All three groups which spoke to IRIN said conditions on the ground and their own stringent verification requirements made it impossible to count or reliably list all the dead.

“We are sure the real number is higher than what we have,” Ahmad said.

They are especially likely to be undercounting in areas controlled by IS and by the government, notably with regard to the deaths of government troops.

Of government-dominated areas such as Damascus, Aleji said, “you can’t really collect as much data … you can’t access all locations and people are more scared and afraid to talk to you. It takes more time and effort and resources to gather data… But it is possible and we are still doing it.”

Ahmad said gathering data in IS-controlled territory was also very challenging.

Equally plausible


Far from being flawed because of their limitations, the data sets from these groups are similar enough to be “equally plausible,” according to Megan Price, director of research at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which published last year’s report commissioned by the UN.

Price agreed that all the groups were probably undercounting the casualties, and were doing so “in unpredictable and varied amounts over time and place."

“What that means is that when we make maps and graphs, those are descriptions of patterns of reporting, not descriptions of patterns of violence,” she added.

The datasets include various permutations of names, ages, causes of death, locations, and photos. Some of the groups also record information on allegations of torture and forced disappearances.

As well as offering a permanent record to victims’ families, the information collected by these groups could contribute to longer-term accountability.

“We don’t have access to courts,” explained Bilal, “but we are counting on the fact that we will in the future.”

Investigators with similar ambitions have been working in Syria for several years.

See: The beginnings of transitional justice in Syria

“There’s lots of things that need to be done better” with data gathering in Syria, Stephen Rapp, the United States’ former ambassador-at-large for war crimes, recently pointed out at a London event.

“But it’s great that something is happening and that we’re collecting information, and my own instinct is that if you have very strong evidence, it’s hard to push that under the rug,” he added.

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