SARAJEVO/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Mirsad Tokaca calls it the “crowning achievement” of 10 years of painstaking research - thousands of grey pages bearing the names of 95,940 victims of the Bosnian war, where they died and when.
Published last month, war crimes researchers say The Bosnian Book of the Dead represents the most comprehensive statistical analysis yet of the bloodshed in Bosnia after federal Yugoslavia fell apart at the close of the 20th century.
For Tokaca, 58, it’s the ultimate answer to political leaders across the countries carved from Yugoslavia who still dispute the crimes committed, the numbers killed and who bore the blame when their joint state collapsed.
“You can’t deny the crime if you determine the exact number of victims,” the former journalist and businessman told Reuters. “Nobody has done anything like this. It’s unique.”
Rights activists say an accurate picture of what went on in the Bosnian, Croatian and Kosovan wars of the 1990s is vital to the slow process of reconciliation in the Balkans, a region still scarred but seeking to join the European mainstream.
The European Union’s external borders will reach Bosnia in July, when neighboring Croatia becomes the bloc’s 28th member.
But the book, whose title recalls the funerary texts that ancient Egyptians believed guided the deceased in the afterlife, almost never came about.
For years, a state commission tasked with gathering data on war crimes was starved of funding by Bosnia’s central government, an uneasy alliance of the Serb, Croat and Muslim former warring sides.
With thousands of files at risk of falling into disrepair, Tokaca, a former member of the commission, established the Identification and Documentation Centre and launched the book project in 2003 with the help of foreign donors.
He took on the records, but was shunned by the state when he asked for funding to continue the research, “probably because they couldn’t dictate what it would look like,” he said.
Amid a row with donors over how the money was being spent, the book was finally published with the help of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, run by Serbian rights campaigner Natasa Kandic.
“The (Bosnian) state was never interested in taking on that huge documentation,” Kandic told Reuters in Belgrade. “If it wasn’t for Tokaca, I believe the files would have fallen apart.”
The book’s four hardback volumes list almost 100,000 dead, civilian and military, in alphabetical order, their ethnicity, and when and where they died. It provides a chilling picture of the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Roughly half the dead were civilians, while 82 percent of those were Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks). Some 10,000 women were killed, again the majority Bosniaks. Of 24,000 Serb dead, 20,000 were soldiers.
The facts do not alter the narrative of the war as accepted in the West.
But it is another part of a campaign by the likes of Kandic and Tokaca to reconcile Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks around a common view of what went on when Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of Belgrade, seized and “ethnically cleansed” swathes of Bosnia after it voted to secede from Yugoslavia.
They laid siege to the once multi-ethnic capital Sarajevo for 43 months, killing, according to the book, 14,000 people. Croatia, too, helped foment the fighting on behalf of the Bosnian Croats.
Kandic said a similar project was underway in Kosovo and another planned in Croatia, with the aim of creating a complete registry of the dead from Yugoslavia’s collapse.
“It will be a first in the history of the Balkans and the world, and we will know what our legacy is,” Kandic said. “Names close down the room for manipulation of numbers, for minimizing other victims and inflating one’s own.”
Tokaca’s research had already halved the estimated number of Bosnian war dead from an earlier figure of 200,000, stirring controversy in a country still hamstrung by ethnic division and conflicting narratives of the conflict.
Besides the book’s 95,940 dead, another 5,100 are named but the circumstances of their deaths have yet to be established.
Tokaca, a Bosniak, said he believed the book would serve as a model for other conflict regions such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria, which is in the grips of an increasingly sectarian conflict often compared to Bosnia in its complexity and big-power inertia.
Without an accurate picture of the human toll, Tokaca believes reconciliation is impossible.
“You can’t preach against war and explain to people what war is without demonstrating the price of war in terms of human lives alone,” he said.
Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Michael Holden