"Crime is committed against victims, against people. So if you have no names and no truth about these people, how could you provide justice?",
Mirsad Tokača, Director of the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo, a member of our International Practitioner Network of casualty recorders.
ORG in Conversation with Mirsad Tokača: Truth Seeking, Truth Telling and Truth Keeping in Bosnia is the second in our interview series with leading experts on casualty recording around the world.
Mirsad Tokača is Director of the Research and Documentation Center (RDC) in Sarajevo, which is a member of our International Practitioner Network, hosted on www.everycasualty.org, and facilitated by our Recording Casualties of Armed Conflict programme (RCAC). Mirsad has also been an advisor to the RCAC programme since its early stages.
Through careful research over a number of years, the RDC has documented around 100,000 individuals’ deaths from the conflict in Bosnia 1991-95. One aim of this work is to contribute to processes of Transitional Justice in a society with a deeply contested recent past, through providing solid records, and hence, truth.
Elizabeth Minor interviewed Mirsad Tokača on 4 May 2011, whilst he was on a visit to London. Listen to the interview or read the transcript below.
Elizabeth Minor: Welcome, Mirsad and thank you for talking to Oxford Research Group as part of our ORG in Conversation series. So firstly could you tell me a little about what RDC is and what kind of work you do.
Mirsad Tokača: So, RDC was founded in 2004, April 2004, as an independent non-partisan research orientated organisation with, let’s say, several focuses.
We focus on truth seeking, truth telling and truth keeping. When we are talking about truth telling, it is in fact part of our effort to reach as much as possible the range of facts and information about the causes and consequences of war in the region, but especially, and particularly, concerning war in Bosnia, or against Bosnia, and to create truth based on facts. This is the philosophy of RDC. Simply, when we are talking about facts, it is very important to point out that we’ve gathered and recorded facts about the consequences of war, including war casualties, i.e. all 'Human Losses' [the Human Losses project is the RDC’s project to record every casualty in Bosnia, 1991-95]. And, on the other side, we are gathering facts about the causes of war. What produced such bloody, terrible conflict, with 100,000 persons killed, half of them civilians? And then, what produced the consequences of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity?
We have to preserve memory of victims…we want to prevent ourselves from forgetting these victims.
Then, as a research organisation, we have facts, which will be used and were used by different court organisations. ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] used our data. Special Chamber for War Crimes in Bosnia used our data. On a daily basis, we have contact with the judiciary in Bosnia and the international judiciary. So, it is very important to have facts, when we are talking about the Transitional Justice process, -statements from witnesses, evidence, in order to have the documentary basis when we are talking about truth seeking and truth telling. [There is] interconnection between fact finding missions and public expression of what we found.
Truth keeping: All documents, all facts and the results of our research in our archive help to 'keep truth' as a part of some kind of memorial. We now keep something that we call digital memorial – the Bosnian War Crimes Atlas [a google maps application to represent RDC’s data on war incidents and victims graphically] as well as, oral history projects, like Positive Stories: Examples of people who [took] risks for each other, helped each other during the war as a positive example of human relations in Bosnia. We worked to affirm these examples to show that war is not a black and white picture. There are other examples, who can contribute to reconciliation, confidence building in Bosnian society. So we could define RDC also as an organisation that has, as one of its very important aims, the contribution to memorialisation of war events.
EM: So, you are engaged with ORG, because of your work specifically on the Human Losses project and the casualty recording. So, can you tell me, why did you believe it was so important to document human losses in Bosnia?
MT: Not only in Bosnia, but all around the world. There are several reasons. First of all, we have to preserve the memory of victims. People are killed. As I mentioned, the majority are civilians, innocent people who were killed for different reasons. So we want to prevent that these victims are forgotten. Then we want to send an anti-war message. We could not resolve any political and social problem with force and war. Additionally, we need to, of course, and above all, [get information] about victims. Because crime is committed against victims, against people, so if you have no names and no truth about these people, how could you provide justice and all other dimensions of memorialisation and et cetera, et cetera. So, how can we do justice generally in society, if we have no relation with people who were killed during the war?
Today, you couldn’t find politicians in Bosnia, who mention other than our numbers of victims in Bosnia
So then we have a different kind of manipulation with numbers and with victims. We wanted to eliminate especially this ideological manipulation and this discrimination of victims based on ethnic, religious, political, social grounds. So we focused on citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we considered cooperation with Oxford Research Group and many other organisations. For our focus on victims and recording war casualties, this very important. We have to share experience and knowledge to stick together on something that is every day more and more global. We have conflict all around the world, and very rarely, precisely established identities of victims. And, it was our aim to have photos and information about victims, e.g. where they are buried, who they were in fact, the personal history of these victims.
EM: Yes. So what would you say have been the benefits of your work to people in Bosnia so far?
MT: There are several benefits. First of all, we will remember all these victims that were killed. Secondly, we will prevent Bosnian society from different kinds of ideological and political manipulation with numbers. Thirdly, I mentioned that people, who were really killed as civilians, as protected persons, according to international law, have to receive some kind of benefits and compensation. Not only financial compensation but recognition of suffering, different monuments around the country - moral compensation is now also very important. So, if you have no data, if you have no documents about these victims, how can we provide all these benefits and then compensation for victims?
This cooperation with Oxford Research Group and some other members of this network is to share all this information and experiences and to push things further.
So, this means direct benefits for Bosnian society, and not only for Bosnian society. I think that the example we started in Bosnia is now implemented in Croatia, in Kosovo, and I expect in many other countries in which we have conflict, especially armed conflict. This has to be done. But also, one of the things of this cooperation with Oxford Research Group and some other members of this network is to share all this information and experiences and to push things further.
EM: Yes, through this we could have more impact from our work.
MT: Yes, if we do, we can make an impact for local communities but also worldwide.
EM: Yes. So also I imagine you’ve had some kind of resistance and hostility to your work in Bosnia. So what kind of difficulties have you faced?
MT: So, in every post conflict society, especially post communist countries and less developed democratic societies, you always have problems with transparency, with the democratisation process, with the monopolisation of different processes, and what was the problem, in my opinion, is that our research was totally open. We didn’t want to close anything, to monopolise, to keep far from the public. Also the transparency of project, total insight into every single stage of project was our methodological approach. Then on the other side, you have monopolies over historical facts, we have a monopoly of political positions, we have a monopoly of power, more or less in every single society. So it’s a conflict between two concepts – on one side the concept of democratic, human rights, access to information and transparency of research, especially in social sciences. On the other side, still old fashioned academics and politicians who want to keep everything under their control and, of course, have a monopoly over information. And, additionally, these monopolies will allow them easy manipulation. Manipulation with feelings, manipulation with numbers, manipulation with power et cetera, et cetera. We wanted to break this cycle of monopoly, and I think it was very successful. Because today, you couldn’t find politicians in Bosnia, who mention other than our numbers of victims in Bosnia. Changing this was a huge impact from our side and a contribution to Bosnian society.
EM: That’s a very great achievement, I would say. So, just lastly, tell me, what are RDC’s plan and vision for the future, what are you doing?
MT: So, as you probably know, the Bosnian War Crime Atlas is a digital memorial we started to build three years ago. It’s the main programme activity. Towards the end of this year, we will finish the digitalisation of our archive with United States Institute of Peace (USIP) support. In the next two or three years, we will continue with several projects, but the Bosnian War Crime Atlas is the main one. It is a digital memorial we want to build for Bosnian citizens to ensure full access to information and documents we possess in RDC.
EM: Thank you very much for talking to ORG.
MT: You’re Welcome.