Middle East Voices, along with SyriaTracker and the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, has undertaken a crowdsourced effort to highlight the human cost of the conflict in Syria. Through our Syria – Faces of the Fallen initiative we hope to collect images and videos to provide a glimpse into the lives of the fallen, no matter what their past allegiance. Please help us replace sterile statistics with human faces by spreading the word about the project on your Facebook page or via Twitter using the hashtag #facesofthefallen.
The number of people who have died in Syria since the current conflict in that country began on March 15 of last year has become a yardstick for human tragedy.
To opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that yardstick represents the extremes to which a government will go to preserve a family’s monopoly on rule in this country of 22.5 million. To Assad and his supporters death statistics seem to be testimony to what “terrorists” and other enemies of the regime will resort to for the sake of destabilization and destruction.
Many organizations and activists inside and outside the country have tried to track the deaths, regardless of victims’ allegiances. But as the numbers started to grow, a regime that has governed with the help of emergency laws for more than four decades has made the endeavor difficult by restricting foreign media access to Syria and shutting off communications with most of the world.
Blurry, yet chilling numbers
In the absence of an official death toll, numerous efforts have been underway to keep track of the numbers of the fallen. A ranking United Nations official on February 28 put the number at “well over 7,500.” The statement signaled an apparent policy reversal as in mid-December, frustrated by a lack of access, the U.N. said it was stopping the count, which at the time had reached 5,400.
At the same time, SyriaTracker, which describes itself as a crowdsourced effort by individuals concerned about the harm inflicted upon civilians in Syria, on February 27 put the number of those who have died in the 11-month conflict at 9,571.
Many of the statistics include dead government soldiers. Amnesty International says it counts only civilian deaths and puts that total at “around the 6,000 mark,” according to Phil Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa reporting.
The only time the Syrian government has publicly estimated losses among its troops and security forces, it put the figure at 2,000, but that was several months ago. Still, even outside counts that would include any armed combatants can sometimes offer only a blurry picture as often it’s impossible to tell whether the fallen were defending the regime, were killed for refusing to obey orders or had defected to the opposition Free Syrian Army.
Beyond the numbers
But numbers give only part of the story. There is a bigger picture that needs to be considered, experts say.
“The point for us is to focus on the scale of the human rights violations,” says Luther of Amnesty International. In addition to evidence of civilian deaths, Amnesty tries to assess whether the individual’s death is a violation of his or her human rights. They seek assurance, for example, that the civilian was unarmed. “Not all killings are illegal,” Luther adds.
Numbers can also have a sterilizing effect.
“The number is not everything. The numbers tend to dehumanize the victims, actually. And the bigger the number the more dehumanized it becomes,” says Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“You can sympathize with the story of one person or one person or one family, what happens to them. When it becomes 5,000, 6,000, 20,000, 100,000 it becomes just a number. Our constant obsession with numbers can sometimes blur the picture,” says Colville.
The numbers tend to dehumanize the victims, actually. And the bigger the number the more dehumanized it becomes, – Rupert Colville of the UN High Commission for Human Rights
But statistics can also be a major instrument in building a case against a repressive government. When spread through the media they can influence not only public perception, but also be instrumental for foreign governments trying to determine when to close embassies, implement economic sanctions, offer support for domestic and/or expatriate opposition parties or an armed insurrection, create corridors for humanitarian relief, establish no-fly zones or coordinate and execute armed intervention. Ultimately, reliable statistics can also assist the International Criminal Court to identify where to start investigating possible charges of crimes against humanity.
Highlighting the human side
Keeping track of the fallen is valuable also from a human aspect. Just as Americans felt they needed to pay proper homage to those killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, so do Syrians need to memorialize their dead.
“It’s true,” said Rafif Jouejati, a Syrian-American living in Washington, D.C, who speaks for Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) – an umbrella organization that manages a network of political and human rights activities in nine cities in Syria and in the governates of Damascus and its populous suburbs.
“This [for Syrians] is the tragedy of 9/11. Every American knows where they were on 9/11 and consider that every day is 9/11 in Homs. Or in Hama or in Dera’a or in Der Ezzor,” said Jouejati.“We might get numb to numbers,” said Jouejati, “but when you think of 9,000 people, think that each one of those people had a life. Each one had parents, a child or children, had a job or was a student. We will never know what those people could have done with their lives.”
Every American knows where they were on 9/11 and consider that every day is 9/11 in Homs. Or in Hama or in Dera’a or in Der Ezzor,” – Rafif Jouejati, Local Coordination Committees of Syria
At the same time, the LCC does not discount that statistics are also important for legal reasons. Jouejati anticipates that the body count will be of tremendous value if Assad and members of his family and administration end up in a Hague courtroom.
“The numbers are important because every number, every person killed, is another crime committed by this regime. When we hold Assad and his operatives accountable, we need as exact a number as we can to know how many counts of murder he is being charged with,” said she.
Counting the dead can be fatal
Many of the expatriate organizations tracking fatalities in Syria rely on unpaid volunteers who monitor events and count deaths on the ground, sending in their reports by phone or via the Internet. Some risk detection by using even satellite phones and most use smart phones with sim cards purchased from another country to avoid being traced by pro-government outfits such as the Syrian Electronic Army. Most monitors, like the ones working for Syrian Shuhada have managed to avoid the Syrian government’s savvy technology experts by using equally sophisticated methods to collect and publish the names of the dead, city by city, day by day. Collected information the then distribute to international media.
Mousab Azzawi, who until recently was active as a coordinator for the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and now represents the Syria Network for Human Rights, says his organization has 129 monitors working inside Syria.
Jouejati would not disclose the number of volunteers compiling statistics for the LCC. The numbers, she said, fluctuate from week to week because some die in street battles or are detained by Syrian authorities.
Azzawi said he knows of 12 monitors who have died during the past nine months: six were filming a June 18 demonstration, three died in a five-day period in Hama, two died in November in Homs, and one was shot while trying to stream video in Dera’a.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.