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Casualty Count

More than 65,000 deaths! Is it correct? How about injured? Disappeared?

by Lakshan Dias, TamilWeek, April 6, 2007

I brought this introduction to project on the irrationality in the commonly used Casualty Count (death count) of the Sri Lankan Civil War...

“It is likely that many, if not most, civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.”...

[T]he baseline mortality rate calculated in the war-torn districts prior to conflict then can be compared with the excess mortality rate during the conflict...

Such analysis will for sure increase the casualty totals to above 100,000 or much higher than that.


War is neither an event of words nor does it takes place within a stadium, where it is limited to certain boundaries with non-tangible volumes. Instead, it takes the entire space of the world as its battleground, giving prominence to certain strategic areas as war fronts. This is valid to protracted civil war in Sri Lanka, irrespective of its size compare to the war in Iraq. There won’t be wars of the David or Goliath type that decided the fate of their nations. Strategic interests of the warring parties drags war beyond its traditional limits and drags in all kinds of things from Ekle brooms to A380 aircraft. Generally a war affects any one, irrespective of whether they are related or unrelated. Even though warring partys eulogize their own achievements, in many ways lost are the most visible factor in post-war situations.

I brought this introduction to project on the irrationality in the commonly used Casualty Count (death count) of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Very recently the BBC reported that the Iraq war had caused 650,000 deaths at a rate of 500 lives per day since American forces invaded Iraq 4 years back. They further say that 80 % of the Iraqi people feel that it’s not a safe place to live. Also they reported that there are nearly 2 Million people living in Syria itself as refugees. “What’s the use of these figures after people have lost their lives” is a thought that someone may raise, obviously. In a counter argument, some other person may raise another argument that supports a casualty count, as these figures will help to project the brutality and inhuman behavior of warring parties to all humankind towards prevention of such things in the future.

Casualty Count

As they did in Iraq, it's essential for us to find out what’s the real casualty count of the Sri Lankan Civil war. For the last ten years writers, NGOs, the international community, the government of Sri Lanka and foreign governments have read the casualty count as “ more than 65,000 lives “ as human levy.

How they calculated the casualty numbers can be an interesting matter to discuss for all interested parties, and here with I share some facts from the Iraq death count used as supporting facts to initiate such a discourse.

Oct 27 2006 Colombo Sri Lanka demonstration of 750 parents & friends of the disappeared
750 friends and parents of the disappeared participated in a silent demonstration held near the Monument for the Disappeared, despite heavy rain throughout the day-Oct 27, 2006: HA

The project in Iraq, called the “Iraq Body Count” Project counted those deaths attributable to coalition and insurgent military action, sectarian violence and increased criminal violence. The project uses reports from English-language news media (including Arabic media translated into English). Again the same organisation laments that “It is likely that many, if not most, civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.”

Another project done by “The Lancet” proposed more horrendus information on the same matter. “The Lancet” is one of the oldest peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, published weekly by Elsevier. Estimates of casualty levels are available from reporters on the scene, from officials of involved organizations, and from groups that summarize information on incidents reported in the news media.

There is a vast contrast in the Iraq death total in these two repoerts. These estimates range from approximately 60,000 civilian deaths (Iraq Body Count project) to 655,000 total excess deaths due to the war (second Lancet survey of mortality).

It's true that we cannot get the most accurate results, but we need to present a clear total based one or another indicators.


The word “casualties” in its most general sense includes the injured as well as the dead.

One prime concern is that we need to pay attention to is what are the indicators that we are going to use to describe casualties in our casualty count. Is it only those injuries serious enough to put a combatant out of commission that are to be counted? Or do illnesses, or injuries caused by accidents in the northeast, count? Or those wounded by hostile engagements and bomb blasts? Or are disapearances in Colombo, or children and mothers who died due malnutrition in the Wanni district or border villages also counted?

These casualty figures won't cause any negative impression to the seriousness and the negative impact of the war if the numbers are smaller, but the numbers will clearly indicate the real cost, which is much higher than we expect.

In Sri Lanka we are living with many very old figures. Some people argue war doesn’t exceeding traffic deaths or deaths by suicide, but the difference is, in the war, the majority of these casualties are not just accidents, but deliberate actions against humanity whether by malnutrition or bomb blast. Many deaths are unreported, and to include those deaths not directly attributable to violence, but nevertheless the result of the conflict through indirect means, such as starvation by food shortages and embargoes, snake bites due to spending nights in the bush because of life threats by warring parties in the war-torn areas, deaths due to lack of transportation and/or unavailability of medical care, etc, need to be counted as casualties and added to the human cost of the War.

Eg: the baseline mortality rate calculated in the war-torn districts prior to conflict then can be compared with the excess mortality rate during the conflcit and the outcome may be attributed to the presence of the conflict, directly or indirectly. In this way, the human cost of the war will raise into higher numbers. These numbers need to be audited constantly and open to the public for further additions and amendments.

We all know that people are dying every day, but sometimes various groups with ulterior motives try to narrow down those casualties as damages to the enemies by using patriotism. Attitude and mindset changes can be promoted by a proper casualty count, as it will open a national discourse of casualties and indicators.

There are jokes that if someone counts all the Sri Lankan State media figures [for casualties - probably author means of Tiger combatants killed] for the last 30 years, the total will outnumber the entire Tamil population in Sri Lanka and a good amount of the Tamil Nadu population as well. These are expressions of a sarcastic nature and raise the doubts of the people on the Human cost of War.

At the moment, the causalty figure remains as more than 65000 and it can be 200,000 or 65,001 as it's so wage.

As well as Iraq, in Sri Lanka also there are plenty of unreported deaths and casualties, specially the injuries. Victims are just neglected if they are not combatants. Civilians have paid the high price, and even they are not properly compensated and counted in the large picture. Only small family circles know that they were victimized.

The JVP insurrection of 1989-90 was better reported, and it was exploited politically due to its access to southern mindsets, which hold the hegemony of the internal media output. The figure has been scanned and 60,000 disappeared or killed was the balance sheet for three years of state and non-state horror.

The present conflict is hindered that credibility due to the ethnic nature of the conflict, as figures are many times cooked and biased towards each end. On the other hand, there are unforgotten factors, such as Muslims also having figures and casualties of their own which was not counted or taken seriously. There are many incidents that para-militaries have been involved in killings and killing individuals, which are not taken seriously in isolated incidents.


“An estimated 65,000 people were killed in fighting before the cease-fire, and at least 4,000 fighters and civilians are estimated to have died in the last 18 months”. AP News 28/3/2007.

Above is an AP introduction to the Sri Lankan civil war and it’s the usual format to introduce the Sri Lankan war by almost all. Nobody seems to be seriously thinking on his or her figures and just follow the figures available, which are very much outdated and incomplete. Many INGOs and foreign media now come out with an “attractive” figure of 4,000 deaths as the human cost for the last 18 months, and have failed to add at least that 4,000 to yester-year's figures, which thus raise the total up to 69,000. This is more than a calculating error, but lack of seriousness and sensitivity.

The four years old current Darfur outbreak in Sudan is reported differently in the international Media. It says, according to Sudan’s government, 9,000 people have been killed; most NGOs use 200,000 to over 400,000, as the figure. That Sri Lankan NGOs with much sophistication have failed to clearly project the correct casualty figue is an unfortunate situation.


This miscalculation is direly unjust to the all kinds of victims, including those who were tortured, killed and raped and died. Sri Lankan society - especially NGOS - has to come out with scientific and as far as possible accurate figures, with the support of local and international media.

All the incidents that have taken place since the 1983 July massacre need to be seriously analyzed. Such analysis will for sure increase the casualty totals in to above 100,000 or much higher than that.

Sometimes we may not be able to immediately come out with accurate figures, but we can start with questioning and challenging the outdated figures quoted by the media, the state and other actors. We can raise our doubts of their source of information, and challenge their inaccuracy and insensitivity to the issues and indicators that they use to reach those conclusions.

It's worth creating our own discipline that, when ever we mention about the Ethnic issue, to highlight that there are a large number of undocumented victims and unreported deaths which can be much higher than we think.

This kind of new approach will create a new discourse on the War and its negative impacts and will also challenge the mindset of peoples. (courtesy Wikipedia).

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