The Dangers and Difficulties of Counting Victims in Syria | Syri...

detainees, displaced people, or conflict-related deaths, the nature of the conflict
makes it incredibly difficult to calculate accurate tolls at this time. In lieu of these
numbers, organizations should shift discussions towards information that is often
more integral to understanding the conflict, including reporting on the types of
violations being committed, analyzing the patterns of those violations, and
highlighting stories of individual survivors.
Keeping track of precise numbers of deaths and victims is always a challenge in a
conflict setting. Conflict can make it dangerous or impossible to access affected areas
and local institutions that normally track deaths, such as hospitals, may be
overwhelmed. In some developing countries, reliable population statistics may not
have been available prior to the conflict, making calculating losses difficult. To this
day, estimates of the civilian death toll in Iraq between the US invasion in 2003 and the
drawdown in 2011 differ drastically, between 160,000 and 1.2 million, depending on
the source.
In 2014 the United Nations announced it had stopped updating its death toll for the
conflict in Syria due to the difficulty of verifying and accessing information on the
ground. A host of Syrian documentation organizations continue to track deaths in the
conflict, but they face similar challenges. Such documentation efforts are integral to
informing both current policy discussions and future accountability mechanisms, but
they should not be seen as comprehensive.
When organizations provide numbers of the overall death toll, for example, it often
reflects only the specific names the organization has documented as deceased. In
other cases, organizations are estimating a total toll based on a combination of
recorded names along with media reports and eye witness testimonies. Benetech has
published a number of analyses comparing casualty records reported by different
documentation organizations. Benetech highlights the challenges to calculating tolls,
including the presence of duplicate reports in data sets, the geographic collection
biases of individual organizations, and the possibility of false reports.  False reports
often result from unintentional human error or incomplete information available at
the time of documentation. For example, SJAC conducted an interview with a woman
who had incorrectly believed her son was in a government prison. After a long search,
including paying bribes to security officials, she was told exactly where he was being
held. Then, three years after his disappearance, his body was discovered. He had never
been in government custody, and rather was killed by a non-state armed group. Such
inaccuracies, while tragic, are inevitable in a context where so many are missing.

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