Syria's Bloodiest Day: Interview with the Every Casualty Programme

First published 8th Oct 2012

Headlines from the Syrian conflict claimed that last Wednesday, 26 September 2012, was Syria's bloodiest day since the beginning of the confict. Syrian activists said that there were over 340 deaths in a single day, making it the highest death toll figure for a single day from the Syrian conflict to date. Hana Salama of Every Casualty, was interviewed by the Guardian for the Middle East Live Blog about the issues surrounding the reporting of Syrian Casualty numbers.
The complete interview, which is reproduced in full below, is available for listening on the Guardian's Middle East Live Blog. 

Verifying Casualty Figures from Syria

The media and activist groups need to be clearer about reporting headline death toll in the Syrian conflict, an expert in casualty recording told the Guardian.

Hana Salama, from the Every Casualty programme for the thinktank the Oxford Research Group said using the term “unverified” to describe death tolls in Syria was misleading, as the figures were often corroborated by many different groups.

In an interview with the Guardian she suggested such figures could be referred to as “early” rather than unverified. “There are always revisions in the number of casualties over time,” she pointed out.

To begin to be verified, organisations like the LCC (Local Coordination Committee), need to disclose their records and have them compared with other organisations collecting casualty figures, Salama said. To do this she stressed the importance of making available names, places and other details to allow casualty figures to be corroborated.

"We need to consider these figures seriously and judge them on how they were collected. I receive information every day from activists in Syria claiming the day before was the bloodiest day, so we just have to follow up on the figures and have a chance to look at their sources"

What is important is not the actual number, it’s the records themselves – the names and the place of death, not only for the international community but for the families.

Salama did not see a link between high casualty figures reported by activists and UN meetings, as critics allege. “It is important for the UN to know the facts,” she said.

The fact that sometimes the media portrays it as being unverified can make it more difficult for decision makers to assess the information they receive. They could do more research into how these numbers are collected.

She said she could not vouch for the reliability of figures reported by the activists group, the Local Co-ordination Committee, but she said its figures were frequently used by a number of casualty recorders.

I can’t tell you about their reliability but it is important that those figures are out there. There is an amount of uncertainty, but regardless of that if you have the numbers and you have the records you can always look back and check. We don’t know when that could happen because of the intensity of the conflict.

Salama has studied the methods of a number of activist and human rights groups collating casualty figures in Syria, including Insan, based in Lebanon and Syria Tracker. She said:

Most of the recorders don’t have greatly varying figures. Some of the groups we work with have a clear political agenda, but we judge them based on their method of collection.

A lot [of information] comes from citizens, activists and social media. These records must contain names and places and identifiers that can be used for corroboration.

The conflict is now too dangerous to corroborate casualty figures with families, she pointed out.

The crisis hasn’t ended so there hasn’t been a chance for independent verification.

"A lot of the groups take each other’s numbers and try to corroborate the names. The fact that there is differentiation [between the groups] must be in the way they define who they will record"

" The media must do more to define what it means by verified. It could be internally verified – if different organisations have different lists of people, then they can verify it that way, through corroborating. If the media means external verification through independent, for example UN, observers then that’s another issue. But it doesn’t mean the numbers themselves don’t check out or are untrue. The term can be used in both senses, it is a matter of clarifying what we mean by it "

With casualty records, the media, and other actors in this conflict need a very high standard of proof which can only be obtained sometime after the conflict has ended, because [then] you can interview people on the ground.