Secrecy shrouds death tolls in Yugoslav war Official totals too low, evidence indicates

October 31, 1991|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,Los Angeles Times

LESCE, Yugoslavia -- How many of Serbia's young men have died in four months of war with neighboring Croatia is a carefully guarded secret masked with an official lie.

The Yugoslav Defense Ministry reports that 400 soldiers have been killed, but recruits deserting the ragged front in large numbers say hundreds die each day.

In Belgrade, the federal capital, residents who have lost family members to the war recently say morgues and funeral homes throughout Serbia are filled to overflowing. Peace activists and the parents of men missing in action are dismayed by reports that hundreds of dead from both sides have been left on the Croatian battlefields to rot.

Croatia has reported more than 2,000 fatalities on its side, and its foreign minister, Zvonimir Separovic, said Sunday that the death toll on both sides totals more than 5,000.

Mr. Separovic cited the latter figure in a letter to European Community foreign ministers in which he appealed for "urgent economic and humanitarian aid."

Officials in both warring republics say the Serbian-led army has suffered the brunt of recent casualties because federal soldiers are the outsiders attacking determined Croats defending their homes.

Physical evidence of the war's cost is mounting, belying official reports.

The back pages of newspapers such as Politika, Belgrade's main daily, are filled with funeral notices and black-bordered messages of final regards to army "volunteers."

On any given day there are a dozen youthful victims just from the capital, which has sent proportionally fewer of its men to the front than have provincial regions of Serbia.

"The sad truth is that no one, not even the army, knows how many have died in this pointless war. But I wouldn't say more than 10,000," said Milos Vasic, a Serbian journalist with the weekly magazine Vreme.

In nearly two months of intense fighting around Vukovar, in eastern Croatia, 100 to 150 federal army soldiers have been killed each day on average, said Mr. Vasic, who compiles his figures by checking with morgues in Serbia.

"One soldier told me there were 93 men killed in one day's fighting around Vukovar just from his own unit," a volunteer medical worker in Belgrade said.

Getting at the truth of the war's death toll is fraught with complications on both sides of the front.

The army and Serbia's Communist leadership, seeking to hide the war's human costs from the public, have understated the casualties on their side. The cover-up has spurred rumor and exaggeration, including unconfirmed reports that Serbs are burying their dead secretly in mass graves in Croatia or transporting the bodies home by night for quiet burial in unmarked graves.

Croatian authorities, conversely, often have sought to overstate the Serbian losses, partly to inspire the Croatian national guardsmen by creating an impression that the war is turning in their favor.

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