The number you need to know on Syria

By — July 16, 2012

I’ll start with a simple number: 20,000. Granted it’s rounded up a little—from 19,738. Rounding up works well on the page, but also belittles its subject. It gives us a solid number to latch on to, for the media to print, for the memory to hold. But 19,738 is the exact count of lives that have been lost so far in the war in Syria, according to a volunteer, nonprofit group called Syria Tracker. And when it comes to this conflict, every little number, every single life, counts.

That’s why I wanted to write this today. In conjunction with our upcoming presentation to the UN this week, in which we will speak about the findings of our recent report on how rape is being used as a tool of war in Syria, we want to get this number out to the world. The UN Security Council will vote soon on whether to issue an ultimatum to President Bashar al-Assad to withdraw weapons from populated areas or face sanctions—a move Russia opposes. The UN mandate to send UN observers into Syria expires on Friday. We have just a few days to try to show the world what we have researched in our various fields, and few may be more important than Syria Tracker’s.  

As a crowd-sourced effort (like our own map of sexualized violence in Syria), Syria Tracker has catalogued deaths throughout the country over 16 months of painstaking work. What’s key in this is that the team has managed to post names on more than 84 percent of deaths. More than 80 percent of their reports include video links or pictures. That means they can confirm the majority of the reported killings.

Of the 19,738 documented killings as of July 14, 7 percent are women and 93 percent are men. Syria Tracker has found that the women killed were significantly younger than the men—on average, about seven years younger. The average age for men is 26; for women, 19. The central region of Idlib and Al-Rastan in the northern part of Hama province have been the hardest hit, with an average of two people per 100 killed in each area, based on a 2004 census.

“One main goal of Syria Tracker has not been to provide the most recent numbers, but to help document what has been happening for the future, when an impartial investigation can be launched,” the head of the project, who remains anonymous for safety reasons, told me. “In the long run, I don’t feel that the specific counts are as important as the individual names, dates and places, which can be edited, updated, and revised over time.”

Approximations of the dead in Syria have swung wildly in the last few weeks as fighting has escalated. The most widely thrown about number comes from activists working against the regime, who have recently estimated that more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. In April, the official Syrian news agency, SANA, quoted a letter from the Syrian foreign ministry that said that 6,143 Syrians, including soldiers and civilians, had died by that point, according to the BBC. The government blamed “terrorist groups.” The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva was offering estimates early in the uprising, but stopped giving them in December “because verifying the toll had become too difficult,” the BBC reported.

While the members of Syria Tracker’s 10-person team all remain anonymous (most are of Syrian origins), I can tell you they are remarkably high-level people who are experts at the technical side of gathering such complex information.

Like my own team, Syria Tracker’s is suffering the pain that comes with collecting human rights violations. They have lost reporters along the way and seen them become a recorded victim in their own database. The horrors to which they bear witness for no other reason than to capture violations against human dignity give them nightmares.  

Deaths recorded by Syria Tracker since a ceasefire was called in April.

“I still can’t sleep from seeing videos of people being slaughtered with knives, or the child with half of his face gone as he's dying in his father's arms, or the weeping father lying next to his newborn child that was just killed, or the one person crawling among hundreds after being shelled—bleeding to death and asking the person videotaping if he has water because he's so thirsty,” said the head of Syria Tracker. “I got used to seeing the dead bodies, but I still can't get over the horrific views of people in the process of dying and have no one to aid them.”  

On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross classified the Syrian conflict as a civil war—a move that could affect how the world views the country’s use of force, as justifiable or otherwise. From what we’ve seen, there appears to be plenty of force being used by the regime against unarmed civilians, with our WMC’s Women Under Siege Syria data suggesting that nearly 70 percent of sexual attacks against women and men have been perpetrated by Syrian forces.

Between my team and Syria Tracker’s, we are trying to sculpt a frieze of what may be going on in the war-torn country. We are trying to gather up all the information about atrocities we can in a dirty, ongoing conflict. More than that though, we are doing it in order to memorialize the brutalized and the dead.

“I only hope that we can preserve the memory of a victim that may otherwise be forgotten,” the head of Syria Tracker said.