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Bosnian Researcher Counts War Dead, And Faces Threats For His Methods

"If we want to move forward, we have to have a clean balance sheet," Tokaca says.
"If we want to move forward, we have to have a clean balance sheet," Tokaca says.

SARAJEVO -- Mirsad Tokaca reaches into his bag and takes out a black-and-white photograph.

"This is my guiding light," he says.

Creased and torn, the photograph shows a man who's been shot in the leg being awkwardly carried to safety. The injured man's eyes are closed. His pants are ripped and bloody.

One of the five or six men shown helping the man is Mirsad Tokaca, his face expressing a mixture of concern, shock, and disbelief.

The photo was taken on Sarajevo's Vrbanja Bridge on April 5, 1992 -- the day of a massive peace rally in Sarajevo and the dawn of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbian snipers hiding in a nearby high-rise opened fire on the demonstrators, killing six and wounding many others, including the man in the photograph, Amir Grahic.

Mirsad Tokaca (center ) helps carry Amir Grahic, who was shot by Serbian snipers on Sarajevo's Vrbanja Bridge on April 5, 1992.

"That April, all my illusions crashed down," Tokaca recalls. "Until that day, I believed that the Yugoslav National Army wouldn't rise against its citizens. I believed in demonstrations for peace."

At the time of the shooting, Tokaca was the owner of a marketing and trading company in Sarajevo. Sixteen years later, he's the president of the Research and Documentation Center (RDC), a nongovernmental organization based in Sarajevo.

At the RDC, Tokaca and his 17 full-time employees have produced one of the most important postwar projects in Bosnia, a report rather antiseptically titled "Human Losses in Bosnia-Herzegovina 1991-1995." It's also known as "The Bosnian Book of the Dead." The book contains a meticulously researched database of the victims of the 1992-95 war.

Tokaca's database is so controversial because it puts the number killed at around 97,000, dramatically lower than the 200,000 estimate routinely used by the Bosnian government and global media outlets in the years after the war.

The families, groups, and governments representing those who died or went missing in the fighting each see something different in these numbers -- political leverage, moral authority, even justification for retribution. Each side desires to portray itself as the victim and its opponents as the aggressors.

The Bosniak elite, not the nation, have begun to function the same way Serbia once functioned -- that is, to create the myth of their own tragedy.

It's easier to manipulate numbers than names. Tokaca's database is the only one in existence that offers the war dead sorted by name, place, and circumstances of death. Civilians, soldiers, women and children, of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims alike. The list contains 14 separate streams of information, free of ethnic prejudice, and based on facts, not estimates.

Patrick Ball, director of the Human Rights Program at the U.S.-based Benetech Initiative, has said the "richness and depth of this database is astonishing." Ball, who has worked with nine truth commissions around the world, said the RDC database "could have a significant impact on how the history of the Bosnian war is understood."

Tokaca's reward? Intense public criticism and death threats, directed at him, his family, and RDC employees.

'Each Victim Has A Name'

"This is not the kind of job you do for money," Tokaca says.

He speaks slowly and from time to time takes his glasses off while scanning the database in his laptop. During five years of research, Tokaca and his team collected names from a variety of sources. They visited some 400 cemeteries; collected and microfilmed all newspapers published during the war in Bosnia; spoke to the families of victims; and worked closely with a variety of similar organizations and commissions.

The annual budget of the RDC fluctuates between 300,000 and 500,000 euros. Most of the money comes from grants from the governments of Norway and Sweden and the private Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The value of the war database is estimated at around $10 million, but the project itself cost less than $1 million.

Tokaca has spent 16 years researching and documenting the Bosnian war, after himself fighting on the front lines as a member of the Bosnian police forces. He defended himself and his home near the Jewish cemetery.

Tokaca with Carla Del Ponte, the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Sarajevo in June 2007.

He was secretary of the Bosnia-Herzegovina State Commission On War Crimes Documentation, until it broke apart in 2002. Not long after that, he was offered the chance to lead a similar commission, this time at the level of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Croat-Muslim part of Bosnia, which does not include Republika Srpska.​

In his new position, he would have been tacitly expected to represent only part of the victims, mostly Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, who were killed during the war.

Though he is a Bosniak himself, he turned the offer down, refusing to bear witness to only part of the truth.

Around that time, without any state support but with help of foreign NGOs, Tokaca started the RDC. Ironically, his work has faced the most criticism from Bosniaks.

'Fogging The Essence'

Smail Cekic is one of Tokaca's critics. The head of the Sarajevo-based Institute for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law, Cekic questions Tokaca's research methods and accuses him of "fogging the essence and size of the genocide" of Bosniaks. He also says Tokaca "covers up" the depth of what he calls the "demographic disaster" committed against the regional populations, believing that Tokaca should include in his statistics those members of society who would have been born to those who were killed.

Bosnia, the nation which suffered the most from those myths, Tokaca says, created its own -- that some 200,000 people were killed in the war.

"I've touched the myth that has begun to be created among my own nation," Tokaca says. "The Bosniak elite, not the nation, have begun to function the same way Serbia once functioned -- that is, to create the myth of their own tragedy.”

In reality, the RDC database concludes that of the war's direct victims, almost 40,000 were civilians and 57,500 were military victims. Of the civilian victims, some 33,000 were Bosniaks, 4,100 were Serbs, and 2,200 were Croats.

“Each victim has a name,” says Tokaca. “We need to find out the truth – who, where, and how individuals were killed, to be able to talk of reconciliation. If we want to move forward, we have to have a clean balance sheet.

"I, as a Bosniak, can't ignore the crimes committed against Serbs or Croats, or other nations, regardless of the fact that the Bosniaks are the main victims. It’s precisely shown through this project that 66 percent of all victims were Bosniaks. Among civilian victims, 80 percent were also Bosniaks. But that doesn’t give me the right to deny even one victim from other nations.”

As Patrick Ball of the Benetech Initiative has said, "We believe that this analysis will be an enormous contribution to the social history of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, to the prosecutions in The Hague, and to the historical memory of the victims."

'Finding Happiness In Ordinary Things'

Tokaca, 53, spreads positive energy wherever he goes. He doesn’t make sudden movements. His face is gentle, but his manner is determined.

Perhaps it is not surprising that this man, who spends his days counting the dead, likes to work in his garden, to see new life spring from the soil. He grows herbs and roses.

Tokaca (right) and his wife, Hasiba, went whitewater rafting on a recent holiday. "I enjoy life," Tokaca says, "and find happiness in ordinary things."

If you just happen to drop by the RDC unexpectedly, you may find him with his sleeves rolled up, helping to clean. He's even been known to grab a shovel and practice his gardening skills in front of the offices.

Despite a job that fills his days with thoughts of war, and those that criticize his work, Tokaca says he's a happy man. His wife, Hasiba, is an engineer. His eldest daughter, Nadza, 27, studied at Oxford University and is a doctor in London. Jasna, 25, is a musician and teaches music to children.

"I'm independent. I enjoy life, and find happiness in ordinary things," he says. "I have a wonderful wife and children. I have lots of friends. I love the people I work with. I'm not afraid of failure, and I do not think much of my enemies.

"Simply, if you're run by positive energy, if you don't sink into depression and hopelessness, if you believe in yourself and people around you, then it's not hard to see something positive even in things that may look bad," he says.

Critical Of Tokaca

Tokaca's Research and Documentation Center is sometimes helped in its efforts by various associations, commission, and military archives around the country, who have been working on their own databases.

One of these is the Izvor (The Source) women's association in Prijedor, in Republika Srpska.

Izvor knows how hard it is to collect accurate data, to do the work the state should have done. Izvor contributed its own data on Bosnia's war dead to the Research and Documentation Center because they thought it was important to unite the various databases.

Tokaca with his eldest daughter, Nadza, who is a doctor in London.

Izvor spokesperson Edin Ramulic is among those who are critical of Tokaca's efforts, in part because the group believes the RDC list may contain too many names.

"For example, we have seen there is [on Tokaca's list] a man named Sead Mrkalj," Ramulic says. "The man is alive and runs a successful baking company. Or the Jujic brothers -- Omer and Zijad. They were in concentration camps, but they were released and are alive. They should have run a better check.”

In Izvor's database are the names of 3,227 people from the Prijedor region listed as either missing or killed. This region was home to the Omarska, Keraterm, and Trnopolje concentration camps, set up during the war for the Bosniak population. It was also the scene of mass rapes and executions of Bosniaks, Catholic Bosnian Croats, and even Orthodox Bosnian Serbs.

The major thing Izvor disapproves of when it comes to Tokaca’s work is his belief that the job he has done is 98 percent finished.

"We have been collecting data referring to this region for 10 years now, and we still don’t consider our work to be completed," Ramulic says.

Tokaca says he welcomes such scrutiny; he even considers it a necessity.

"I test what I've done every day," he says. "I just came back from Banja Luka, where a local TV station interviewed me. Among the participants was a young man. He told me that his father was killed in 1992. 'Let’s run a check,' I said, and a dossier of his father appeared [on my computer] with his photo and data. Testing of what we are doing is going to last for years.”

Believing In Reconciliation

Tokaca's voice catches as he talks of his mother.

During World War II, 20 members of his mother's family were killed in February 1942 in Ustipraca, a Muslim village on the Drina River. She lost her father and three brothers in a single day, killed by so-called cetniks -- Serbs who at first fought with the Allies and partisans but who changed sides and cooperated with the Nazis. The family rarely talked about the killings. The stories of their murders were whispered until they became so silent that later generations never heard them.

"This is not a job without risks," says Tokaca, shown here in his Sarajevo office. "But I think I have cleared it up with myself. I just didn't expect that much brutality and such methods."
Tokaca is asked if what he’s doing will help history not to repeat itself, which is, after all, the pattern of the Balkans.

“I believe it will help," he answers confidently, his eyes clear and focused. “If a young man says that his father died and that he believes in reconciliation in this country, what else can I ask for? If we start to function as human beings outside of politics, only then can we move forward.”

'I Didn't Expect Such Brutality'

Provocations and threatening phone calls have become a routine part of Tokaca's life in Sarajevo. That's especially difficult when you're a husband and the father of two daughters, but he says nothing can frighten him after all he saw during the war.

"This is not a job without risks," he says. "But I think I have cleared it up with myself. I just didn't expect that much brutality and such methods."

Isolation is not new to him. There's something symbolic in the fact that one of the people he most admires is Nelson Mandela. Despite the fact that he regularly lectures at colleges around the world, he has yet to be invited to speak at a university in Bosnia. Students find their own ways to the Research and Documentation Center to talk to Tokaca and to learn about his work.

The center finds itself in the same position as other organizations from the region it cooperates with – the Humanitarian Law Fund in Belgrade, and the Documenta Association in Zagreb. These organizations, too, have been isolated for their efforts to establish the truth.

Controlling The Past

Once again, Tokaca recalls the turning point in his life -- April 5, 1992. The injured man, Amir Grahic survived, and lives today in Sarajevo.

Tokaca remembers the words of George Orwell: " 'Who controls the past controls the future,' " he quotes from "1984." "I could never bear that someone was controlling my past."

He rejects the philosophy that he believes Bosnian society often uses as a crutch -- that someone else is always to blame.

“We have to be responsible for what’s happening to us," he says. "And if necessary, you have to pay for it with your own life.”

About "On The Front Lines"

About This Series
"On The Front Lines" features in-depth profiles of men and women in RFE/RL's broadcast area who have dedicated their lives to the causes of freedom, democratic values, and human rights. More

What Do I Believe -- Mirsad Tokaca

What Do I Believe?

We asked Mirsad Tokaca about the core beliefs that guide him in his life and work. Play

Side Lines -- Mirsad Tokaca

Side Lines: Mirsad Tokaca
What living person do you most admire? Nelson Mandela.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life? My mother.

When will you know you've succeeded?
I don’t think I’ve succeeded in anything. I don’t even think about it. I just want to do things I find important to me and for my surroundings. Is it successful? Others will judge. I’m too critical of myself to judge something I did as successful.

What is your worst vice or extravagance?
Red wine.

What is your biggest fear? After surviving the siege of Sarajevo, I do not have any sense of fear. I won't say I'm fearless. My fear, in fact, is a slight thrill that is a consequence of responsibility for the thing I do and the reaction it's going to provoke.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
There's no such thing as perfect happiness, but when I say I'm happy, by that I mean I've accomplished some goals and wishes I put in front of me. I'm independent, I enjoy life, and find happiness in ordinary things. I'm not afraid of failure. I do not think much of my enemies. Maybe the idea of happiness is to participate in doing good things -- to be ready to give and to receive.

What was the best day of your life?
I could never choose a single day as the most important or happiest in my life. I have lots of them.

What would people be surprised to know about you? Some are surprised to hear me singing. But there are lots of surprises about me. But if I reveal them now, people won't be surprised. Let them discover.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
My wish, which didn't come true, was to be a pilot. I'm old enough to try that now.

What do you wish you were better at? I wish I was in a position to learn at least two more languages. (I like French and Italian.) But maybe it's not too late to do that, because I learned English during the war.

What is your greatest regret?
The suffering of Bosnian citizens during the war.

Making Contact -- Mirsad Tokaca

Making Contact
Want to get in touch with Mirsad Tokaca? Here's how:


Office phone: + 387 33 258 770