Updated: Jul 24, 2020
There are some predictable truths of war. The most common is that old saying – the first casualty of war is the truth.
Another is that, as conflict deepens and worsens, reporting becomes less accurate and less specific. The fog of war mists up the media’s lens. Only the biggest, most shocking numbers make the headlines and, along the way, the recording of the injured in war drops away.
At Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) we run a civilian casualty monitor. In it, we record the deaths and injuries from incidents of explosive violence around the world, as reported in English-language media. Every day, AOAV scours news outlets looking for reports on the mounting deaths and injuries as seen in places such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and all the other countries and territories that regularly experience the devastating impact of explosive weapons around the world.
Such monitoring allows us to examine patterns and trends in the hope of reducing harm through advocacy. In addition, we believe there is also a moral duty for the dead and injured to be recorded.
Between 2011 and 2018, AOAV recorded some 22,153 explosive violence incidents globally. These killed and injured some 309,044 people, of which 231,909 – or three quarters – were civilians. Of those civilians, 82,473 were reported killed and 149,472 were reported injured.
In other words, for each person killed, two people were reported injured.
Explosive weapons, though, with their wide area impact and devastating force probably harm far more people than go reported.
In May 2018, the BBC reported – for instance – that the Manchester suicide bomber in the UK not only killed 22 people in his 2017 attack, but also injured ‘over 800’. In the Manchester Arena, for each person killed, 36 people were injured either physically or mentally, or both. Such widespread and granular levels of casualty recording, however, are very much the exception than the norm.
All too often the injured go unrecorded. In 2017, for instance, AOAV recorded more civilian deaths than injuries from explosive weapons. It is highly unlikely that less injuries than deaths occurred globally, rather there is a deep concern that injuries from explosive violence globally are dramatically and consistently underreported.
In 2017, of all global incidents in which civilian casualties were recorded (2,856), civilian injuries went unrecorded in 54% of cases. In 2011, that figure was just 18%. And while, in 2018, the percentage fell to 46%, one thing is clear: globally the injured from explosive violence are not making the news.
Many factors are at play here. Levels of access for journalists; the wider context of violence; the length and intensity of the conflict; the types of perpetrators; the types of victims. All of these things dictate the detail in any given media report into an explosive incident to one degree or other, and the amount of media coverage such an incident gets.
Example: injuries go unrecorded in Syria
Since 2011, Syria has experienced the highest levels of civilian harm from explosive violence globally, with at least 5,134 incidents reported in English language media, leading to the death of 33,135 civilians, and the injury of 34,128.
Such figures, however, as with other Syrian casualty monitors, do not reflect the true reality of the harm that the civilians of Syria have faced.
Over the course of the conflict, AOAV has witnessed a substantial decrease in the quantity and quality of media reporting. A paucity of journalists, the targeting of the media, conflict reporting fatigue, other news priorities, and the repetition of the same terrible news means that an untold number of those killed or injured have gone unreported. In this situation, the injured are less likely to be noted than the dead. In our explosive violence monthly update for May 2019, AOAV recorded 141 incidents in Syria where no civilian injuries were reported, despite there being 276 civilian deaths.
So, whereas AOAV recorded 175 incidents in Syria that month that caused civilian casualties, over 80% of these failed to mention injuries. It is impossible all these incidents caused no civilian injuries. This lack of detail in casualty reporting is a trend in Syria which has become more noticeable.
In 2018, AOAV recorded 953 incidents of explosive violence in Syria, as reported in English language media. These resulted in the death or injury of 9,587 civilians. Of these incidents, though, over 80% (775) only reported on the deaths of civilians.
Of the 178 incidents where civilian injuries were actually recorded, some 4,101 people were reported injured, against 1,780 deaths – about 10 injuries for every 4 people killed. If this ratio was applied to all incidents in 2018, then one could estimate that something in the region of 8,500 civilian injuries have gone unreported.