Dr Lily Hamourtziadou speaks about her work recording casualties

Dr Lily Hamourtziadou is a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University, where she researches and teaches international politics and security. She is also principal researcher of Iraq Body Count. She is the author of two books on casualty recording – Body Count. The War on Terror and Civilian Deaths in Iraq and The Ethics of Remote Warfare. Dr Hamourtziadou is currently writing a new book, The Human Costs of War: 21st century human (in)security from 2003 Iraq to 2022 Ukraine: The ‘New Cold War’ and the ‘War on Terror’, to be published in 2025. She is also working on a human security approach to the law and ethics of the use of biometrics by armed forces for the NATO Cyber Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence.

I did my PhD in International Relations, and my thesis was on war, the war in Bosnia that had just ended. What I was examining were its causes, with nationalism being an important contributing factor. What is it that makes states go to war and go to war repeatedly? What are the conditions that engender threats? I tried to go beyond the easy answer that all it takes is an evil leader. I looked at all the factors that contribute to the beginning and the sustaining of a war, and at how they can play a part in ending it. I got into casualty recording in 2006, when I was invited to join the Iraq Body Count (IBC) team, to help collect reports about incidents of violent civilian deaths in Iraq following the 2003 invasion: deaths from terrorist attacks, bombings, raids, shootings, all types of explosives, airstrikes and summary executions. The year I joined, the security situation was becoming so bad that they needed an extra person to help collect the thousands of reports on civilian harm that were coming out. 2006 ended up being the worst year in terms of casualties, since the invasion, with 29,526 civilian deaths recorded by IBC.

In 2021, I published a book entitled Body Count, The War on Terror and Civilian Deaths in Iraq. The main thing that I tried to accomplish was to give an understanding to whomever read it (not only academics and students, but also the public, researchers and policymakers) of war through an understanding of the impact it has on civilians. By monitoring and documenting daily -the way I’ve done- the impact of the invasion, the terrorism, the insurgency, the bombings, the changing of governments, security policies and sectarian violence, I try to show what can happen to a population when there is state aggression, leading to severe insecurities in all sectors: personal, economic, political, community, food, health and environmental. This is the primary aim of the book, to show what happens on the ground, rather than which party was defeated, or who was victorious. As an academic, I approach a war by trying to understand the conditions that enabled it, I address issues of accountability, global power shifts, interests, structures, the struggle for power and discourse wars. As a casualty recorder, it is which children died on a particular day that I try to discover. It is the innocents that were blown up, tortured and shot that day, that week, that month, that year, that I keep in my mind; it is the boy in the orange shorts, whose 3-year-old body was pulled from the rubble of his home, it is 19-year-old street vendor Ahmed Draiwel, who ran with a bomb in his arms; it is those policemen, those teachers, those shepherds, those farmers, who died violently, that drive me to record, to document. It is ultimately to those Iraqis and to all Iraqis that my book is dedicated.

Every year I take my students on a walking tour of memorials in Birmingham. Some are war memorials commemorating the deaths of British soldiers, others help us remember civilians who died, for example in the Blitz, or in terrorist attacks, such as the Birmingham pub bombings. There is a memorial outside Birmingham New Street station that even students who pass by it every day don’t know exists. My aim is to take the students to obvious and to not-so-obvious memorials and get them to think about what it is that we remember, and how memorials differ from each other. What are they trying to make us feel, and how do they feel? They write down their thoughts and I put them all together, to create a narrative that I then present to them. That narrative gives them incentives for discussion that they can relate to, which are very different from what they might get from an academic text on a module’s reading list.

The feedback I usually get is that they find the war memorials to soldiers far more impressive. They are memorials that they have noticed. Maybe they stopped to look or read some names. But the ones to civilians go unnoticed or are vaguely noticed as sculptures. In a way this validates the effort I’ve put in the last 18 years into documenting civilian deaths, writing about civilian deaths, and making people aware that ordinary people like me and like them are getting killed in wars. Often this gets bypassed in discussions about which side we want to win. We see that with the Russia-Ukraine war. Everybody I speak to wants Ukraine to win; we say that ‘Ukraine needs to win’, or ‘we can’t let Russia win’, so the war goes on, Ukraine is armed continuously, while non-violent solutions are not considered. And in this process thousands of civilians are killed, more each day as the war continues, whose names and faces casualty recorders bring into focus. Even if Ukraine wins, what will that victory look like, within so much loss? 

Not enough attention is being paid, or resources put into memorializing the impact of conflict on civilians, because there is no heroism to celebrate when civilians die, it’s just very sad and tragic.  When soldiers who ‘gave their lives’ die, there’s all that heroism the state or nation wants us to celebrate, the sacrifice that was made for the nation, that the state can use to justify measures it takes -even more wars- through the construction of a patriotic-national narrative. Those narratives make it easy to create a glorious national past and morally charged national future.

There have been some a lot of debates about the numbers of people killed in the war in Iraq. Those debates took a lot away from the real issue, which was that civilians were being killed daily, by various perpetrators, as the conflict was changing and developing in many directions. The killings didn’t end in 2007 but continue to this day. The recording of casualties cannot be stuck in time or present a snapshot or impressive number to quote. It is an ongoing process, it’s recording who died and when, not a competition for the highest figure. In my work, I try to personalise and contextualise every death I document, as befits the dignity of those who died. In interviews I was frequently asked that question, ‘how do your numbers differ from those other numbers and why?’, and it always irked me. Usually I answer with a question, such as: So those who say a million were killed, how many do they say were killed on the 15th of November 2004, or who exactly died on the 1st of June 2008? How many were shopkeepers? How many were babies? What is the figure now, in, say, 2018? Have civilian deaths risen? What weapons are primarily used? And they have no answers to these questions. In an ongoing conflict, casualty recording must be ongoing too.

Many casualty recording bodies are now involved in conflicts globally, including UN bodies, Action on Armed Violence, Airwars, Memorial Platform, Gaza Martyrs. IBC started an important trend where the focus is the civilian, not exclusively state and soldier. In 2023, 20 years after we started, the UN declared casualty recording vital for the promotion and protection of human rights. Militaries around the world have created civilian harm mitigation action plans, to minimise the impact of force on civilians. A great step forward, a big change, as this wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago. We contributed to the publication of the Standards for Casualty Recording in 2016, a major document with global significance and application.

I see the future of casualty recording as a developing and impactful field, an area where data can be collected and used -as we see in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Gaza- to identify, to inform and to deliver justice. War is no longer only about militaries and the states that control them.

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