|Subject: Coders Bare Invasion Death Count
Coders Bare Invasion Death Count
By Ann Harrison 13:15 PM Feb, 09, 2006
The citizens of East Timor who perished during Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation of their tiny island nation might have died unaccounted for -- as many civilians do in military conflicts around the world. But a group of determined programmers and statisticians refused to let that happen.
On Thursday, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group released a report documenting over 102,000 civilian deaths in the former Portuguese colony, which occurred from a year prior to the Indonesian army's invasion in 1975, to the country's 1999 independence referendum that formally ended the occupation.
Group director Patrick Ball says the data included an estimated 18,600 people who were murdered or disappeared, and approximately 84,200 citizens who died due to hunger and illness in excess of what would be expected during peacetime.
"If people can't be remembered by name because they are lost to social memory, the least we can do is remember how many people died as a result of the conflict," said Ball. "By having an accurate statistical picture of the suffering, we can draw conclusions about what the causes of the violence might have been and identify likely perpetrators with a claim based on thousands of witnesses."
Ball, 40, has spent the last 15 years building systems and conducting qualitative analysis for large-scale human rights data projects around the world. Constantly on the move, he's worked for truth commissions, non-government organizations, tribunals and United Nations missions in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Peru and Columbia. In March 2002, he appeared as an expert witness in the trial of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague -- coolly confronting the former leader with statistical evidence of his alleged war crimes against ethnic Albanians.
Ball also helped to design <http://www.martus.org/>Martus and <http://www.hrdag.org/resources/data_software.shtml>Analyzer, two open-source software tools that provide secure storage and rigorous statistical analysis of human rights violations data.
To generate the East Timor report, HRDAG researchers spent three years in the country -- now called Timor-Leste -- collecting and analyzing mountains of raw data. The group marshaled 8,000 testimonies and developed innovative sources of information, including the first human rights retrospective mortality survey to determine how many people died and why.
They surveyed 319,000 graves and used hundreds of Python, Java and bash shell scripts to build a huge database of mortality data that contained an 80,000-file directory tree.
While prior information about East Timor focused on anecdotal accounts, the HRGAD researchers used comparative analysis of the datasets to uncover patterns of deaths and build objective evidence of abuses. The team also developed an array of descriptive statistical analysis profiling the scale, pattern and structure of torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and sexual violations. In order to estimate what was missing from the data, the HRDAG developed software to link multiple reports of the same death in a technique called record linkage. They then used <http://www.hrdag.org/resources/mult_systems_est.shtml>multiple systems estimation to calculate the deaths no one remembered.
"The Indonesian military has persistently argued that excess mortality in Timor due to its occupation of Timor was zero," said Romesh Silva, a HRDAG field statistician who led the design and implementation of the project's data collection. "This claim can now be tested empirically and transparently with the tools of science instead of merely being debated with the tools of political rhetoric."
The information generated by the HRDAG was originally requested by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) in East Timor, created by the United Nations in 2002 and now disbanded. The Truth Commission's East Timor office was housed in the sweltering cells of a former political prison. When the tropical heat threatened to cook his hard drives, Silva developed a technique of balancing his computers on the caps of water bottles so he could direct air from fans underneath the machines.
The Truth Commission completed a report titled "Chega!" (Portuguese for "Enough!") in October of last year and handed it over to Xanana Gusmao, president of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste who has not yet released it to the public. A draft version of the report posted by the <http://www.ictj.org/>International Center for Transitional Justice charges that the Indonesian armed forces carried out a systematic plan of murder and destruction during East Timor's independence vote in 1999, which was not the work of rogue military elements as Indonesia claimed.
The Commission recommended that the U.N. renew its special crimes unit to investigate and try human rights violations. It also said Indonesia should provide reparations to East Timor and called on the U.N. Security Council to set up an international tribunal to investigate human rights violations "should other methods be deemed to have failed to deliver a sufficient measure of justice."
Indonesian government officials declined to comment on either the HRDAG data or the Truth Commission report. But Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono told the Associated Press last month that "this is a war of numbers and data about things that never happened."
Mathew Easton, a senior associate at Human Rights First, a New York-based human rights group, says President Gusmao has delayed the report's release partly because the Timorese government is afraid it will disrupt its relationship with Indonesia, its largest economic partner. "The Timorese leadership has been so vocal about the need to let sleeping dogs lie that it makes it hard for the Timorese community and activists to speak out and advocate for the truth," said Easton.
Supported by the Palo Alto, California-based Benentech Initiative, HRDAG has provided technical assistance to official truth commissions in seven countries.
In an issue as controversial as deaths in East Timor, Ball says it's essential that HRDAG release their own complete research findings so the debate can take place on factual, scientific grounds.
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