So where did Russian “official sources” find their casualty figures?
The numbers of people killed in South Ossetia are most probably much lower than the 2,000 claimed by Russia. While Human Rights Watch is careful to stress that it is always difficult to know exactly, its team presently in the area has found no independent confirmation of the higher figures.
The team visited a field hospital located in Russias North Ossetia run by the Russian Ministry of Emergencies. A hospital representative said that 52 wounded people were being treated there, nearly all of them military personnel. The hospital was expecting another 170 wounded to be delivered by ambulance from a mobile military clinic in South Ossetia.
As far as other casualties were concerned, they said that they had only heard second-hand reports.
According to Russian sources, around half of the estimated 24 thousand people who fled across the border into Russia when the conflict began have returned.
Alexander Cherkasov, a member of the board of “Memorial” stresses that aside from information from doctors, there simply was no other possible source of information regarding the number of civilians killed. While in times of peace, one also has police statistics, no such data was gathered while battles were raging.
He compares the situation with that of the chaos after the storming of the Nord-Ost siege in Moscow during the morning of 26 October 2002. “In South Ossetia high figures were given immediately although it is not known what they were based on. They were then repeated by Russian officials and Russian journalists. It was those huge numbers of casualties which were used to justify the bombings in George and the deployment of troops on its territory. If every hours procrastination could cost the lives of one hundred civilians in Tshinvali, then one could not delay”
And now it seems likely that the figures were considerably lower.