Crossfire or Crime?

The pattern of wounds on gunshot victims could expose human rights abuses.
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Bodies of people killed by the Croats in April 1993 around Vitez. (Photo: ICTY/Wikimedia Commons)

Bodies of people killed by the Croats in April 1993 around Vitez. (Photo: ICTY/Wikimedia Commons)

Those on trial for human rights abuses often try to present mortalities as the result of an encounter between two armed groups, counter insurgency efforts, or the inevitable casualties of crossfire. But a recent study published in Science & Justice provides some evidence that would suggest otherwise.

Jose Pablo Baraybar, of the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, mined injury data from the remains of victims of human rights abuses that occurred during recent conflicts around the world. Baraybar was in search of patterns to differentiate deaths that could be considered human rights violations and those associated with acts of war. In other words, was the victim outright murdered, or a regrettable casualty of a violent conflict?

"Unlike injury patterns recorded in modern warfare, victims of abuse seem to be purposely killed."

Barayban, also a visiting scholar at the University of South Florida, analyzed 777 autopsy reports of human rights victims killed by gunshots in conflicts dating back to the 1980s across more than 30 locations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somaliland, and Peru. Firearms are especially informative for those studying such injuries: The location of gunshot wounds on victims' bodies provides some insight into the intentions of the shooter—was he shooting to kill or merely to maim?

Most of the victims Baraybar studied were adult males, though there were also a few adult females and, at two sites in Peru, some children. Baraybar only considered the primary location—or entry wounds—of gunshot injuries, and classified the locations of each injury into one of four segments of the body: the head and neck; the thorax and abdomen; the arms; and the legs.

A third of the gunshot injuries on the remains Baraybar studied were concentrated on the victims' heads, nearly 40 percent of gunshot wounds were on the center of the body, and only 29 percent were located on the extremities. This pattern held across geographical locations and in varying attack situations—whether victims were rounded up and killed by armed groups or were already being held in detention centers at the time of the attack. "Killing is killing, no matter where it happens," Barayban says.

Gunshot wound patterns are typically reversed in contemporary conflicts, Baraybar notes, where shooters' primary goal is not necessarily to kill, but to render their enemies unfit for battle. (By some estimates, for every person killed in warfare, there are as many as 13 others who are just wounded.) "Unlike injury patterns recorded in modern warfare, victims of abuse seem to be purposely killed," Baraybar writes, "leaving no room for speculating whether they died from their wounds during combat."

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