Tallying Darfur terror: Guesswork with a cause

KHARTOUM, Sudan: The dead from Darfur have been tossed into the bottom of wells, dumped into mass graves, interred in sandy cemeteries and crudely cremated.

Also among the dead were children who were snatched from the arms of their mothers and thrown into fires, not to mention other villagers dragged on the ground behind horses and camels by ropes strung around their necks.

All of which makes the politically charged task of counting the precise number of victims of the war in western Sudan nearly impossible.

Is the death toll between 60,000 and 160,000, as Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said during a recent trip to the region? Or is it closer to the roughly 400,000 dead reported last week by the Coalition for International Justice, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization that was hired by the United States Agency for International Development to try to determine whether the killing amounts to genocide?

That was what Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state, called the Darfur killings last year. But Zoellick avoided the issue this month and has recently accused advocacy groups of overstating the number of dead to force Washington to adopt much tougher policies against the Sudanese.

Those

attempting to tally the terror are engaging in guesswork with a cause. They say they are trying to count the deaths to shock the world into stopping the number from rising higher than it already is.

The Sudanese government has not issued an estimate of its own, although officials in Khartoum label the numbers floating around as propaganda.

With death certificates nonexistent, census figures hopelessly out of date and much of Darfur's population uprooted from its villages and scattered into makeshift settlements and camps, the only way to count is through broad statistical analysis.

To the survivors, the various estimates are impossible to grasp. In the middle of the mayhem, they often had no idea how many people were slain in their own villages when the government-backed militias, known as the janjaweed, swept in.

"So many died," Ibrahim Adam Abdallah said simply, a blank stare on his face, when asked how many lives were lost in Seraf, a settlement in South Darfur that was first emptied a year ago and torched in April, to ensure that no one ever goes home.

John Hogan, the John D. MacArthur professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University who led the crunch of the numbers for the Coalition for International Justice, argues that devising a death toll for Darfur is worth the effort, even if it is an approximation.

"To focus the attention of people, it's important to give them some sense of the scale of what's happening in Darfur," he said.

Error is inevitable, Hogan acknowledged. "Obviously, this is not correct to the person, or even the 10 or the 100," he said. "But it's much better to have information of some kind."

Whatever the actual figure, it is undoubtedly a moving target. People are still dying from sickness, starvation and exposure at rates that experts say are higher than the already elevated rates at which they died before the conflict began in early 2003.

And although Darfur has long been known for its lawlessness, violent deaths are regarded as far higher than normal as well.

The continued insecurity in Darfur and the rugged nature of the vast battlefield make counting its dead particularly error-prone.

The World Health Organization took a stab at the health consequences last year when it estimated that 70,000 people had died over a seven-month period from malnutrition and disease linked to the conflict.

Researchers for the Coalition for International Justice released their more comprehensive review last week. They were not able to get in to Sudan, but under an American government contract they managed to conduct 1,136 interviews with refugees in eastern Chad, asking them whether they had family members who had died in violent circumstances or were missing.

From this survey, the coalition's researchers established a death rate of 1.2 per 10,000, which is high. Applying that figure to the estimated number of displaced people in Chad, the coalition concluded that 142,944 people may have been killed by government forces or allied militias, the main groups targeting civilians.

The Coalition for International Justice then took the World Health Organization study and assuming that same number of people died in the beginning of the conflict from sickness as two years later projected the death estimates for all of Darfur. The total number of health-related deaths came to 253,619, for a total of 396,563 deaths.

That finding has been questioned, most vociferously by Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College who has been analyzing Darfur's death rate on his own for months.

Reeves, one of the strongest advocates for the Darfur victims, comes up with a similar total of fatalities - about 400,000 - but contends that the analysis by the Coalition for International Justice overstates the number of people who died of sickness and understates the number killed by violence.

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