August 14, 2007, 11:52 pm
The Death Toll in Darfur
By Nicholas D. Kristof
On Sunday, the Times ran an op-ed piece suggesting that the Save Darfur Coalition was exaggerating the scale of genocide in Darfur and that the number of deaths was perhaps 200,000 rather than 400,000. I happened to be hiking with my kids around Mt. Hood then, but I came back to find my email account burning up with indignant emails about the essay (written, I hasten to add, by an outsider).
In my articles, I tend to use “several hundred thousand” as the death toll, because any particular number suggests a level of certainty that we will never obtain. Is it possible that the toll is 200,000? Absolutely. Is it possible that it’s more than 400,000? Absolutely.
One factor makes me wonder if the toll is sometimes inflated, and that’s the record of past atrocities. I covered Tiananmen, and other “witnesses” talked about tens of thousands of dead, when it was probably in the hundreds. Ditto for the fall of Romania’s communist regime in 1989, particularly in Timisoara. In Kosovo, there were estimates of 100,000 dead; the actual toll turned out to be less than 1,000.
On the other hand, Darfur (including eastern Chad and northern CAR) is in some ways more similar to Congo, where you have an already vulnerable population stressed by war – and where people die not so much of bullets as from hunger and malaria caused by their displacement. In Congo, a good mortality survey suggests that 4 million people died from the conflict over ten years – and that would suggest that Darfur is higher than we believe.
Moreover, I have to say that when I travel in Darfur or Chad or CAR, I’m struck that you don’t see many men. You see children and women, but very few men. Now some of the men are in rebel armies, and some are hiding in the bush, but I wonder if an awful lot of them aren’t dead. If so, that would suggest a toll much higher than we expect.
Eric Reeves, a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for Darfur, has been compiling mortality estimates for Darfur since January 2004, and his most recent is “now significantly exceeds 450,000.” Eric has a blast at the Times op-ed at his website, www.sudanreeves.org.
John Hagan, a scholar who co-authored a mortality estimate of Darfur in Science magazine, wrote to say:
Our Science article remains the only peer reviewed scientific estimate of the death toll in Darfur since the GAO review. Our floor estimate of the death toll is in the “range between 170,000 and 255,000 deaths.” We further said that “This estimate covers 31 months of conflict that, as of August 2006, has been underway for 43 months. If the further 12 months of conflict were well estimated, and/or if all or most missing or disappeared persons were presumed dead, the death estimate would be much higher.” The conflict has now continued for 55 months, large numbers of Darfur civilians continue to be missing and presumed (but uncounted) as dead, and many more persons are inaccessible to humanitarian groups. So it is still correct to say that the death toll may be far higher than even our upper bound 255,000 estimate….Yet there are important reasons why a number as large the 400,000 death toll used by Save Darfur may yet be correct, as indicated in our Science article.
So my take is that we don’t really have much clue how many have died in Darfur (including Chad and CAR, where much of the mortality has occurred). I’ll continue to use “several hundred thousand,” which I believe to be conservative – and it’s still true if the number is higher. But the Save Darfur Coalition’s estimates of 400,000 seem plausible to me – and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, think of all the missing men, and fear the toll could be much higher still.