Darfur's Real Death Toll

Sunday, April 24, 2005

THE BUSH administration's challenge on Darfur is to persuade the world to wake up to the severity of the crisis. On his recent visit to Sudan, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick took a step in the opposite direction. He said that the State Department's estimate of deaths in Darfur was 60,000 to 160,000, a range that dramatically understates the true scale of the killing. If Mr. Zoellick wants to galvanize action on Darfur, he must take a fresh look at the numbers.

The lowest Darfur mortality number previously cited came from the World Health Organization. Last year it reported that 70,000 people had died, and many observers repeated this number without explaining it. WHO's estimate referred only to deaths during a seven-month phase of a crisis that has now been going on for 26 months. It referred only to deaths from malnutrition and disease, excluding deaths from violence. And it referred only to deaths in areas to which WHO had access, excluding deaths among refugees in Chad and deaths in remote rural areas. In other words, the 70,000 estimate from WHO was a fraction of a fraction of the full picture. The 60,000 number that Mr. Zoellick cited as low-but-possible is actually low-and-impossible.

Other authorities suggest that mortality is likely to be closer to 400,000 -- more than twice Mr. Zoellick's high number. The component of this estimate involving deaths by violence is based on a survey by the Coalition for International Justice, a nongovernmental organization operating under contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which asked 1,136 refugees on the Chad-Darfur border whether family members had died violently or gone missing. These interviews yielded a death rate of 1.2 per 10,000 people per day. Extrapolating for all of Darfur's displaced people, John Hagan of Northwestern University estimates that 140,000 people have died violently or gone missing since the start of the conflict. It's possible that the refugees in Chad experienced atypical rates of violence, making that extrapolation unfair. But a study of camps for displaced people within Darfur, published last October in the Lancet, a medical journal, found that more than 90 percent of fugitives had fled their villages because of violent attacks, making the extrapolation appear justified.

What of nonviolent deaths? According to the WHO's misquoted survey, which is based on interviews with nearly 17,000 internally displaced people, the mortality rate from malnutrition and disease comes to 2.1 per 10,000 people per day. Again, extrapolating for all displaced people, Mr. Hagan estimates that 250,000 people have died from malnutrition and disease since the conflict began, so that the total of violent and nonviolent deaths comes to 390,000. Mr. Hagan suggests that this number is conservative, because it assumes that only displaced people are at risk. Many people who remain in their vil-

lages have been exposed to violence and food shortages.

Mr. Hagan's estimate is similar to that of Eric Reeves, an independent Sudan watcher, whose reading of the available surveys is that 380,000 people have died so far. Both Mr. Hagan and Mr. Reeves say that civilians continue to die at a rate of 15,000 per month in Darfur. Of course, these analyses cannot be precise. But the consensus is that the death toll is more than three times higher than the midpoint of the numbers that Mr. Zoellick attributed to the State Department.

Mr. Zoellick deserves credit for visiting Sudan and declaring that "what has gone on in Darfur has to stop." He may feel that the precise mortality numbers don't matter. But his international partners will continue to drag their feet unless they are forced to confront the full horror of the killings. If they are allowed to believe that the death toll is one-third of its real level, the Russians and Chinese will pursue their commercial interests in arming Sudan's government and extracting its oil; Europe will make inadequate humanitarian gestures; the Arab world will ignore the murderous policy of a fellow Muslim government; and the African Union, which has a peace-monitoring force in Darfur, will not step up its intervention enough to stop the killing. Mr. Zoellick needs to shake everyone awake. Next time he should cite better numbers.

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