UNITED NATIONS — How many people have died in Darfur? Two years ago, the U.N. estimated 200,000. But the man who gave that figure now says it's far too low to be accurate. Sudan has long said it's way too high.
A new mortality survey might settle the question, but the U.N. has no plans for one — they say they are too busy trying to help the living. Activist groups say Sudan's government doesn't want one.
Former U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said in a recent AP interview there is no question that tens of thousands more people have died since he made the 200,000 estimate in 2006. He cited the dramatic increase in the number of people affected by the conflict and the recent upsurge in fighting, and said 400,000 dead is probably closer to the truth.
But Egeland, now a special adviser to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said only a large new mortality survey and access to areas that humanitarian workers cannot reach can provide an accurate death toll in the five-year conflict.
Aid workers have long been prevented from reaching parts of Darfur because of obstruction by the Sudanese government and the ongoing violence.
The conflict in Darfur began in early 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government. Critics accuse Sudan of arming the janjaweed militias and have terrorized Darfur villages — a charge Khartoum denies.
Sudan strongly disputes the 200,000 figure, contending that deaths in Darfur are only a tiny fraction of that — less than 10,000. Aid workers say that figure probably reflects people killed by bullets, not by starvation or disease.
The last official, independent mortality survey for Darfur was released in March 2005 based on data collected by a team from the World Health Organization from 8,844 displaced people living in camps. It estimated that 10,000 people had died among the refugees each month between the end of 2003 and October 2004 — mostly of malnutrition and disease linked to the violence.
Egeland said when he was interviewed at the end of 2005 "I just added the 10,000 we found that died per month in 2004. ... I said well it's 18 months, it's 180,000." A few months later he raised it to 200,000.
"Then, the clock stopped ticking, sort of," he said in an interview earlier this month.
"You have the figure 200,000 people died in Darfur which has been used continuously since I gave it," Egeland said. "Please stop using that figure. I gave it. It's 2 1/2 years old. It's wrong."
Working hard for those alive
Christina Bennett, a spokeswoman for Egeland's successor, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs which he heads has no plans to conduct a new mortality survey.
"We're working as hard as we can to assist the living," she said. "It is likely that more than 200,000 people have died, but what we focus on is not the number of people who have died but the 4 million people who are needlessly suffering in Darfur at the moment."
Bennett said that to calculate the number of deaths in Darfur "would require a complex and thorough survey which we feel under current circumstances would be extremely time consuming and expensive, and any real accuracy in those numbers would be impossible to achieve."
John Prendergast, co-chair of the Washington-based Enough Project, which works to end genocide and crimes against humanity, countered that mortality studies can be done with a few epidemiologists and are not that costly or time consuming.
"The problem is twofold: The government of Sudan does not want a new mortality study done for Darfur, and because of that the United Nations won't pursue it," he said in an interview.
Eric Reeves, a Sudan researcher and analyst at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, agreed that the Sudanese government has no interest in a new mortality study.
"In my view, it is critically important to do the best we can to assess total mortality to date, if only to give a moral dignity to those who've lost their lives and to their families," he said in an interview. "If we refuse to acknowledge that deaths are well in excess of 200,000 — a figure that has grown very stale over the past 1 1/2 years — we risk failing to understand how great the impending human destruction may be in Darfur and in eastern Chad."
The 4 million people in desperate need of aid represent nearly two thirds of the entire estimated Darfur population of 6.5 million. An estimated 2.5 million live in refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad, while others cling on in remote villages, the U.N. says.
One of the major problems in calculating deaths is that Darfur is a sprawling, harsh and arid region two-thirds the size of France and nearly the size of Texas where large numbers of people flee their homes every month.
Since Egeland's initial calculation, Bennett said humanitarian workers have arrived in Darfur in large numbers and have saved many lives.
"For example, there have been no epidemics, and severe malnutrition is below emergency levels," Bennett said.
Mortality levels said to be lower
Richard Garfield, who coordinates the health and nutrition tracking service at the World Health Organization in Geneva, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that seven mortality surveys in 2007 among the internally displaced or residents of Darfur showed "expected levels of mortality." Each survey covered about 1,000 households, and not more than 2,000 households.
"Darfur is not experiencing the very high levels of mortality it was experiencing up to a few years ago. So the job now is to assist those who can be assisted and to provide security so others can be reached," Garfield said.
But Garfield also conceded that the studies involved only areas where aid groups have been able to work. "We don't know the situation in areas that can't be reached," he said.
Some researchers and human rights advocates contend that violence has continued at the same or greater level every month since March 2005, meaning total deaths now could be as high as 400,000.
Egeland believes 400,000 "is a much more correct figure than 200,000."
He said the 2005 estimate of 10,000 deaths a month came when the war was seriously affecting some 1 million people.
"The mortality has gone down because of successful relief to the refugees, but there are now four million people affected, not one million," Egeland said. "So many more people are affected, and, of course, the excess number of deaths must be still 10,000 of these four million people."
'No one knows for sure'
Prendergast, at the Enough Project, agreed that extrapolating the mortality studies "the number would be much closer to 400,000 than 200,000."
Reeves, the Smith College researcher, believes the number of dead could be closer to 500,000 in Darfur and eastern Chad.
Allyn Brooks-LaSure, spokesman for the Save Darfur Coalition, said that "there are no concrete numbers" because "when epidemiologists try to get in, the Sudanese don't let them in."
"What we say is the number could be as many as 400,000 due to violence, disease and starvation. But no one knows for sure," Brooks-LaSure said.
Egeland said even a big mortality survey "will only be guesstimates because there are many areas where we have had no access for periods, and where we do not know how many people live, and how many people die from disease, from malnutrition and so on."
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