Savo Heleta looks at the ways death tolls are manipulated for political ends and argues the same could be happening in Darfur.
The conflict in Darfur, now in its sixth year, is for a long time one of the prime news around the world. Other conflicts come and go, but Darfur is receiving extensive coverage ever since the American government officials called the conflict genocide in the late 2004.
The fighting in Darfur broke out in 2003, when two rebel groups took up arms against the Sudanese government forces. The rebels, who came from predominantly "African" sedentary tribes, blamed political, economic, and social marginalization and neglect of the region by the "Arab" dominated government of Sudan as the main causes of rebellion in Darfur, the vast western Sudanese province the size of France.
Soon after the rebellion began, the Sudanese government mobilized and armed local militias from Darfur's Arab ethnic groups, called Janjaweed, particularly those without traditional land rights, to fight against the "African" rebels. The Janjaweed are believed to be behind the worst atrocities against civilians in Darfur.
Referring to a 2006 estimate by the World Health Organization, the Western media, politicians, and international humanitarian organizations claim that more than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003. Out of these 200,000 victims, the World Health Organization estimates that about 20% people died from fighting and violence, while 80% died from starvation and diseases. It is estimated that over 2 million people are living in refugee camps in Darfur and neighboring countries after fleeing their homes.
Some organizations, such as the American advocacy group Save Darfur Coalition and the Washington-based and the United States State Department-funded Center for International Justice claimed, without any evidence, that over 400,000 people have died in Darfur.
Recently, John Holmes, a senior United Nations official in charge of humanitarian relief, announced that as many as 300,000 people could have died in the Darfur conflict. Holmes said that the 300,000 total "is not a very scientifically based figure," but a "reasonable hypothesis and extrapolation" from the earlier estimate of 200,000.
Why are these Darfur death toll estimates taken for granted by so many people, media, and organizations in the West? How reliable are these numbers, considering that humanitarian workers, the main source of data used to come up with the estimates, have had only limited access to many areas in Darfur since the conflict began in 2003? Could the death toll be inflated? Would someone purposely exaggerate the numbers?
The Western media, aid agencies, and advocacy groups have exaggerated numbers of war victims around the world on many occasions before.
During the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s, the international aid agencies, the United Nations officials, and the Western diplomats and media had claimed that between 200,000 and 300,000 people had lost their lives in fighting that ravaged the country for four years. The widely accepted figure that almost no one questioned was at least 200,000 dead. The international community and Bosnian politicians had used these numbers for their own purposes all the way until early 2007, when an independent Research and Documentation Center from Bosnia and Herzegovina, after three years of extensive and nonpartisan work, revealed that 100,000 people, civilians and soldiers on all sides, had died in the war. They collected over twenty different facts about each victim, such as people's names, nationality, time and place of birth and death, and circumstances of death.
The Bosnian death toll of 100,000 people is an enormous tragedy, but still it is not the same as 200,000 or 300,000 dead. The aid agencies that came up with the inflated death toll in Bosnia never publicly commented on their exaggeration. The Western media kept quiet or only briefly reported about the new findings. No one has ever apologized for the overstated numbers used for about 15 years. People in Darfur need help. Their suffering and misery should not be used for political campaigning around the world.
Darfur urgently needs peace through a negotiated settlement that can effectively tackle political, social, and economic marginalization of the region, first by the British colonial government and later by the successive post-independence governments of Sudan.
Numbers currently used to portray the death toll in Darfur may be correct. Yet, knowing the record of the international aid agencies, the Western governments and media, and various advocacy groups, it should not come as a surprise if the current estimate of 300,000 dead was exaggerated to serve some hidden purposes outside Darfur.
* Savo Heleta is the author of Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia (AMACOM, March 2008) and a postgraduate student in Conflict Transformation and Management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
**Please send comments to or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/