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Study Shows Darfur Deaths in Hundreds of Thousands

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September 19, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The unimaginable tale of genocide in Darfur continues to unfold in the news, of people burned, mutilated and otherwise slaughtered. But as devastating as those news reports are, death toll estimates regularly cited by the press are frequently underestimated, according to a new study, titled “Death in Darfur,” which appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of the journal Science.

The death toll in Darfur is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands rather than the tens of thousands of people that large news organizations continue to report, according to a study by John Hagan, John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Law at Northwestern, and Alberto Palloni, H. Edwin Young Professor of International Studies at the University of Wisconsin.

“It is no longer appropriate for news organizations to report tens of thousands of deaths in Darfur,” said Hagan. “The numbers are clearly in the hundreds of thousands and are continuing to grow.”

With the possibility that African Union troops will soon be forced to leave Darfur, the staggering difference in estimated death toll numbers threatens to become even larger.

The crisis of death and displacement in western Sudan began in February 2003 and soon engulfed all three states of North, West and South Darfur. The uncertainty in estimating the death toll results both from difficulties inherent in surveying a war-torn region in Africa as well as from assumptions made by agencies generating estimates, Hagan said.

Getting an accurate body count is impossible. Thus, estimates must rely on interviews rather than on body counts, which are used for natural disasters. Surveys from displacement camp samples must be substituted for unavailable population-based census data. Extrapolating from limited samples to an entire population at risk is problematic. A quarter century of famine and war has reconfigured nuclear families, making sampling units in surveys problematic. Current surveys also vary in real periods and coverage. Finally, past estimates of Darfur mortality have been based on the dubious assumption of constant numbers of deaths per month.

Early in 2005 a United Nations humanitarian coordinator reported that 180,000 died during an 18-month period, on the basis of extrapolation from a World Health Organization estimate. Other estimates doubled the 180,000 figure, and Kofi Annan suggested there were 300,000 deaths.

Then in the spring of 2005, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick reported a lower estimate of 63,000 to 146,000 deaths. Following the state department's estimate, the press largely reverted to reporting a Darfur death toll in the tens of thousands of lost lives. Though the state department remedied problems from earlier estimates, new issues were introduced.

To address the issues in estimating the death toll, Hagan and Palloni built an estimate from the best of the primary surveys from West Darfur. They then extrapolated their estimate across the three states of Darfur for 31 months, resulting in a total estimate that at least 200,000 have died, and probably more.

Hagan and Palloni's goal is to establish a “floor” estimate that underlines the urgency of the situation in unequivocal terms.