Haiti has buried an estimated 52,000 victims since the earthquake on 12 January 2010. More bodies still lie under the rubble, but the total number of casualties will not surpass 100,000 - that's according to observation and research on the ground in Haiti, carried out by Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
This number is considerably smaller than the number of 217,000 victims the Haitian government claims to have counted so far, and far fewer than the estimated final count of 300,000 mentioned by President René Préval just last Sunday.
Listen to a report by correspondent Hans Jaap Melissen
“Haiti did not die” (see photo) is the text on the T-shirts worn by more and more Haitians out on the streets. It appears to be the first sign of a more realistic approach to this disaster, about which it can be concluded, after weeks of research on the ground by Radio Netherlands Worldwide, that the actual death toll is much lower than the Haitian government estimates.
To gain a complete understanding of the actual figures it's important to look beyond Port-au-Prince. The epicentre of the earthquake was actually located in Léogâne, half an hour's drive west of the capital. In this area, 80 percent of all buildings were either heavily damaged or totally destroyed. Soon after the earthquake, the government was already reporting that 20,000 to 30,000 deaths had occurred in Léogâne. But local authorities say that - out of a community of 200,000 people - they have now buried 3,364 dead, a number which may rise to 5,000.
In the southern town of Jacmel, for example, there weren't 4,000 victims, as initially reported, but 400. In Petit-Goâve, Grand-Goâve and Gressier, officials have meticulously counted the bodies and arrived at a grand total of 1,367 dead, including 20 victims yet to be dug up from under the rubble.
A 'census' of cemeteries
Back in Port-au-Prince, 18,000 victims have been brought to the main cemetery, while a 'tour' of other graveyards yields a maximum total of 7,000 victims. Here, too, those in charge have kept count of the victims or are able to provide reliable estimates.
Fairly soon after the earthquake the government began having bodies transported to mass graves in Titanyen, outside the capital. But conversations with people on the spot and those involved in moving the bodies of the dead have revealed that that these graves hold 20,000 victims at the very most. And that is a very 'generous' estimate of the total, perhaps over the actual mark by as much as 7,000. In recent days, the number of bodies being brought here each day has been no higher than 30 to 50.
Titanyen has, in fact, for years been a place outside the city where unclaimed bodies from hospitals have been brought for burial. It's a practice that continues today. A generous estimate now would put the total number of people buried in Haiti so far at close to 52,000.
An important factor when it comes to establishing the final body count is, of course, the number of people still unaccounted for - those still buried beneath collapsed buildings. There are thousands of these victims, that is certain, but probably not many tens of thousands. It is precisely those places where large numbers of people were killed together – such as schools, hotels and supermarkets – which had priority for search parties and which have been thoroughly cleared of debris. Even if one were to take a relatively high estimate of 30,000 victims still lying under the rubble, then the total number of casualties would still be a ‘mere’ 82,000.
One could then add in an additional 'safety' margin to account for victims whose bodies may have been removed and buried privately elsewhere by their families and - more rarely still - those whose mortal remains disappeared into the sea, or were carried off amongst the rubble. After all, it's important to remember that shortly after the earthquake, the government called on the people - through those radio stations that were still on the air - to bring the bodies of the dead to the roadsides, or place them outside churches or cemeteries for transport to the mass graves. So let’s assume as many as 10,000 Haitians did not end up in 'official' mass graves or cemeteries. Even then the death toll would still not surpass 92,000. And even then, that number is one that incorporates 'generous' estimates and large 'safety' factors.
“The fact that the death toll isn’t as high as we first expected is due, among other things, to a lot of people having been out on the streets at 16:53,” says Desir Marxerne, a town council representative in Leogane. “And those who were inside often managed to escape just in time.”
The quake lasted 35 seconds. Many buildings did not collapse immediately, but caved in - for example - some 20 seconds later, giving people time to run outside. True enough, many were injured as they escaped, but they did not die.
When questions about the death toll are put to government officials they have a remarkable effect, for no one seems to be responsible for the official body count. Everyone refers you on to Marie-Laurence Lassèque, Haiti’s Culture and Communications Minister, who for weeks has maintained that the number of dead exceeds 200,000. Yet she is unable to provide a convincing explanation as to how she has arrived at this figure.
Listen to an interview with Katherine Knowles of the Red Cross in the Netherlands
Figures often unreliable
The Red Cross, which is the main aid organisation operating in Haiti, says it's common for figures to be wildly exaggerated in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. This is because damage to infrastructure makes it difficult to count bodies accurately, says Red Cross spokeswoman Katherine Knowles: "It does happen after a big disaster like this that other figures are published or it turns out the figures are different than had been published in the beginning. Of course, straight after a disaster like this it's really hard to know what kind of figures are true and what the actual figures are."
The Red Cross takes its own body count from official UN statistics and says it's more concerned with the number of survivors than what the death toll is, says Katherine Knowles: "Although the amount of deaths is very important to see the scale of a disaster, what the Red Cross does do is identify the number of people we can help in that area. At this point we are focussing our aid on 400,000 people in Haiti."
The United Nations says it is not conducting any independent research into the Haitian death toll. It says it will go by the official Haitian figures for the time being. In the meantime, criticism of President Preval is growing. Opponents argue that he did not show and has not shown sufficient leadership after the quake and that he allowed foreigners, such as the Americans, too much say in what has happened since.
The government, in turn, continues to deflect this criticism by claiming the crisis was so extremely immense, it had no choice. In that regard, a lower death toll would in no way diminish the immensity of the crisis, but it might undermine somewhat this claim on the part of the Haitian government.