Seeking an accurate death toll in Haiti

TITANYEN, Haiti — On a dusty, wind-swept hillside overlooking a marshy wasteland just outside of Port-au-Prince, an unmemorable black marble statue marks the spot of remembrance for all those killed in the earthquake.

There are four simple words in Creole carved into the polished black marble: “We will never forget.”

But the simple wooden crosses placed by grieving families that dot the hillside seem somehow more memorable and more meaningful than the poor, municipal attempt to honor the dead reflected by the monument, which actually appears to be made of a composite, not real marble.

But perhaps the greatest insult to the dead is that there is no reliable count of just how many tens of thousands of bodies were dumped in the mass grave here in a dumping ground which translates from Creole roughly as “a little nothing.”

The desolate hillside has long been a place where construction debris, toxic waste and human bodies have been dumped in holes dug in the silty soil since the days of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Locals say the tradition goes back even further and that the land is infused with some dark mysticism from all the souls buried there.

The estimates run as high as 150,000 bodies which were buried here after the earthquake. But no one seems to know. In fact, the precise death toll of the 7.0 earthquake remains a matter of considerable debate.

A leaked US State Department document in the immediate aftermath placed the number at approximately 80,000. The official Haitian government number is 316,000, a figure which was revised upwards last year from an original estimate of 230,000. The Associated Press, Reuters and other major news organizations have wavered in the figure they use, but many news organizations still use the original Haitian government estimate of 230,000 dead. This is the number we have used at GlobalPost. But it is nearly impossible to provide an accurate accounting of the loss of life.

The best piece written on this sad fact was published in Columbia Journalism Review and written by Maura O’Connor, a GlobalPost contributing correspondent.

Standing here with the sulfur smell of low tide and the faint whiff of death blowing on a dusty wind, it seems we all could honor the dead by taking the time to arrive upon a more precise toll of the lives lost on January 12, 2010. 

You can read the first part of the Ford Foundation-funded continuing series at “Fault Line: Aid, Politics and Blame in Post-Quake Haiti.”  

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