You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

When Numbers Lie

Why isn’t there an accurate death toll in Libya?

For the first few weeks of the Libyan rebellion, the death count varied wildly. The United Nations estimated that 1,000 Libyans had been killed. The World Health Organization put the estimate at 2,000, while the International Criminal Court put the number closer to 10,000. Since early March, however, estimates have become scarce and even less definite. Now, over a week since the international no-fly zone halted Qaddafi’s advance on Benghazi, authoritative estimates of civilian and military deaths are practically nonexistent. So how many people have died in the conflict in Libya?

The answer is surprisingly complicated. The science of counting deaths in war is a subset of epidemiology, the science behind the cause and spread of disease. The ideal method, according to Paul Bolton, a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, is to conduct surveys by going door-to-door and tabulating the number of deaths in each household. Perhaps the best known report to use this method was the 2006 Iraq casualties report issued by the British medical journal The Lancet, which put combatant and non-combatant deaths from March 2003 to June 2006 at over 600,000, a far higher figure than American military or Iraqi government estimates. Though The Lancet’s report was questioned by many supporters of the war—including President George W. Bush—academic epidemiologists and statisticians widely praised it as rigorous and thorough.

But, in the early phases of a war, such methods are almost impossible to carry out. “When the bullets are still flying,” says Bolton, “the only method available is to count bodies.” This, of course, poses its own challenges. Researchers must devise creative mechanisms to collect information from locals—gleaning information from cemeteries or places that sell shrouds, for example. One strategy, according to Sharon McDonnell of Dartmouth Medical School, is to recruit locals to act as “sentinels,” or informants, who will record deaths. Technology, such as social media and satellites that can detect body heat emanating from mass graves, can help with information gathering, but almost all methods still require somebody impartial on the ground.

In this sense, the death count from the Libyan uprising has proved even harder to tally than a typical armed conflict. NGOs, such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders, which often provide impartial first-hand reports in war-torn areas, have been banned from the west of the country. “We are still being told there’s no need for humanitarian aid in Tripoli or elsewhere [in the West],” says Simon Brooks, the head of the Red Cross mission in Benghazi. “The west of Libya is a black hole,” says Fred Abraham of Human Rights Watch. In places like Zawiya, a western rebel town retaken by the Qaddafi government over a week ago, “we have no idea what’s going on,” says Abraham. Although Brooks says that the Red Cross has “very credible reports” of the war affecting civilians, they have not been able to confirm or deny those reports.

Since early March, then, the only estimates have come from the Qaddafi government and the rebels, both of whom have little incentive to report accurately. (A recent funeral staged by the Qaddafi regime, where reporters could not find any relatives of the “dead,” and where at least one of the coffins was actually empty, demonstrated the extent to which the government cannot be trusted.) And so, the death toll remains unclear. “The only numbers I can give are for the sixteenth through the twenty-fifth [of February], which come to about four hundred twenty or four hundred thirty,” says Abraham. One of the few things that those following the conflict can probably agree on is that the real toll is likely to be much higher.

James Downie is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

Follow @tnr on Twitter