There's a method to the horrific statistics out of Africa

August 06, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

KIGALI, Rwanda -- The numbers that have come out of the destruction of Rwanda are so big as to be numbing: 2.7 million refugees, 1 million in Goma, Zaire, alone, 500,000 dead in massacres.

Those would be bad enough emerging from one of the world's most populous nations. That Rwanda's relatively small 7.5 million people have produced them makes them all the more horrifying.

But where do those numbers come from? How reliable are they? How can anyone look at a vast crowd of refugees and say that there are a million of them?

The numbers originate with the various relief agencies, groups that have at times been known to err on the side of exaggeration in order to help spur a reluctant world into action in times of crisis.

The 1 million in Goma figure seems a bit too pat, as if the agencies knew that a seven-figure number was bound to get attention. In fact, it was more than a gee-there's-a-lot-of-people-here guess.

In the early days of the refugee exodus to Zaire, there was an attempt to count those crossing the border for a certain number of minutes at various times during the day and then use that figure to extrapolate the total number crossing each day.

Add to that estimates of those coming in over mountains and in other unseen ways, verify by getting estimates of the numbers of people at various locations in the area, round upward a bit, and the 1 million appears.

Actually, it turns out to have been a fairly well-educated guess. The United Nations is trying to do a census by analyzing aerial photography, and it appears that will put the Goma refugee count somewhere between 750,000 and 850,000.

As for those returning to Rwanda, U.N. observers sit at the border crossing and count every day. Again the figure is adjusted for those leaving through the bush.

The number of dead in Goma, more than 20,000, is fairly well-established by the various relief agencies counting the bodies as they are collected and buried.

Many statistics remain elusive. No one really knows the number of people on the move within Rwanda, though it is clear, because huge parts of this once densely populated country are nearly deserted, that the figure must be high and may well approach half the country's population.

Educated estimates must be used for the number of refugees in the southwestern part of the country occupied by French troops.

The figure is well into the hundreds of thousands and has the potential of producing another Goma when the French troops leave later this month.

But the most elusive statistic is the number of people who died in the massacres that followed the death April 9 of the country's president. Estimates range from 200,000 to more than 1 million. The evidence lies buried in mass graves throughout this country. At a gravesite, someone might say 300 people are buried there, another might say 600.

Many of the estimates are derived from a count of the dead in the capital, Kigali, that was made when the International Red Cross got involved in burial. The tally is reported to be 60,000.

Take into account that Kigali, with a population of about 350,000, represents about 5 percent of the country's population. Adjust for the fact that the city would contain a disproportionate number of the groups that were targeted by the assassins, not just Tutsis, but intellectuals, the middle and upper classes, priests and such as well.

With that in mind, officials came up with the number 500,000, even though this would mean 15,000 people a day were killed during the month of heaviest killing that followed the death of the president.

Though their evidence is anecdotal, many journalists, aid workers, and others who were in the country during that month of killing have no trouble imagining 15,000 deaths a day, 10 times the number dying of cholera per day in the Goma camps at the height of the epidemic.

Indeed, most of those who saw the killers in action say the 500,000 figure is too low.

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