Dr. Les Roberts Details Deaths in African Conflicts

A packed Red Pit on Thursday March 3, was privileged to hear a “local boy done good,” as Professor Steve Orvis described him. Les Roberts, a native of the Syracuse area and now a human rights epidemiologist, visited Hamilton to talk about three of his conflict surveys. In a lecture titled “Three measures of hardship from three African wars,” Roberts led a transfixed crowd through a brief history of violence in war and then on to three examples he saw firsthand: Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, and what is now Congo.


Roberts began by showing a graphic which described the size of Napoleon's army as it attacked Russia. As the campaign went on, more and more of the army succumbed to cold and disease; by the time Napoleon had fully retreated, 95 percent of his force was lost. Roberts explained that this was the common trend in war. Most casualties come from effects of the war but not actual violence. Problems such as malnutrition, dehydration, or a lack of medical services are extreme in conflict regions.

The first example was the case of Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe held a sham election in 2005. Despite losing the vote, he stuffed the ballot box and claimed victory. To take revenge on those who voted against him, he instituted Operation Murambatsvina, or “Operation clean sweep.” He leveled slums and pushed hundreds of thousands of people in the capital of Harare from their homes. No reporters or human rights agencies were allowed in Zimbabwe at the time, so it was very difficult to evaluate just how many people had been displaced. Aerial photos showed previously populated areas leveled; Roberts noted that it was “probably the first time [satellite] photographs were the primary proof of human rights abuses.”

Roberts and others went to Zimbabwe to document the atrocities and attempt to create a case for the International Criminal Court. He used a “spatial sampling method,” drawing a 2x2 km grid over Harare and picking every third inhabited square to sample. His questioners asked lots of indirect questions, hoping to ultimately discover the level of displacement. While the first survey found little displacement, a second survey of densely-populated areas found that nearly 20 percent of the people had been affected by Murambatsvina. In spite of a recorded spike in deaths during the period, Roberts was unable to make a case to the International Criminal Court. His conclusion was that he “did the wrong study” since even though it observed atrocities it was unable to draw any major statistically significant conclusions.

Deaths in the Central African Republic were the topic of another investigation by Roberts. The United Nations commissioned the study after a 2008 cease fire. Using a similar spatial sampling method, Roberts interviewed 598 women. He found that the mortality rate in the government-controlled southern portion of the country was four times higher than the regional average. In the ungoverned North, the rate was even higher.

Shortly before Roberts' study, UNICEF and the Central African Republic government conducted a survey that found a death rate three times lower. Roberts observed that countries have an incentive to under-report deaths, and as a result of UNICEF pressure he could not release his findings even after Doctors Without Borders verified his methodology. He observed that more people will die in the CAR this year than died in the Haiti earthquake in early 2010.

His last example discussed the situation in Congo in the late 1990s and early 21st century. After the Rwandan genocide, Hutus who were involved in the massacres fled to Eastern Congo. Rwanda and Uganda went across the border to capture them, ultimately invading all of Congo. Roberts did work combating measles in Congo when he heard a New York Times report that said 150,000 people died in the conflict. Believing this was too low, Roberts investigated further and found that 1.7 million people died between 1998 and 2000. In a 2001 follow-up, Roberts found that a total of 2.5 million people had died.

Roberts asserted that in all cases the deaths from war were mostly children. He observed that deaths did not come from one source, and violence had many cascading effects. It led to the closure of health clinics, hunger, disease, and dehydration. He also noted that most estimates of deaths in conflicts were guesses or simply made up. Roberts concluded by noting that solving these problems in 20 years will require skills no one has yet, but skills students can learn.

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