Stop Saying Only 355 Died in Chemical Weapons Attack

It's a completely inaccurate reading of MSF's report

How many people died in the August 21st chemical weapons attack? In their official report, the United States government has said that they’ve documented at least 1,429 deaths, of which at least 426 are children. How do we know this is accurate? Here’s a quote from today’s latest report on Syria, posted on Al Jazeera this morning:

Figures vary regarding the alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb on August 21, with the US government saying that 1,429 people were killed by poison gas in the attack, and aid agencies putting that number at closer to 355.

The media has been throwing around this “355” number in many reports on the attack. The way Al Jazeera phrases it here, there have been “aid agencies” on the ground that have investigated this tragedy, and they have determined, with highly specific math, that Obama’s math may be off by 1074 dead people. That’s a shocking margin of error.

Well, upon closer inspection, it’s just really lazy reporting. For starters, “aid agencies” never “put that number at closer to 355.” That’s the LAZIEST piece of reporting that I’ve encountered on Al Jazeera in a long time. So where does the number come from?

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) supports three field hospitals in the Damascus region which treated victims of the attack. According the MSF, those hospitals “reportedly received 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms, of which 355 died.” In other words, MSF is confident that the death toll in their three hospitals alone stands at 355.  This, to be clear, is absolutely NOT an estimate made by MSF about the total number of those killed in Damascus that day.

It’s also worth noting MSF’s statement on the symptoms witnessed in these hospitals. Their role, according to the statement, is not to investigate the incident, nor to assess the scope nor perpetrator of the incident. Their role is simply to save lives, and in doing so they documented the aforementioned number of patients and deaths. The report goes on:

The latest massive influx of patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in Damascus governorate comes on top of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation facing the Syrian people, one characterised by extreme violence, displacement, the destruction of medical facilities, and severely limited or blocked humanitarian action.

In other words, Syria is a catastrophe that is not encapsulated by this MSF report. Summarizing their report as an official estimate by “aid agencies” is therefore unacceptable.

Also, the MSF report is completely consistent with those larger numbers of casualties, often ranging more than 1000. For starters, there were chemical weapons attacks across a huge swatch of Damascus, affecting both East and West Ghouta (map). There were field hospitals across the capital. Furthermore, whole basements were reportedly discovered filled with dead bodies, and some of these discoveries were reported for many days after the event. If MSF saw that number of casualties in just three field hospitals, that’s an indication that the scale of the attack is much larger than their own 355 number would indicate.

OK, so what is the real number of people killed in the August 21st event? The Violations Documentation Center, or VDC,  has directly documented 621 deaths as a result of the attack. By “documented” I mean just that – names, ages, causes of deaths, and pictures.

The Violations Documentation Center is a group that compiles a database of deaths in Syria. The database is searchable, and each entry has been confirmed, on multiple levels, by VDC staff members. For instance, typically VDC members would interview family, as well as a witness and a medical professional or cleric, in order to add a name to their database. At a time where many estimates for Syria’s death toll range from 125,000 to 200,000, the VDC has documented just over 70,000 deaths. This means that they are extremely conservative in their numbers, specifically because they are trying to be so thorough.

In a recent interview by The New Republic, I sang the praises of the VDC. But I wasn’t alone:

Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch, which uses the VDC as a reference, says the group has described its method to her: “They basically endeavor to have more than one activist in a location, and the activists are not in touch. They collect info separately, and they use that separate analysis to corroborate the info they’re receiving.”

Looking at this number, 621 is nearly double the death toll confirmed by MSF. I don’t have enough data to determine, at this time, whether all, or any, of the MSF numbers are included in VDC’s numbers, however.

One also has to keep a few things in mind. First, by tradition, Muslims bury their dead shortly after death. Even if they wanted to, the opposition neighborhoods affected by this massive event would hardly have the ability to store this many bodies. This makes the kind of documentation process that the VDC participates in extremely difficult, especially as the death toll mounts. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that a lot of VDC’s staff was killed while trying to report on the chemical weapons attack. Foreign Policy reports:

Activist Razan Zaitouneh, who runs the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, tells FP that her team sped to the Damascus suburb of Zamalka immediately after a chemical weapons attack was reported there on Aug. 21. The media staff of Zamalka’s local coordination committee, which is responsible for filming videos in the area and uploading them to the world, also sped to the scene. According to Zaitouneh, all but one of them paid with their lives.

There are other estimates. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria also have a thorough documentation process (which I’ve described in the past), though their data is not published in real-time on a searchable website like the VDC. As of the end of the day on August 21st, they reported that 1338 were killed in the attack. That number is now over 1400 and is still growing.

It’s worth noting that, when even opposition groups were putting the death toll in Syria at around 70,000, the United Nations announced that they believed that more than 100,000 had been killed. The UN made this conclusion based on the fact that they had access to multiple databases, and was able to compare them while still providing some level of quality control. In other words, all of these estimates are likely inaccurate. But it’s clear that the death toll is much higher than 355.

The bottom line is that we may never know. More than a week after the attacks, a father was reunited with his son whom he thought was killed in the gas attack. With that level of confusion, it’s safe to say that the confirmed body count is much lower than the actual body count.

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