Wildly conflicting death tolls from Haitian officials have raised suspicions that no one really knows how many people died in the Jan. 12 earthquake. The only thing that seems certain is the death toll is one of the highest in a modern disaster.
A day after Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue raised the official death toll to 230,000, her office put out a statement on Wednesday quoting President Rene Preval as saying 270,000 bodies had been hastily buried by the government following the earthquake.
A press officer withdrew the statement, saying there was an error, but then reissued it within minutes. Later on Wednesday, the ministry said there was a typo in the figure - the number should have read 170,000.
Even that didn't clear things up. In the late afternoon, Preval and Lassegue appeared together at the government's temporary headquarters.
Preval, speaking English, told journalists there were 170,000 dead, apparently referring to the number of bodies contained in mass graves.
Lassegue interrupted him in French, giving a number lower than she had given the previous day: "No, no, the official number is 210,000."
Preval dismissed her. "Oh, she doesn't know what she's talking about," he said, again in English.
A death toll of 230,000 would equal the number of people killed in the tsunami that devastated a dozen countries around the
Indian Ocean following a magnitude-9.2 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004.
A third of Haiti's 9 million people were crowded into the chaotic capital when the quake struck a few minutes before 5 p.m. Many were preparing to leave their offices or schools. About 250,000 houses and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed, according to government estimates, many crushing people inside.
For days, people piled bodies by the side of the road or left them half-buried under the rubble. Countless more remain under collapsed buildings, identified only by a pungent odor. No foreign government or independent agency has issued its own death estimate.
Many agencies that usually can help figure casualty numbers say they are too busy helping the living to keep track of the dead. The Joint Task Force in charge of the relief effort - foreign governments and militaries, U.N. agencies and Haitian government officials - quotes only the government death figures.
That number has climbed from a precise 111,481 on Jan. 23, to 150,000 on Jan. 24, to 212,000 on Saturday, to 230,000 on Tuesday. Preval's count of 170,000 bodies buried in mass graves may represent only a piece of the toll _ but nobody at his office was available to clarify.
It's common in major disasters to see large discrepancies in death tolls: Governments may use lower figures to save face, or higher figures to attract foreign aid. In Haiti's case, however, the very institutions responsible for compiling information were themselves devastated, so reaching a death toll is particularly difficult.
Even some officials express skepticism the government is keeping count.
"I personally think that a lot of information being given to the public by the government is estimates," Haiti's chief epidemiologist Dr. Roc Magloire said.
Many citizens are even more cynical, accusing the government of inflating the numbers to attract foreign aid and to take the spotlight off its own lackluster response to the disaster.
"Nobody knows how they came up with the death count. There's no list of names. No list of who may still be trapped. No pictures of people they buried," 45-year-old shop owner Jacques Desal said.
"No one is telling us anything. They just want the aid."
A few days after the quake, the state-run public works department, known as the CNE, began picking up bodies from the streets and dropping them in trenches dug by earth movers in Titanyen, just north of the capital. The trenches are 6 meters (20 feet) deep and filled 6 meters (20 feet) high.
Preval said that the government has counted 170,000 bodies during those efforts, and that the number does not include people buried in private ceremonies. But at Titanyen on Wednesday, worker Estelhomme Saint Val said nobody had counted the bodies.
"The trucks were just dropping people wherever, and then we would move in and cover them up," he said. "We buried people all along the roads and roadsides. It was impossible to do a count." Although the government death toll jumped by the thousands from Saturday to Tuesday, Saint Val said at noon Wednesday that only one truck had arrived this week, and it carried two bodies. He said workers received 15 truckloads of bodies a day just after the quake, but the numbers dropped off about 10 days ago.
Lassegue, in announcing the Tuesday death toll, refused to say how it was calculated.
"For the moment we count 230,000 deaths, but these figures are not definitive," she said. "It's a partial figure." U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs in Geneva, who has often cited Haitian government figures, said Wednesday that she said she doesn't know how Haiti is calculating the death toll: "We cannot confirm these figures."