The view from the busy two-lane road is spectacular: tall limestone mountains rising to the east and the turquoise Caribbean shimmering to the west.
But this is no tourist resort. It’s the site of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of mass graves where government crews buried tens of thousands of people killed by January’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake.
While many of the mass graves are clearly marked with white wooden crosses atop mounds of dirt, the precise number of people buried beneath them may never be known. That’s because since the earthquake, the Haitian government has not provided a precise accounting of the number of victims.
The disparate figures that government officials have provided over time cannot be verified. However, accounts by truck drivers who transported many of the bodies and workers who helped bury the victims suggest that official figures may not be incorrect.
Establishing a more precise death count is important for several reasons. It would help quantify the human loss, add historic context to one of the Western Hemisphere’s worst disasters and help clarify initial confusion over varying death figures.
Haitian government estimates ranged from 100,000 to 270,000 in the days following the earthquake that crumbled thousands of buildings, including the presidential palace, government ministries, schools, churches, businesses and homes.
A government spokesman told The Miami Herald that more than 200,000 people have already been laid to rest in common graves, but that that figure does not include victims still under the rubble and victims buried privately by families or friends.
At the same time, workers at the Port-au-Prince main cemetery said that dozens of private crypts were reopened for earthquake dead.
Though some Haitian officials have talked of logbooks listing victims, two government drivers who carried bodies to mass graves in their dump trucks and one worker who helped bury them in Titanyen said they did not see anyone keeping tabs.
The drivers and the worker said the main mass graves were in the Titanyen area, about 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince.
Assad Volcy, a spokesman for the National Palace, said more than 200,000 Haitians have been buried in common graves. He explained that government experts devised a formula to estimate how many quake victims have been buried.
But Volcy said he did not know what the formula was. He promised to obtain an explanation of the formula but he has not.
Asked about multiple conflicting figures cited by the Haitian government in the days and weeks after the earthquake, including one as high as 270,000, Volcy said the figures reflected estimates that rose as officials continued to “count” victims.
The figure of 270,000, according to the Haitian government, was cited by President René Préval during a meeting in Ecuador in mid-February with South American leaders.
The number was much higher than the first specific death toll of 111,481 issued on Jan. 23.
The next official figure, issued Jan. 24, put the death toll at 150,000. On Feb. 6, the government raised the figure to 212,000. On Feb. 9, the official figure jumped to 230,000.
The next day Préval was quoted as saying 270,000 dead in a communiqué issued in Port-au-Prince, which his government withdrew a few hours later, citing a typo. A short time later, also on Feb.10, a second communiqué was issued changing the figure to 170,000.
In an interview, Volcy said that the varying death tolls reflected rising estimates as officials “counted” more and more dead. But Volcy also could not account for the 60,000-body discrepancy between the Feb. 9 and Feb.10 estimates.
Asked if Haitian officials were confused, Volcy said no.
“There has been no confusion,” he said. “Perhaps there was an error, but our estimates have been based on a formula to estimate numbers.”
Volcy said that according to the formula, which he could not explain, the number of bodies buried in common graves was more than 200,000. The figure excludes bodies still under the rubble or buried in private funerals, he added.
In an interview, a senior Haitian transportation official said his agency transported at least 170,000 bodies to mass graves in the Titanyen area in the first three weeks after the earthquake.
Jean Gardy Ligonde, technical director of the government-run transportation and construction agency known as Centre National des Equipment or CNE, said that between 80 and 100 dump trucks carried the bodies, with each truck making several trips a day.
“Some trucks carried as few as five bodies, others as many as 20 or 50 or 130,” Ligonde said.
Asked if CNE kept precise logbooks listing each body picked up on the street, Ligonde said the agency did not. His statement contradicts that of his boss, Jude Celestin who told The Miami Herald in the days following the quake that CNE workers carried a log with them to keep track of the bodies as they were being loaded into dump trucks.
After the interview, Ligonde called The Miami Herald and said he had been mistaken and that indeed logbooks were kept, but CNE officials said they didn’t have them.
Ligonde said he believes the number of dead is higher than the 170,000 CNE trucks carried to the Titanyen area because bodies also were picked up by private dump trucks and dump trucks belonging to Haiti’s sanitation department, Service Metropolitain de Collecte de Residus Solides or SMCRS.
Harry Toussaint, the SMCRS coordinator, said in an interview that his agency used 10 of its 14 dump trucks to pick up bodies. He said his trucks also carried the bodies to the Titanyen area.
Toussaint said his trucks made between two and four trips a day carrying at most 50 bodies per truck. Toussaint said SMCRS’ involvement in the collection and transportation of bodies lasted only a few days, from about Jan. 14 to about Jan. 19, but added that SMCRS did not keep a precise count of bodies it transported.
Nelis St. Ange, for example, said that in the first two or three weeks after the earthquake, he transported between 100 and 150 bodies on each of the five to six trips he made every day between Port-au-Prince and the mass grave area in Titanyen.
A second driver, Mario Yancy, relayed a similar account.
Yancy and St. Ange said they drove the bodies to open graves dug by other workers in Titanyen, an area of limestone mountains, farms and small seaside motels and bars along the two-lane National Route One from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haïtien in the north.
Maxis Maxime, a farmer in the area who says he helped bury victims, said trucks ferrying bodies came to the open mass graves and dumped bodies in them for about two to three weeks after the earthquake.
“They came in the morning, in the afternoon and in the early evening, day after day, bringing many, many victims,” Maxime recalled. “They stopped coming after the third week.”