Missing details

Minister of National Security Marvin Dames’ contradiction of the Royal Bahamas Police Force’s (RBPF) most recent statement on the number of persons reported missing in Hurricane Dorian’s aftermath has sparked new controversy, and adds yet another layer of confusion to a matter that has long since drawn the ire and criticism of bereaved family members and observers.

Attention on the matter rekindled last week after former Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands called on the government to explain to the public the reasons for drastic reductions in the reported number of missing persons, reasons he said could be both reasonable and justifiable.

This call for accountability was made in several articles by Perspective over the last nine months since Dorian’s passage.

In our most recent interview with Dames back in March, we questioned the minister with responsibility for the police on why the government had not yet made good on promises to publish the list of missing persons, which he said should be released “very shortly”.

Yesterday, Dames said the number of missing persons held by police stood at 279, but on May 24, Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of the Central Detective Unit Solomon Cash said the number held by police stood at 33.

Dames’ new figure has put the integrity of the process involved in determining the number of missing into question.

And it ironically has lent credence to Sands’ contention that having not previously shared with the public the reasons behind reductions in the missing count, the government raised many questions and “squandered credibility”.

That Dames’ statement was not accompanied by a publishing of the names of the 279 persons he says are on the RBPF’s missing person’s roster is especially troubling and saliently failed the accountability test.

Parade of figures

Last September, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis in his address to the United Nations General Assembly reported that 600 people were missing in Dorian’s aftermath.

Five days later, on October 2, Minnis advised Parliament that the number of missing was 424, a difference of 176 people.

Though the prime minister gave the figure of 424 while on his feet, his communication which was distributed to parliamentarians, the press and the public had the figure of “approximately 600”.

Shortly after the prime minister’s communication, a press release from Bahamas Information Services (BIS) was issued quoting Social Services Minister Frankie Campbell as saying, “We are just under 800 persons who remain unaccounted for and even that number is likely to be reduced with further cross-checking.”

Social services was initially charged with the task of collecting the names of missing persons as provided to them by storm evacuees registered at shelters on New Providence.

The department’s figure started out at over 3,500.

A week later, on October 9, Campbell advised Parliament during debate on proposed amendments to the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act that “to date, the number of persons still missing or unaccounted for is 1,003 in Abaco and 205 in Grand Bahama” — a total of 1,208 people.

A day later, Dames was quoted in the Tribune as providing yet a new figure for the number of missing post-Dorian — 282, adding that official missing persons lists must come from the police.

The next time the nation heard from the police on the matter was in January of this year, when then Commissioner of Police Anthony Ferguson said the missing persons count stood at 54.

Cash’s count of 33 came four months later.

National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) missing persons forms submitted to the agency last September by representatives of Human Rights Bahamas and provided to Perspective by those representatives, list 154 Abaco residents as reported missing by relatives; seven of whom are children no older than 10.

Dames’ statement raises key questions.

The national security minister said yesterday, “Police immediately went to work to compile a centralized list which totaled 1,092 people from both Grand Bahama and Abaco. Of the total, 34 were from Grand Bahama and 1,058 were from Abaco.”

He advised that 813 of the 1,092 consisted of “persons in need of housing assistance, persons reporting other crimes, persons who were displaced and duplication of names”, bringing the police’s count of the missing to 279.

Dames did not explain the investigative process used to determine the identities of those on its centralized list, and how, for example, it determined that names which might be identical are a duplication rather than different persons with the same name.

He did not explain why police did not publish a list of the missing so as to enhance and broaden the scope of its investigation into the identities of those on its centralized list.

The national security minister must now explain to the nation how it is that he has provided a figure so vastly different from that provided by the force’s lead investigator, and as such, must reconcile this marked disparity with his contention that the Ministry of National Security has sought to be “as thorough as possible in accounting for the death toll”.

Accountability vs accusation

Though Sands’ statements on the missing persons saga in Parliament created political fireworks, nothing he said was in fact new to the public.

That the numbers decreased from “over 3,500” to 33 — all without full accounting to the public — has been widely publicized and criticized.

Dames maintained yesterday that, “At no time was any attempt made by the police or anyone else to delete any names off the list without first performing due diligence,” but no such accusation has been levied against the police or the government, either by Sands, or by any other public official.

We accept that once politics enters the fray, it dominates discussions and colors public perception.

Nevertheless, it is our view that political implications of Sands’ call for accountability regarding a missing persons process over which neither he nor his former ministry had responsibility, is of lesser importance than the inarguable fact that the process has been handled poorly, and has led to ongoing anguish for family members who might never get closure.

Has accountability come to bear in this matter, particularly in light of Dames’ newest statement? No.

Has an accusation of malfeasance in this regard been levied against the RBPF or Dames? No.

What is also clearly evidenced to the nation is that the handling of Dorian’s deceased on Abaco has been fraught with problems, culminating in a burial the handling of which was a national disgrace.

Sands’ comments on the handling of the dead justifiably prompted questions from the public on his reasons, as the public understandably assumed the Ministry of Health has always had carriage of the deceased and the identification thereof.

In an interview with Perspective conducted prior to Dames’ press statement, Sands indicated that though the Ministry of Health initially had carriage over the process of managing Dorian’s deceased on Abaco, that responsibility was removed from health shortly after the storm.

He disclosed, “Shortly, maybe within a couple of weeks, the control of the deceased victims or the remains, was removed from the Ministry of Health and placed under the control of the Office of the Prime Minister, and that was enforced by either the defense force or the police force.”

Sands added, “So the role of the Ministry of Health then, was to provide forensic or pathological services to the coroner, to the police and I guess ostensibly to the Office of the Prime Minister.”

Last year, reports circulated that responsibility for the deceased was removed from the Ministry of Health due to upset over statements by Sands while as minister, that the death toll from Dorian would be more significant than was being reported at the time.

Sands did not confirm or deny such reports to us, and instead declined to comment.

People vs politics

We have noted with interest the outrage expressed in some quarters by Sands’ call for the process of determining the missing to be explained to the public, and we question whether this outrage is over the treatment of victims and their families, or over politics.

To be sure, most Abaconians and Grand Bahamians who are continuing to struggle with Dorian’s impact do not care about how good or bad the latest turn of events makes government politicians look.

Their pain supersedes politics.

A painful low point in Dorian’s aftermath was that while many Bahamians empathized with the loss suffered by Abaco residents regardless of nationality or immigration status, many also openly expressed disinterest in the handling of the missing persons list, reasoning that since the missing were probably “just Haitians”, it did not matter because they ought not have been in the country in the first place.

The belief that the missing were undocumented Haitian migrants was in part, in our view, the reason national outrage did not develop over the government’s well-documented silence on how the list of the missing was being handled.

As Abaco’s bereaved were shut out of the process of the recent burial of storm victims, government sympathizers chastised them as being ungrateful for all those sympathizers claimed the government did for them.

And throughout the Dorian response, there was a consistent undertone that asking questions and raising criticisms about that response was tantamount to a lack of patriotism or “making the government look bad”.

In short, even in death and destruction, the politics and the cultural biases of many Bahamians could hardly be restrained.

As controversy regrettably continues regarding who died and who is missing in Dorian’s aftermath, Bahamians who are upset over the current fallout might do well to ask themselves what forms the basis of that upset.

Is it a sincere longing for closure for those who lost loved ones in Dorian, whether they be Bahamian or Haitian, documented or undocumented, or is it the perceived political losses those we support or are connected to, are currently suffering?

With all the missing details since September 2019, is our primary concern politics and political standing, or the people Dorian’s devastation left behind?

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