On 14 August 2016 in the Protection of Civilians (POC) site near Bentiu, in Unity State, South Sudan, children play at dusk.

A Massive New Estimate of South Sudan’s Death Toll Is Released as the Country Takes Steps Toward Peace

A new report details the deadly toll of the civil war in South Sudan, one of the world’s most overlooked conflicts. The report puts the number of conflict related casualties at over 380,000 since the war began in December 2013, a number not that far behind the estimated 511,000 killed in Syria since March 2011. But behind the numbers lies the devastation sustained by the people of South Sudan over the last five years and the real stakes of the recently revitalized peace process.

In complex conflicts like South Sudan, calculating the human cost of war is difficult. Lack of access throughout the country, inconsistent reporting and competing narratives from the warring sides makes it hard to confirm events as they occur. The UN gave its last estimate back in March 2016 when it estimated the death toll of at least 50,000. Despite further evidence of widespread ethnic cleansing, growing humanitarian catastrophe around food security, and a steady flow of refugees fleeing the country, the UN has never updated its estimate. It had essentially stopped trying to count, a fate that also befell the conflicts in Darfur and Syria.

Using media reports, household surveys and information from humanitarian aid groups, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that at least 383,000 people died from conflict related causes from December 2013 to April 2018. About half of these deaths are classified as “violent” meaning they are directly attributed to fighting, while the other half are the result of food insecurity, lack of medical care, disease and other secondary causes common in war. But despite the extensive data collection and analysis, the report still finds that the overall number of conflict related deaths may be much higher. The high amount of displacement – estimated in July 2018 to be 1.7 million displaced internally with at least 2 million refugees living in neighboring countries – complicates local baseline estimates that mortality figures are compared to.

Much of the analysis and its potential drawbacks are highly technical and not easily accessible to the average reader. Without adequate access throughout the country, statistical analyses like this are often the only way to estimate the final death toll.

But calculating the human cost of war is still important. It gives insight into the trauma suffered by ordinary people, and the scale of rebuilding that will need to happen once the conflict ends. As South Sudan enters another attempt at implementing a peace deal, this week’s report gives context to the task ahead.

The struggle towards peace

In August the leaders of the two main warring factions – President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar – signed a peace agreement aimed at ending the civil war. It is not the first such attempt to end the war; in fact, it is the twelfth agreement the two have signed since the war started in 2013 with each previous agreement collapsing shortly afterwards. But unlike previous attempts, the government of Sudan is a signed guarantor along with neighboring Uganda. This adds a significant regional dimension in implementing the accords, and offers the possibility of cutting off the main outside support for the factions as Sudan is the main financial backer of Machar and just as Uganda is for Kiir.

But even with this iteration, observers noted ongoing fighting just a few weeks after the signing ceremony, particularly in the contentious region of Unity State and the area around the capital of Juba. In recent weeks, though the fighting has significantly subsided, says UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan Alain Noudehou. “There has been a marked reduction in the intensity of fighting since the negotiations and agreement,” se told UN Dispatch. “There is still fighting in some pockets, but not as much as there used to be.” 

Still, the agreement doesn’t address some key issues such as security arrangements, justice for the atrocities committed or the need for constitutional reform. This leaves a lot wanting for those who have been fighting for nearly five years. The lack of tangible political gains for those not at the highest levels of government means convincing the vast number of militia groups and army units – none of which are particularly well organized or disciplined – to put down their weapons may be far harder than getting yet another signed agreement.

Yet for all the deficiencies in the agreement, much of South Sudan’s bourgeoning civil society support it, hoping it will lead to an end of the war. Again, this is where the human cost of war comes in. Since independence, South Sudan has known more years at war than in peace, and independence only came after decades of war with Sudan. The task of building South Sudan was a huge one in 2011, and it has only grown since. With a significant portion of the population displaced, millions of children out of school, and much of the population reliant on international aid for survival, people just want a chance to move on. Nearly 400,000 South Sudanese will never get that chance but for those they left behind, the only chance they have at a future is if the guns finally fall silent.

The recent agreements made between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritrea and Somalia, and Eritrea and Djibouti to resolves decades of hostilities show that even entrenched conflicts can end, sometimes seemingly out of the blue. If South Sudan succeeds in ending its own civil war, it will be the latest gain for a long-troubled region. But the high death toll also begs the question of how the war was able to get this far without more substantial international efforts to end it, or even significant international attention. With the conflict’s impact on civilians downplayed by Kiir and Machar, it is easy to see how the conflict could have been overlooked for so long. But this week’s report demonstrates how much is at stake with the peace process and how bad things could get if it fails.

With additional reporting from Mark Leon Goldberg