Displaced South Sudanese in Bentiu, South Sudan, last year. Mednick/Associated Press
An estimated 383,000 people have died as a result of South Sudan’s civil war, according to a new report that documents the extraordinary scale of devastation after five years of fighting in the world’s youngest country.
The report, published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and financed by the State Department, revealed that about half of the dead were killed in fighting between ethnic rivals as it spread across the country, and the other half died from disease, hunger and other causes exacerbated by the conflict.
The number far surpasses earlier estimates from the United Nations and brings into focus the tragedy of a conflict that has received little global attention.
The researchers behind the report hope it will be instrumental in understanding the conflict and strengthening humanitarian responses.
“We hope that these kind of findings create even more urgency to actually making sure that the current peace deal is solid and is adhered to,” said Francesco Checchi, the lead epidemiologist involved in the report.
Understanding the death toll
While the numbers represent a stark increase from previous estimates, Mr. Checchi said the toll could well be higher.
The figure is the only comprehensive estimate of the death toll after nearly five years of war. There have been efforts to calculate the human cost on a community level over the years, with dozens of humanitarian groups conducting small-scale surveys.
The researchers whose report was released on Wednesday attempted to calculate the death toll from the beginning of the conflict in December 2013 until April 2018. Using population statistics and growth projections, and factoring in the intensity of the fighting, displacement, disease, access to health care and more, the epidemiologists produced a model that enabled them to estimate deaths month by month and county by county.
Assessments by humanitarian organizations and civic groups contributed to the projections.
The majority of the deaths occurred in the state of Central Equatoria, the country’s bread basket, as well as in the northeastern states of Jonglei and Unity, all of which have been sites of major violence during the war. The death toll was highest in 2016 and 2017 after a power-sharing agreement brokered in 2015 fell apart.
Experts who have been monitoring the conflict for years say the new estimate offers a useful framework for understanding and responding to the war.
“For a long time, the absence of a death toll sanitized the horrors of the war and minimized its drastic effects,” Brian Adeba, deputy director of policy at the Enough Project, a Washington-based group that monitors conflict in Africa, said in a statement. “This death toll reinforces the urgent need to hold accountable both the direct perpetrators and the leaders responsible for the violence.”
What are the roots of the conflict?
South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011, becoming the world’s newest country, with the backing of Western nations. But two years later, civil war erupted in South Sudan.
The conflict began as a feud between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and to then-Vice President Riek Machar. It soon spiraled into fighting among several factions, engulfing the country in ethnic violence and eventually producing a devastating humanitarian crisis.
Hunger and disease racked the country and millions fled to neighboring countries. Human rights abuses, mass rape and potential war crimes have been documented on both sides of the conflict.
Why has it been so hard to figure out the death toll?
Because of violence, large portions of South Sudan have been inaccessible for periods of time. Aid workers have also been targeted during the conflict.
The Aid Worker Security Report, an annual global assessment of violence against aid workers, determined that last year, for the third year in a row, South Sudan was the most dangerous country in the world for aid workers. At least 113 aid workers have been killed in the country.
The epidemiologists who produced the new report had to find ways around the lack of access to many parts of South Sudan, Mr. Checchi said.
“Ordinarily what we might try to do in such a crisis scenario would be to carry out a large survey, take a sample nationwide and ask households to tell about their experience over the last few years, including deaths in their household,” he said. “This was is really not an option for South Sudan.”
Where does the conflict stand now?
On Sept. 12, a new peace agreement was signed by all parties to the conflict during a ceremony in Ethiopia. But the agreement does not address many of the issues at the core of the conflict, many experts say, and they fear it may not hold.
“With the peace agreement that was signed earlier this month being so structurally flawed, it is likely this number will continue its inexorable climb until the root causes of South Sudan’s violence are addressed,” John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project and co-founder of The Sentry, which researches the financing of conflicts, said in a statement.
The humanitarian crisis still needs to be confronted. Several nations met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday to discuss South Sudan.
Harriett Baldwin, a member of Britain’s Parliament and the country’s minister for Africa, called the latest peace accord a significant achievement, but said that it was “only the first step on a long journey to peace.”
“Even since the most recent cease-fire, violence continues,” she said.
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