50,000 and not counting: South Sudan's war dead

Nairobi (AFP) - When gunfire shattered the silence of a December evening last year in South Sudan's capital Juba, initial reports pointed to several dozen rival soldiers dead.

In the following days, gunfire and explosions continued to shake the city, as troops loyal to President Salva Kiir fought it out with those allied to his ousted deputy, Riek Machar, and terrified residents cowered in their homes and independent observers kept indoors under curfew.

Witnesses reported soldiers going door-to-door, as members of Kiir's Dinka tribe hunted down ethnic Nuer, the people of Machar. At night, bodies were discreetly trucked out of the city and burned or buried, witnesses and human rights groups say.

"We estimate as many as 5,000 people died in Juba during that first week alone. After that, it's been the same kind of thing over and over again in other towns. In some places, people have been there to count, in others, not at all," said one Western aid worker, who asked that his name nor that of his organisation be published due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Eleven months on and South Sudan is still locked in civil war, with the killings in Juba having set off a cycle of retaliatory killings across large swathes of the country.

Both Kiir's forces and rebels loyal to Machar have been accused of widespread atrocities -- massacres, gang rapes and child soldier recruitment -- that have seen the country teeter on the brink of genocide.

But missing from the conflict is a clear death toll, as nobody -- not even United Nations peacekeepers -- has been keeping count.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a conflict think-tank, estimates at least 50,000 people have already died but it admits the true figure could even be double that. It also says the failure to count the dead is a scandal -- both as a dishonour to the victims and as something that has kept the country's suffering off the international radar.

"It's shocking that in 2014, in a country with one of the largest UN peacekeeping missions in the world, tens of thousands of people can be killed and no one can even begin to confirm the death toll," ICG researcher Casie Copeland told AFP.

"Surely more can be done to understand whether the figure is closer to 50,000 or 100,000?"

Instead, she argues, the South Sudanese are victims of a process of "appalling dehumanisation" -- the result being a lack of "concerted action to end the war".

"Counting the dead goes beyond understanding the scale of this devastating war, it honours those who have been lost and is a minimum form of respect to the tens of thousands of South Sudanese who have been killed."

- Undocumented mass-murder -

Akshaya Kumar of the Enough Project, a genocide prevention campaign group, stressed the need to create accountability with clear numbers in order to "counter the widespread belief that combatants have immunity in South Sudan."

"It's an imperfect science but in other countries, such as Syria, the UN has done a much better job of tracking the numbers of civilians killed than in South Sudan," added Skye Wheeler from Human Rights Watch.

"Alongside more vigorous reporting on human rights abuses, public estimates would have shed light on the violence and the extent of abuse, and helped put pressure on both sides to end abusive tactics."

The reality in South Sudan, however, has been the polar opposite: without any apparent fear of the consequences, armed groups have shot and gang raped patients in their hospital beds, massacred civilians in churches, machine-gunned fleeing civilians in swamps -- leaving their bodies to rot, be carried away by the Nile river or be consumed by its crocodiles.

Tens of thousands more are feared to have died from hunger and disease in isolated villages, swamps and bush beyond the reach of aid agencies.

The UN peacekeeping mission to South Sudan, UNMISS, say they are unable to provide "a reasonably precise estimate of the casualty toll", saying only that "thousands" have been killed.

The 14,000-strong peacekeeping mission said in a statement that it "doesn't have a presence in every single county in South Sudan, so it is impossible to provide a comprehensive and independently verifiable number."

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also admits it has "unfortunately... not been collecting information on the number of deaths since the crisis broke out" -- although it does track those still alive, notably the 3.8 million people in need of aid and the 1.91 million people displaced.

"If the UN is able to estimate with such precision the number of displaced, it is inexplicable that they cannot similarly monitor those killed," the ICG's Copeland said.

As the body counters opt out of South Sudan's civil war, a group of South Sudanese civil society activists are trying to step in -- launching the "Naming Those We Lost" project to try and name the dead. But they have a long way to go -- having so far confirmed around a thousand names.

"It's a vital step to recognising the collective loss," said project organiser Anyieth D'Awol. "The lack of justice, accountability and acknowledgement of losses suffered by people has fuelled the current conflict."