Just how many South Sudanese have died in the country’s four-year war?
United Nations officials have put the toll at 50,000.
Aid workers and other sources suggested to the French Press Agency a year ago that the total could be as high as 300,000.
No government entity, international agency or NGO has tried to make a comprehensive count.
“We’re kind of guessing in the dark,” said Jehanne Henry, a South Sudan specialist with Human Rights Watch. “We’re just seeing tiny slices of a larger conflict.”
A few South Sudanese volunteers, however, have been quietly striving since the early days of the war to get names of all whose lives have been taken. This largely unfunded effort goes under the banner of “Remembering the Ones We Lost.” “The initiative began because we wanted to humanise what was happening,” said Anyieth D’Awol, one of the project’s founders.
“Mass killings are happening all over the world. The more people see such horror, the more numb they become.”
D’Awol, a former UN rights worker, has lost several relatives in the war. She was speaking from Seattle, the US.
Those dead were part of a broad range of South Sudanese who, the group notes on its website, included “traditional chiefs, doctors, engineers, housewives, pastoralists, nurses, religious leaders, students, farmers, traders and men in uniform, including UN peacekeepers”.
A sizable share of the dead are children under the age of four, the group says.
Surviving relatives and friends can submit names of the lost, along with their ages and places of death, by completing a form available on the website.
“All possible efforts have been made to ensure the names are real and the deaths have been confirmed,” the group says.
“Remembering the Ones We Lost” wants to develop an accurate count not only of victims of the war that began on December 15, 2013, but of all who have died in conflicts in South Sudan since 1955.
“A lot of what happened at the start of the current fighting was related to past events,” D’Awol said. “So we decided to include all the issues.”
A total of 5,303 names had been acquired and posted as of July 2016 — the most recent reporting date on the website.
Some 4,847 named individuals are listed as having died in 31 months from the start of the rebellion against South Sudan Government.
D’Awol declined to offer an estimate of how many lives may have been lost during the full 48-month span of the war. She suggested, however, that the number was probably higher than the 50,000 cited by the UN.
The project’s website tells visitors that remembering individuals lost to a conflict “can be a powerful form of memorialisation that brings attention to the circumstances of a person’s death or disappearance”.
Memorialisation is itself important, the group adds, because it can promote healing on an individual level while enabling society “to build a collective narrative of the past and prevent recurrences.”
Because many South Sudanese lack internet access, it is difficult to compile a count electronically, Ms D’Awol notes.
The group also collects names from news articles, other websites, community lists, social media and rights reports that include names of victims.
“Suspicion pervasive among South Sudanese also impedes efforts to gather names from loved ones of the dead,” D’Awol added.
She said volunteers are commonly asked: “What are you going to do with the data?”
“Remembering the Ones We Lost” has few resources. No state agencies in any country has provided funds, nor have global agencies such as the UN, D’Awol said.
The sizable UN Mission in South Sudan has issued death counts for specific incidents it has verified, said spokeswoman Francesca Mold.
“But Unmiss has not released an overall estimate because it is very difficult to verify the numbers of deaths as a result of the conflict,” she added.
Government or opposition forces have barred Unmiss from some areas of fighting.
Access to other scenes of violence is often delayed, making a credible count impossible.
“Some villages and areas subjected to attacks and visited by Unmiss have either experienced massive displacements or have seen civilians seeking refuge abroad,” Mold said.