December 20, 2017 / 11:38 AM / 8 months ago

Volunteers gather names of South Sudan's uncounted war dead

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Achol Mach Chiek, a 66-year-old woman, was last seen in the central town of Bor in December 2013, at the start of South Sudan’s most recent war.

She is among more than 5,000 victims of violence whose names appear in the “Remembering the Ones We Lost” project, a memorial to people who have died in seven decades of conflict.

“We wanted everyone who has died to be named and to have a formal place together somewhere - hopefully a physical site one day,” co-founder Awak Bior said by phone.

“Death is so horribly common ... There has been a collective numbing of South Sudanese people.”

About a third of South Sudan’s 12 million population have fled their homes since the latest civil war erupted in 2013 between soldiers of President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer.

International organizations have documented numerous examples of mass killings, many of which were ethnically targeted, but there is no official death toll for the war.

Estimates of the number of people killed in the ongoing civil war, which entered its fifth year last week, range from 50,000 to 300,000 deaths.

A spokeswoman for the United Nations (U.N.) Mission in South Sudan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that it has been unable to provide a death toll because warring parties have denied access to areas where there has been violence.

The country’s vast size, poor infrastructure and weak civil society add to the difficulty, said Jehanne Henry, an expert on South Sudan with Human Rights Watch.

The project invites witnesses to submit details of killings or disappearances through an online form or by text message. They can tick a box to indicate if someone was killed by a gunshot, drowning or hunger.

Volunteers then verify the information - the victim’s name, age, sex, location, and whether they are confirmed dead or missing - before it is listed on the website.

“We don’t have the capacity to write stories about each person but the least we can do is make them more than a number and more than a name,” said Bior, who started the project in January 2014 with several other South Sudanese.

“The lack of proper grieving and acknowledgement of deaths sets South Sudan up for more of the same.”

The U.N. has said the violence in South Sudan, which has been at war for all but a few years since 1955, amounts to ethnic cleansing and risks escalating into genocide.

The group has organized public readings of victims’ names in the capitals of South Sudan and Kenya and on the radio to grant dignity to the deceased and to promote reconciliation between communities in the world’s youngest nation.

The roll call of the dead could also feature in future legal proceedings investigating war crimes, Henry said.

“It’s a question of preserving evidence ... It’s sad to see everything is so vague,” she said.

Reporting by Ruairi Casey @Ruairi_Casey, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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