At least 50,000 people may have been killed as violence continues to spread through South Sudan, more than two years into the deadly civil war gripping the young country, according to figures presented by a United Nations official.
Providing a higher and more specific number than previously expressed by the UN, the senior official discussed the figure with reporters on Wednesday evening, on the condition that he not be named. The heightened death toll comes as the possibility appears more and more remote that a peace deal between warring factions last year will be actually implemented.
"50,000 killed, maybe more, 2.2 million refugees and displaced, famine coming and looming in just a few months,"was how the UN source described the situation.
War broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 between government forces led by President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with Riek Machar, Kiir's former vice president. The two men, who were part of a tenuous regional alliance against the Sudanese government before South Sudan attained independence from it in 2011, are from different ethnic groups — Kiir is a Dinka; Machar a Nuer — and much of the initial violence in South Sudan's civil war fell along ethnic lines.
The latest figures suggested by the UN official do not come as a surprise to those following the conflict. As far back as 2014, observers estimated death tolls beyond 50,000 people, but throughout the conflict the UN has been hesitant in providing exact numbers or details about the death toll. The conflict-monitoring organization International Crisis Group, for example, has previously estimated more than 50,000 people are believed to have died in the fighting, while acknowledging that the true number is unknown. No official figures have surfaced, however, and the UN has kept its estimates vague, often saying just that tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict.
"For far too long the UN has maintained a the line that 'tens of thousands have been killed' when we all knew the real number was significantly higher given the widespread and systematic crimes against humanity perpetrated," said Ryan D'Souza, a South Sudan analyst at the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.
"Improved tracking and recording of civilian casualties is not only important in commemorating the victims of the conflict and helping to ensure justice at some later stage, it also creates pressure on the international community to develop strategies and policies to protect civilians today," he added.
Under intense pressure from the international community, Kiir and Machar signed a peace deal last August. The agreement and efforts to establish a transitional government have largely fallen by the wayside amid bickering and intermittent clashes. In February, Machar resumed his role as the country's vice president following an appointment from Kiir, but that did not help solve the conflict.
"Where are we on the implementation of the peace agreement? Nowhere," the senior UN official said. "We see violence spreading along ethnic lines in other parts of South Sudan which had been spared so far."
While some of the war's worst bloodshed occurred in parts of the northeast, new hostilities, often involving smaller local groups with varying grievances against the national government, have been recorded in recent months in other regions.
Clashes erupted at an internal displacement camp in the city of Malakal, killing at least 18 people and causing up to 26,000 people — more than half the camp's population — to flee. There are around 200,000 people living in displacement camps inside the country according to estimates, while 50 percent of children are out of school — a higher proportion than in any other country in the world.
In January, a panel of experts appointed by the UN Security Council said that violence perpetrated by both the government and the opposition had been undertaken with the direct knowledge of high-ranking officials on each side, and insisted that Kiir and Machar should both face sanctions.