Former rebels accuse the government of attacking their camps with helicopter gunships as the world’s newest nation slides back toward civil war.
NAIROBI — Intense fighting erupted once again in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, on Sunday, after days of clashes left more than 250 soldiers and former rebels dead, imperiling an already faltering peace deal and threatening to plunge the country back into all-out civil war.
Shots rang out around 8:30 a.m. in suburbs where troops loyal to First Vice President Riek Machar, the former rebel leader who returned to Juba in April as part of a deal to end the country’s two-year civil war, have set up camps. By late Sunday morning, witnesses said government attack helicopters were circling above the city and former rebels claimed that their camps had come under sustained bombardment with artillery and other heavy weapons.
“Fighting is still on; the war is still on,” said a displaced South Sudanese man who was holed up in a so-called Protection of Civilian (PoC) site on a U.N. base in Jebel, a Juba suburb adjacent to one camp occupied by the former rebels. “There are so many wounded people. Wounded people are flowing in now into [the] PoC, and some shells are landing inside [the] PoC.”
Shantal Persaud, a spokesperson for the U.N. mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said that small arms fire as well as heavy artillery had originated from an area northeast of the U.N. compound in Jebel in the morning and “pretty much continued” throughout the day, suggesting that government troops had indeed taken aim at Machar’s former rebels who were camped to the southwest of the U.N. base.
But even with thousands of civilians and U.N. personnel caught in the crossfire, it appears that U.N. peacekeepers have not responded.
“These people, they are just around with their tanks … They are not shooting even,” the displaced South Sudanese man said, describing the U.N. peacekeepers stationed at Jebel in a telephone interview with FP. He also recounted witnessing a young girl as she was struck by a shell inside the PoC as well seeing two adults get hit in the head by stray bullets.
As he was describing the situation over the phone, a loud explosion could be heard in the background. “That’s the landed shelling, just [on] the other side of UNMISS base,” he said.
The U.N. mission expressed “outrage at the resumption of violence” on Sunday, warning that the fighting has “severely” impacted the civilian population in the capital. “Both UNMISS compounds in Juba have sustained impacts from small arms and heavy weapons fire,” the mission said in a statement.
According to eyewitnesses, civilians could be seen frantically packing their belongings in the capital on Sunday and fleeing for the relative safety of various U.N. facilities. Roughly 2,000 people have taken refuge in the U.N.’s Tomping facility near the airport, across town from the Jebel base, and another 2,000 are taking cover in the World Food Programme’s compound, according an aid worker in Tomping who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“People are visibly packing up and taking off,” another aid worker who was not authorized to speak to press, told FP by phone.
Fighting first broke out on Thursday evening between former rebels loyal to Machar and government soldiers manning a checkpoint in Juba. It escalated dramatically on Friday, when more than 250 fighters were reportedly killed in clashes, even as the two leaders appealed for calm in a joint press conference that afternoon. By Saturday, the fighting had died down and Juba was tense but quiet.
Still, government soldiers reportedly prevented U.N. peacekeepers from patrolling the city, and even turned back an extraction team that had been sent to retrieve the head of UNMISS, Ellen Margrethe Løj, who took refuge in the U.S. Embassy during Friday’s fighting. By Saturday afternoon, the peacekeepers had been allowed through and she had been safely returned to the U.N. base.
The resumption of fighting on Sunday marked a dramatic escalation of the violence.
“President Salva Kiir’s forces are bombing Jebel site with helicopter gunships and shelling it with heavy artilleries [sic] and using tanks,” James Gatdet Dak, a spokesman for Machar, posted on Facebook around noon local time on Sunday.
Government spokesman Lul Ruai Koang confirmed that the fighting Sunday involved “heavy artillery and small arms fire,” but said, “We do not know why and who started it.”
Civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, less than three years after the country gained independence from Sudan, with which it fought a decades-long war of secession. During that war, Kiir and Machar had been at times allies and at times rivals, but ultimately united under a U.S.-backed peace process that installed their Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) political party into power at independence in 2011. Kiir became president and Machar became vice president.
But hopes of a peaceful transition to independence were dashed when Kiir sacked Machar from his vice presidential post in July 2013, setting the stage for a violent power-struggle between the two men. War broke out five months later, after Kiir’s troops massacred people of Machar’s Nuer ethnic group in Juba. By the beginning of 2016, more than 2 million South Sudanese had been displaced and as many as 100,000 had been killed, though estimates vary widely.
A peace agreement signed in August 2015 was intended to bring the two sides together into a unity government, but both had routinely flouted its provisions even before fighting broke out on Thursday. For instance, they repeatedly violated the ceasefire, dragged their feet on key constitutional reforms, and, perhaps most fatefully, failed to demilitarize the capital.
“This was expected to be a disaster, and it has turned out to be a disaster,” said Peter Biar Ajak, a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. who studies South Sudan. “Everything in this peace agreement has turned out to be not well thought out. You have troops that are not well trained, not paid in some cases, and armed to the teeth. This was what was always going to happen.”
Top image: South Sudanese civilians flee fighting in an United Nations base in the northeastern town of Malakal on February 18, 2016. Image credit: JUSTIN LYNCH/AFP/Getty Images