Is Nowhere Safe in South Sudan?

Ten thousand dead, 1 million displaced, and things are only likely to get worse for the fledgling country.

Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images
Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images

JUBA, South Sudan — Nyazode Thiyany is desperate to leave South Sudan. As strangers wander by the tent where she is tending to her severely malnourished infant son, Shamis, she calls out to ask them whether they will buy her a bus ticket out of the country. Much better, she adds, if they can do it soon. Once Shamis recovers, she will have to move out of the inpatient clinic that Doctors Without Borders is running on the United Nations base in Juba and return to her small shelter nearby in the midst of the stinking, overcrowded displacement camp.

Thiyany fled to the base on Dec. 16, the day after clashes broke out in her Juba neighborhood. Along with the more than 20,000 people who sought refuge at the base, she spends most of her time standing in lines — for food, for vaccinations, even for the bathroom. Streams of dirty water flow through the base each time it rains, and they course through the low-lying area where the thousands of tents have been set up, destroying all the clothes and sheets she brought with her.

Thiyany blames the lack of clean water for Shamis’s severe diarrhea and the sudden weight loss that led to his hospitalization. "I’m not comfortable since I left my house. The camp is congested. The camp is not OK for him."

Still, Thiyany said she will not leave the base unless it’s to board a bus for Ethiopia, Kenya, or Uganda. Not even to move to a nearby camp where higher ground means her shelter won’t flood with every rain shower. She said she is not safe outside the U.N. compound.

Her neighborhood on the outskirts of Juba was one of the first battlefields in the fighting that broke out in mid-December and rapidly engulfed most of eastern South Sudan. Despite a cease-fire agreement that was reached in late January, clashes between government forces and troops aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar have continued, forcing hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes and into U.N. bases, churches, and mosques in search of a safe haven.

Then a bloody Easter weekend brought with it the realization that there is no safety anywhere in South Sudan.

On Thursday, April 17, civilians armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons stormed the U.N. base in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, and killed dozens of civilians sheltering there. On Monday, the United Nations released a report accusing rebel forces of conducting ethnically targeted killings of more than 200 people who had sought shelter in a mosque in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state. The murders, coming in the days after rebels took control of Bentiu, were reportedly spurred by messages broadcast on a local FM station.

Toby Lanzer, the U.N.’s top humanitarian official in South Sudan, counted hundreds of bodies still lying on Bentiu’s streets during his visit to the town this week. The dead were found in "the market area and around religious institutions," he said in an interview. They were in "places where people thought that they would be safe."

Even as President Salva Kiir and Machar publicly repeat their commitment to peace and reconciliation, Lanzer said the latest incidents "brought home the extent to which South Sudan seems to be sliding into a cycle of extreme violence, extreme bitterness, and a cycle of revenge, which really has to stop. It’s not only casting a dark shadow over the present — it’s really calling into question the future."

It’s a future that Thiyany and an increasing number of citizens no longer want any part of.

* * *

The fighting in South Sudan that started in mid-December followed a growing split over the past year within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party. In July, Kiir sacked his entire cabinet, including Machar, without explanation. The former deputy held his tongue for months, before unloading a torrent of public criticisms against Kiir in early December and then walking out of a meeting with senior SPLM officials on Dec. 14. The next evening, Juba exploded, and within hours the former vice president was leading a ragtag rebellion of disaffected politicians, army officers, and youth warriors in a bid to overthrow Kiir’s government — or to at least take control of the oil fields that fund it. In the early days, homes across Juba were destroyed and shops looted — activities that have continued as fighting has spread across the country. The political split within the SPLM has also exacerbated ethnic rivalries between Machar’s Nuer community and Kiir’s Dinka — the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan.

There is no official casualty count from the four months of clashes, but observers estimate that more than 10,000 people have been killed. More than one million others have been forced from their homes. Control over the capitals of the country’s two oil-producing states — Unity and Upper Nile — have changed hands multiple times, and both have been leveled in the process. And the United Nations is warning that 7 million people — more than half the country’s population — may not get enough to eat this year if violence keeps them from planting crops in the coming months.

Reports on the fighting charge that there have also been serious human rights violations. An interim U.N. report released in February found evidence of targeted killings of civilians, gang rapes, and torture in the first weeks of the crisis. And while leaders on both sides have said in interviews that there is no ethnic dimension to the conflict, the Bentiu massacre undermined those claims while marking an escalation in brutality. In his interview, Lanzer described Bentiu as "an episode of violence, I think, never before seen in South Sudan to this extent."

Along with the killings in the mosque, the United Nations reports that civilians were also deliberately tracked down in a Catholic church, at a World Food Program compound, and at Bentiu Hospital. There, "Nuer men, women and children were killed for hiding and declining to join other Nuers who had gone out to cheer the [opposition] forces as they entered the town," according to the April 21 U.N. report on the Bentiu massacre.

In response to the U.N. report, the rebels have refuted the "ridiculous allegations fabricated by enemies of [the] war of resistance for democratic reforms." They blame the killings on government forces and allied fighters from Sudan’s Darfur region.

Despite denials of responsibility for the killings from all sides, Simon Monoja Lubang, a sociology professor at the University of Juba, worries that the denials will not be enough to halt revenge attacks in response to the Bentiu massacre. "You know the kind of communities we have: Often the reaction of people to situations of this nature, the other side will also look for an opportunity of revenge killings."

Aid agencies say thousands of Bentiu residents are now streaming into U.N. camps on the town’s outskirts. Lanzer said the number of displaced people sheltering at the base has grown from 4,000 a few weeks ago to 25,000 this week — at a compound that was not built to accommodate anyone but U.N. staff. Medair, a humanitarian group providing emergency services in South Sudan, sent a team to help provide desperatel
y needed drinking water and latrines for the new arrivals. Medair spokesperson Wendy van Amerongen said in an interview that they also found shortages of food, shelters, and medical supplies — "really the basic needs people have when they leave everything behind."

The U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has put out a call for urgent military reinforcements to shore up protection for the camps. But despite the overstretched peacekeepers and the lack of food and clean water, Lanzer said people are still crowding into the camps because "there is nowhere else for them to go." And even there they might not be safe.

* * *

The April 17 attack on the U.N. compound in Bor, coming in the days after the Bentiu killings, underscored just how deeply the fighting has divided South Sudan and just how tenuous the situation on the ground really is. Following the April 15 rebel takeover of Bentiu, opposition supporters in displacement camps across South Sudan broke out in spontaneous celebrations. The celebrations in Bor upset local youth, who organized themselves and marched to the U.N. compound to deliver a protest letter to officials.

There is a dispute as to who fired the first shot on April 17. Was it U.N. peacekeepers firing warning shots or protesters trying to force their way into the camp? Either way, the situation quickly spun out of control. Nearly 60 people, including two aid workers, were killed before peacekeepers expelled the attackers from the camp.

The next day, government spokesperson Michael Makuei Lueth called a news conference to condemn the incident, while also making clear whom he really held responsible: "Anybody who celebrates successful operations being conducted by the rebels against the government means that person is a rebel and we cannot continue to accommodate rebels inside UNMISS compounds and allow them to celebrate or do whatever they want at any time."

William Koang, a South Sudanese doctor working in Bor, fled to the compound when fighting reached the town in late December. He has been helping provide medical care at the U.N. base in Bor. Currently, he is treating 37 people who were severely injured in the mid-April fighting.

Six days after the attack, on April 23, his read on the situation was that tempers were finally "cooling down, but what remains is fear." People want to flee the camp, Koang said, but there are rumors that armed youth are patrolling outside the perimeter. In the meantime, the residents are trapped and steeling themselves for another attack.

Even if Kiir and Machar reach a peace agreement, Koang is not convinced that he and other displaced Nuers living in the compound could safely leave. He says Jonglei is permanently fractured and the only solution is for Kiir to split the state, permanently separating Dinka from Nuer. Otherwise, like Thiyany in Juba, he thinks the only other option is to permanently leave South Sudan.


Monoja, the sociology professor, thinks it’s too soon to give up on South Sudan. The country’s communities have a long history of conflict, he acknowledged, but also of reconciliation led by local leaders who are asked to act as peacemakers. The communities "allow them to sit down and talk peace." Once an agreement is reached, "ceremonies are performed and compensation is paid [for the dead] and people go back to their lives."

Still, he acknowledged that peace between the communities will be predicated on an accord between the political leaders who sparked the fighting. There is little evidence that this will happen soon.

Both sides continue to speak the language of resolution: At the launch of a national reconciliation effort in early April, Vice President James Wani Igga announced, "I’m very optimistic that we can agree, we South Sudanese, and we can begin to hug ourselves, embracing one another."

It is the action that is lacking. Peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have been suspended for almost the entire month of April; the cessation-of-hostilities agreement signed in late January molders.

"It is the political leaders who caused this problem," Monoja said. "It is not the local people. It is the political leaders because of the struggle for power. And if they had never done that struggle within the SPLM, I’m sure the struggle would never have erupted like that."

But it did. And the last two weeks have shown that so long as peace is delayed, no one in the country is safe.

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