The crisis in South Sudan is entering its sixth month. Fighting broke out in December following a mutiny within the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army by ethnic Nuer loyal to former vice president Riek Machar. The Nuers are battling Pres. Salva Kiir and his Dinka ethnic group.
Violence quickly spread across the landlocked country, driving hundreds of thousands of people to seek shelter in U.N. bases, where lightly equipped peacekeepers of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan have tried to keep them safe from armed bands.
And now there’s a new enemy—nature.
South Sudan’s rainy season has arrived and it’s putting the U.N. camps and the refugees at risk. Bases are flooding, shelters are collapsing. And the war itself still rages.
The rains came ahead of schedule this year. By mid-March, flooding had heavily affected the refugee camp at Tomping, making any movement difficult. The waters present more than a logistical problem. It also poses a serious health risk to refugees and U.N. personnel.
The refugee camps with their dense populations are already at high risk of contagious disease. The heavy rainfall only increases this risk by introducing the potential for waterborne pathogens. In Tomping, the flooding overflowed hastily-built latrines, spilling human waste into the camp.
UNMISS staff had no choice but to relocate many of the refugees from Tomping to U.N. House in Juba, a compound at a higher elevation. But U.N. House is also taking in more and more people from other camps—not just Tomping. Overcrowding is a problem.
The U.N. base in Malakal has been rained on three times and is beginning to flood. UNMISS Deputy Special Representative Toby Lanzer posted a video of the drenched camp.
The rains have not extinguished the fighting.
On April 17, a mob attacked the U.N. Base in Bor, then housing 5,000 refugees and a formation of Indian troops. The mob posed as peaceful protesters in order to get close to the camp before launching its assault. Peacekeepers fired warning shots, but armed assailants forced their way into the camp and gunned down scores of refugees.
The Indian troops regrouped and returned fire, forcing the attackers back at the cost of two wounded peacekeepers. It was a bloody omen of a deteriorating situation.
At the same time as the base attack, rebel forces under Machar were wrapping up a five-day battle for the city of Bentiu. In a new development eerily reminiscent of Rwanda 20 years ago, some of the rebels reportedly broadcast radio messages calling for ethnic cleansing and a campaign of rape against the Dinka. The tactic divided rebel leaders, according to UNMISS.
Civilians fled the town for the already overcrowded nearby U.N. base. Peacekeepers sent out trucks to aid in the evacuation and escorted other refugees on foot. The influx has doubled the base’s population from 12,000 to more than 24,000. Peacekeepers are struggling to provide water and sanitation.
Lanzer was in Bentiu to document the devastation.
It’s been reported that many of the battle’s innocent victims were traders from the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan—an indicator of the region’s complex web of conflict. Indeed, Darfuri rebel groups have allegedly been aiding Kiir against the rebellion.
Pleading for peace
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay recently toured the camp in Bor. She also met with Riek Machar, pictured. She warned him to get control of his fighters.
U.N. Special Envoy for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng was also present. Citing deposed Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, Dieng reminded Machar that perpetrators of mass violence often end up in international court.
Machar claimed that he was conducting an investigation of his own into what happened in Bentiu. He also said that he was more than willing to end hostilities—provided that he had assurances from Kiir and the SPLA that they would do the same.
But Machar and Kiir are talking past each other.
“Both leaders said they would [agree to a ceasefire] if the other did, then made it clear they did not trust each other’s words,” Pillay said. “The prospect of widespread hunger and malnutrition being inflicted on hundreds of thousands of their people because of their personal failure to resolve their differences peacefully did not appear to concern them very much.”
Peace talks are set to resume in Ethiopia on May 4. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions seem only to be getting worse. Kiir recently sacked the SPLA army chief Gen. James Hoth, who is a Nuer. Gen. Paul Malong, a Dinka, took over from Hoth.
Peacekeepers continue to hold the line at their compounds. But violence outside—and floodwaters inside—threaten to overwhelm them.