The culture of impunity in South Sudan — the world’s youngest nation — has spawned a civil war with no official body count. While government forces and rebels kill, rape and terrorize civilians, the United Nations refuses to estimate the death toll and ignores sites of mass burials.
Forgotten among the carnage is a new generation of trauma victims, waiting for peace and justice or, at the least, a time and a place to mourn the ones they’ve lost.
This is part three of a four-part series. Read the rest here.
by NATHANIEL ROSS KELLY
“Absolutely horrific,” is how Skye Wheeler of Human Rights Watch describes the first months of South Sudan’s civil war.
In May 2014, the rainy season began and the conflict subsided, but did not entirely cease. Before the rains made roads impassable and military strategies harder to execute, the war’s atrocities seemed to increase exponentially. Killings in one locale spawned multiple acts of vengeance in the same place or in other areas of the country.
One year later, the bloodletting is just as vicious as before. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the opposition forces claw at each other in an attempt to gain ground before the rains start again. Meanwhile, talk of justice ebbs and flows in and outside of South Sudan, like the exchange of rumors that most believe will turn out to be false.
Though 2015 has been marked by periods of low-intensity conflict, the last several weeks have seen a troubling upsurge in violence in three of the northern states, Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity.
“You have a level of violence which is unheard of,” Yves Daccord, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “There is no respect … It’s about revenge, nothing else.”
U.N. personnel at the Protection of Civilians site in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, are struggling to support the site’s 30,000 residents along with a substantial influx of new arrivals — men, women, and children fleeing the latest fighting in the city. The highly unstable situation in Malakal has prevented Doctors Without Borders — or MSF — from entering the camp and providing much-needed medical assistance.
In Jonglei state, the town of Phom El Zeraf has “effectively been destroyed,” according to an MSF report. Constant bombardment by the warring parties has reduced homes and schools to ruins. “The hospital, one of the main health facilities in the northern part of the state, had been demolished,” the report added. “Its destruction greatly impacts people in an area with few alternatives for medical care.”
Several locations in Unity state — including Leer, the hometown of rebel leader Riek Machar — have become battlegrounds. Last month Toby Lanzer, the U.N.’s aid chief in South Sudan, said that up to 100,000 people have been displaced by the recent violence in Unity state. The International Committee of the Red Cross has one of its largest food distribution programs in Leer, but the brutal fighting has caused the organization to suspend the program and reduce its staff.
A recent statement by UNICEF reveals the terrible price women and children are being forced to pay in the ongoing conflict.
Survivors reported to UNICEF staff that whole villages [in Unity state] were burned to the ground by armed groups, while large numbers of girls and women were taken outside to be raped and killed — including children as young as seven. At least 19 boys — some as young as 10 years of age — and seven girls were killed. Others were mutilated or recruited to join the fighting and take care of stolen cattle.
According to dozens of witnesses, boys in military uniforms and civilian clothes have participated in some of the assaults in Unity state. Survivors have also reported that the armed groups in question are affiliated with the SPLA. The government appears to be implementing scorched-earth tactics in Unity state — an approach that will only lead to severe reprisals by Machar’s forces.
War crimes and crimes against humanity continue to occur in cities and villages throughout South Sudan, and yet not a single individual has suffered legal punishment for any of the attacks against civilians. “The South Sudanese justice system has clearly shown that it doesn’t have the capacity to do investigations and prosecutions, and there isn’t really the political will for that either,” Wheeler told me on the phone in September 2014.
The nation’s unmitigated culture of impunity has unleashed a paradox — a death toll that is simultaneously massive and inconsequential.
No one would deny that a substantial number of people have perished in the crisis, and yet few South Sudanese officials and world leaders are truly invested in stopping the death toll from escalating, or bringing those responsible for atrocities to justice.
“This new conflict was preceded by decades of violence and conflict in which civilians have repeatedly been targeted,” Wheeler explained. “There has been almost no accountability for these [past] crimes and this environment of impunity is one of the reasons why South Sudan is now mired again in an abusive conflict. This time there must be justice for victims.”
Failure to find peace
Last month, Michelle Kagari, deputy director with Amnesty International, made the following statement — “The spike in fighting between the parties to the conflict is a clear indication that South Sudan’s leaders have little interest in a cessation of hostilities, while the region and the rest of the international community are reluctant to take bold steps towards addressing repeated atrocities.”
Kagari is right to emphasize the gross inadequacy of the local, regional and international response to the conflict. Leaders throughout the world have had tough words for the warring parties, but they haven’t backed up their rhetoric with action.
Unhindered by an arms embargo or sanctions, Machar and Pres. Salva Kiir continue down their chosen paths, squandering every opportunity for a political solution when they’ve sat down at the negotiating table. Their consistency in failure would be comical if it wasn’t resulting in so many deaths.
Throughout the conflict the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional trade bloc, has mediated the peace talks between the SPLA and the opposition. In spite of the efforts of the negotiators and the $21.7 million that has reportedly been used to fund the talks, Kiir and Machar have only managed to agree on a long series of empty promises.
In reality, the peace negotiations are merely another form of political warfare.
In February, Kiir and Machar met in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and signed a cessation of hostilities pact as IGAD members applauded. It was their eighth attempt to bring about a ceasefire, and it failed just as swiftly as its predecessors.
Within days of the accord, Kiir and Machar’s impulsive forces began thrashing one another, again. IGAD restarted talks in early March in the hopes that the leaders would make good on their promises to conclude negotiations and initiate the process of building a transitional government of national unity. The talks collapsed due to the leaders’ refusal to compromise on key points.
Another round of negotiations was scheduled for April, but Kiir and Machar dodged the opportunity, preferring to focus their resources on what they both appear to desire above all else — a military solution.
Meanwhile, the everyday people of South Sudan — farmers, business owners, teachers, students, and children who desperately want to be students — continue to live in the abhorrent conditions that were created by Kiir and Machar.
Nyakhor, a Nuer woman who found refuge at the Tomping refugee camp in Juba, lost three of her brothers in the first week of the war. Dinka soldiers shot them in the street and threw their bodies into a hut, which they then set on fire.
She mourns for her brothers, who she says finished university degrees, but she doesn’t spend her days wallowing in self-pity. When I met her last June, she was working as a server at a makeshift coffee house within the camp, garnering a small wage to help herself and her children.
Her face was stern, her eyes were wounded, and yet a strange, furious kind of hope entered her voice. “The war started between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar,” Nyakhor said. “The war could end there.”
No one can promise the South Sudanese that peace will come soon, nor can anyone offer them the grim assurance that, should they die, their deaths will not be in vain. The war’s disregarded casualties attest to the way life has been stripped of value in the country. The disinterest in the human cost of the war — a disinterest that much of the world appears to share with the leaders of South Sudan — must be replaced with an imaginative and bold response to the crisis.
More than 50 South Sudanese and international human rights organizations have demanded an arms embargo against both the SPLA and the opposition forces. “More weapons will mean these civilians will face more abusive attacks — killings, rape, burnings, pillage,” Geoffrey Duke, secretariat team leader of the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, told Human Rights Watch last November. “Now is the time to take action.”
Seven months have passed since Duke’s urgent appeal, and yet the SPLA and the opposition forces are still receiving a steady supply of munitions.
In order for an arms embargo to work, countries with substantial ties to South Sudan — such as China, which has invested billions in the nation’s oil industry — must be on board. At the moment, the Chinese government is more concerned with protecting oil refineries and supplying weapons to the SPLA than with saving civilian lives and limiting the proliferation of arms.
Further complicating the situation is Uganda, which has allied itself with Kiir’s government. Ugandan ground troops and fighters jets have turned the tide in several battles, and SPLA soldiers have been outfitted with arms from their southern neighbor.
At the same time, evidence has surfaced that rebel forces are receiving weapons from Sudan — a development that should surprise no one who recollects Machar’s often close relationship with Khartoum during the Second Sudanese Civil War.
Tragically, even if an arms embargo goes into effect and China, Uganda, Sudan and other countries comply — and even if the flow of black market weapons is curtailed — the fighting might not stop. The infamous White Army that joined the SPLA-in-Opposition is anything but a modern military force. In the absence of guns, the rebels have resorted to hacking people apart with machetes and spears.
Despite the limitations of an arms embargo, the international community must work to ratify one immediately. If nothing else, an embargo will send an unambiguous message to Kiir and Machar — the world is watching, disapproves of their mishandling of the peace talks, and is willing to assert that disapproval by challenging not only the rebels’ purchase of weapons but the sovereign right of Kiir’s government to secure munitions.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, senior members of the Obama administration, and Valerio Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, have lent their voices to the call to restrict the supply of weapons. The United States can and should take the lead on imposing an arms embargo. However, the U.S. — which was instrumental in bringing about the peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the SPLA in 2005 — has been slow to take decisive action to help end the crisis.
In the brief period between South Sudan’s independence and the start of the war, the relationship between Kiir and Obama deteriorated. According to Ty McCormick’s February 2015 piece on South Sudan for Foreign Policy, Obama did not begin his presidency with strong convictions about how the U.S. could continue to invest in South Sudan. Furthermore, Kiir reportedly lied to Obama in 2011 about the SPLA’s operations along the border with Sudan — a mistake that the U.S. president apparently took personally.
Due to the strained relationship between Kiir and Obama, the U.S. was ill-prepared to act as a voice of reason — or a voice of authority — when South Sudan’s internal conflict began spinning out of control 18 months ago.
The Obama administration has made some progress in its political engagement with the embattled nation, but it simply does not recognize the crisis as a high priority. The White House and Congress are responding to various conflicts around the world, most of which have a far greater political and emotional pull for Americans than South Sudan’s war.
The U.S. could begin to redeem itself by both imposing the aforementioned arms embargo and ordering a raft of hard sanctions against elites in the SPLA/M and the opposition, who continue to commit human rights abuses and spoil the peace process.
In May 2014, the U.S. took a step in the right direction by issuing sanctions against two military commanders, one on each side of the conflict. More recently, the U.S. wrote and then helped to pass a resolution within the U.N. Security Council, which creates a system for imposing sanctions. The resolution was adopted on March 3 of this year — a few days before the peace talks fell apart in Ethiopia.
Justine Fleischner, an analyst for the Enough Project, believes that sanctions are the most vital tools for ending the violence. “The only thing the warring parties will respond to at this point are real consequences,” she told me on the phone last December. “We just haven’t seen any real consequences for either side yet.”
Sanctions would include travel bans and asset freezes, which would force targeted commanders and politicians to reassess the value of maintaining the war machine’s forward momentum. Fleischner calls this “changing the calculus” of the warring elites. South Sudan’s U.N. ambassador, Francis Deng, calls it something else — “condemnation.”
Deng along with China’s ambassador, Liu Jieyi, view sanctions as a complication, not a solution. “Pushing the protagonists into a corner will not change anything,” Deng told the U.N. Security Council in March.
The political deadlock between Kiir and Machar combined with the ongoing skirmishes have a produced a situation that demands the U.N. put the resolution to work by authorizing the first sanctions.
“A lip-service resolution on sanctions will be meaningless,” Fleischner told me. She added that IGAD member states, such as Kenya and Uganda, must be involved in administering sanctions on the ground by identifying, for example, the bank accounts to be frozen and the properties to be seized.
The task of issuing and enforcing sanctions will be a logistically difficult and ethically treacherous endeavor, to say the least. Kiir and Machar are responsible for much of the violence and destruction in their country. In other words, they are quite possibly the most deserving of sanctions. However, it’s unlikely that the members of the U.N. Security Council will move to freeze their assets and forcibly take control of their property.
“You have to weigh the need for accountability and punitive measures against the need to find a political settlement, which is probably going to involve some kind of a power-sharing agreement between these two leaders,” Fleischner explained.
The political solution — favored by IGAD and groups within both the SPLA and the opposition — hinges on the belief that a return to the previous state of affairs is necessary to end the conflict. Before the peace talks fell apart, the negotiators were working to reinstate Machar as vice president. During this same period of time, South Sudan’s cabinet postponed elections until 2017 and thus extended Kiir’s term for an additional two years.
There’s an unspoken outcome to all this political maneuvering. Kiir and Machar were being set up to slip free of any consequences for the human rights violations that have occurred under their watch.
In all likelihood, the president and his former deputy will not merely escape sanctions. They will be granted immunity from prosecution. If they can relearn how to play nice with each other then they will probably maintain their seemingly unimpeachable roles. Moreover, they will be allowed to reap the benefits of sitting at the top — or near the top — of a broken nation-state.
If they don’t end up killing each other, then their bank accounts and assets may well survive this war and continue to expand beyond the wildest dreams of the average citizen under their rule.
Justice will take its course
“Most of our leaders are accountable for the innocent blood of children and women,” Okot tells me.
He was one of the most outspoken members of Cornerstone Children’s Home, a safe haven for dozens of orphans and abandoned kids that I helped to build and sustain over the course of five years. He would regularly share his opinions — both the encouraging and critical ones — at the “family meetings” that we held every month in the sanctuary of a church. He once demanded that we allow all the children to stay up as late as they pleased, and he nearly led his peers in a spontaneous protest against our cruel enforcement of bedtime rules.
Under vastly different circumstances, he would probably be working in politics right now. Instead, he’s among the thousands of men and women who have been disenfranchised by the government, partly because he hails from a minority ethnic group.
South Sudan is composed of some 60 ethnic groups, but the political and social dominance of the Dinka and, to a lesser extent, the Nuer has caused untold problems for the nation’s minorities. “Big men” and bureaucrats have been slow to welcome minorities into positions of power and, at times, have been openly hostile toward them.
When Okot expresses his feelings about his government, he uses adjectives such as “totalitarian,” “dictatorial” and “bloodthirsty.” He is part of a generation that deserves so much more than its leaders have chosen to offer. He, and many like him, argue from experience that government jobs and scholarships have been mainly given to members of the Dinka and Nuer tribes. After finishing high school, Okot applied for various positions within the government, but received rejection after rejection. Attempts to secure a university scholarship from the government led to the same result.
Eventually, he chose to join the SPLA. I remember he talked about becoming a soldier when he was still a teenager, struggling to find his identity and to manage the grief of losing his parents. I tried to persuade him to follow a different path, mostly because I was afraid he might end up fighting in a war.
“I just wanted to have a military background for the goal I set of becoming a prominent political figure [and] to see justice and equality prevail in my nation South Sudan,” he explains. “But, to my dismay, even in the army promotion is based on nepotism and favoritism. I trained for four months, but later I quit before graduation because I had a premonition.”
“Just a month and a half after I left the war broke out.”
I’m grateful that he chose to leave, that he hasn’t been forced into a war that has no justification, that he hasn’t been commanded by a superior officer to kill civilians or conceal their bodies.
Unlike many of the children who lived at the home, Okot never called me dad or baba. I didn’t ask the kids to see me as their father, but after I lived with them for half of a decade most eventually saw me as a parental figure. Okot, always the one to perceive things in his own unique way, saw me first as a foreigner, then as a caretaker and finally as a friend.
Never once did he mistake me for his father, who was a lieutenant colonel in the SPLA during the last civil war — a hero who helped to capture the towns of Torit, Kyala and Narus.
For most of his life, Okot believed that Arab-Muslim soldiers killed his father, Taban, during a battle in 1996. However, when Okot moved to Juba a few years ago, he met a man who had fought alongside his father and he provided an account of Taban’s death that contrasted sharply with the picture that had developed in Okot’s mind. According to the old soldier, Taban was wounded in a skirmish near Narus, but the injuries didn’t kill him. During his convalescence, a group of soldiers broke into his room in the middle of the night and shot him.
His father’s former comrade said the men were Dinka soldiers and they murdered Taban out of jealousy. Okot’s father had advanced through the ranks of the rebel force to obtain an influential and coveted position. In the eyes of some of his fellow soldiers, he had exceeded the invisible limits of his minority status. And they killed him for doing so.
Okot was five when he lost his dad. Two years later, northern troops murdered his mother, Akio, when they discovered that she was providing medical treatment to wounded SPLA soldiers. In the span of 24 months, Okot’s young life was shattered twice. The process of repair is an ongoing project for Okot — an undertaking that will reach its terminus only in his own death.
No one in Okot’s life has taken his parents’ place. They loved him dearly and they tried to fashion, through brutal force and through pressure applied to open wounds, a better world for him. They gave their lives in the service of a country that didn’t yet exist.
It remains to be seen whether their sacrifice and the sacrifices of countless other South Sudanese over the course of the past six decades will result in a safe and prosperous nation — or a failed state owned and operated by war criminals.
Okot tells me that justice will take its course in South Sudan. He sends me a list of some of the human rights abuses — from torture to the recruitment of child soldiers — that have been committed by leaders on both sides of the conflict.
At the end of his indictment, he writes, “With all this I [still] have the hope that President Kiir and Doctor Riek Machar will not escape justice.”