On Dec. 15 the world’s newest nation erupted into violence. In South Sudan, troops loyal to former vice president Riek Machar mutinied against president Salva Kiir. Machar, a ethnic Nuer, had accused Kiir of trying to solidify power for the rival Dinka ethnic group.
Violence spread. Hundreds died. Peacekeepers from the U.N. Mission in South Sudan told their chief Hilde Johnson that people were flocking to UNMISS’ bases seeking protection. In the dark morning hours of Dec. 16, Johnson gave the order to let them in.
The result, four month later, is siege warfare. Tens of thousands of refugees struggle to survive on U.N. bases protected by lightly-armed peacekeepers—while outside the compounds’ walls, killers plan their attacks.
Conditions are dire. The future is uncertain. Nearly 100,000 lives are at stake.
On Dec 20, angry Nuer youths mobbed a small U.N. base in Akobo where just 43 Indian peacekeepers sheltered a group of Dinka civilians. As many as 2,000 armed Nuer stormed the base. Two Indian peacekeepers, Dharmesh Sangwan and Kumar Pal Singh, died alongside many of the innocents they were trying to protect.
South Sudanese troops still loyal to the government intervened, preventing further bloodshed. But worse was to come. Since December, both sides in the conflict have done terrible things, killing perhaps thousands in a campaign of violence that the U.N. warned could escalate into genocide.
U.N. troops have played an important and largely unsung role protecting civilians. Although not equipped to directly intervene in the fighting, they’ve been able to turn their bases into relative safe havens.
As Kiir and his followers have gained the advantage, more and more Nuers are seeking shelter with the peacekeepers. “In many ways, the U.N.’s response has been magnificent,” Richard Gowan, a peacekeeping expert and director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, tells War is Boring.
“The peacekeepers’ readiness to take in so many civilians, even after Indian troops were killed early in the crisis, deserves huge respect,” Gowan says. “There has been no ‘Srebrenica moment,’ with thousands of civilians slaughtered in a U.N. safe area.”
The U.N. estimates 77,000 civilians have sought shelter in the world body’s South Sudan compounds. This is the source of a great deal of tension between UNMISS and the South Sudanese government.
Government officials have accused the U.N. of sheltering rebels. Now that most of the refugees are Nuer, the loyalist South Sudanese army has reportedly harassed U.N. troops and the civilians they’re protecting.
Today lightly-armed peacekeepers stand at their bases’ gates, a thin light-blue line staunching a potential river of blood.
Most of the U.N. facilities were not meant to house such huge numbers of civilians. “Many camps lacked basic equipment, such as tents, to respond to a crisis on this scale,” Gowan says. The U.N. has had to improvise.
As civilians flooded in, U.N. officials housed them in hangars or any other available structure, while hastily erecting additional structures. Camp engineers dug latrines and rushed to stock water.
Medical personnel worked overtime. Many of the refugees were hurt, some of them seriously. Hospital beds quickly filled up, forcing troops to lay out mattresses for the overflow patients. With medical supplies limited, hospital staff got creative. Some peacekeepers donated blood and plasma while also pulling guard duty.
As bases became overpopulated or hard to defend, the U.N. shifted refugees to larger facilities, packing them into vans, buses and trucks and surrounding the vehicles with peacekeepers.
To keep up with the unrelenting demand for protection, UNMISS got reinforcements from other U.N. missions. In January, Nepalese troops stationed in Haiti with MINUSTAH transferred to South Sudan.
The extra bodies were helpful but the reinforcements arrived without heavy equipment. “If there was greater commitment to South Sudan, we would have seen a bigger, faster and tougher reinforcement effort earlier on,” Gowan says.
Snipers have kept the peacekeepers on edge. In January, fighting erupted around Malakal, damaging the hospital. “The South Sudanese government has been harassing U.N. forces, and UNMISS is arguably lucky that it has not lost more personnel, so far,” Gowan says. “If relations with the government worsen, it could be very dangerous indeed.”
With just 8,494 soldiers and police to protect 77,000 people in the camps—not to mention vulnerable civilians not in the camps—UNMISS is spread thin.
Packing so many people into such small spaces can create conflict inside the bases. On Feb. 18, Malakal and its 22,000 refugees once again were caught in the cross-fire as government and rebel forces battled outside the fence.
And while armed groups traded fire outside, “inter-communal violence” broke out inside the camp, According to a UNMISS press release. Peacekeepers worked on both sides of the fences to protect the camp and cool tempers. They did their best, but 10 people died.
Tension between the U.N. and the South Sudanese government escalated in March, when government troops stopped a convoy of newly arrived Ghanaian peacekeepers with weapons and equipment in mislabeled containers. Most observers assumed the Ghanians simply got sloppy in their hurry, but government supporters have seized on the incident as proof that UNMISS is smuggling weapons for the rebels.
U.N. officials have vehemently denied claims they are helping the opposition. They acknowledge that some rebels probably are living on the bases. But the mutineers are unarmed and no longer engaged in hostilities, making them civilians under international law, according to UNMISS.
The camps are vulnerable. The peacekeepers could probably repel a single attack on a single camp, but simultaneous attacks on all U.N. installations would likely overwhelm the lightly-equipped force.
Gowan says that’s unlikely, however. “Experience elsewhere, such as Darfur, suggests that it is often easier to wear down U.N. forces with frequent limited attacks on individual convoys and patrols than full-scale offensives that are liable to seize international attention.”
The peacekeepers are taking pains to avoid inciting violence. That means keeping active combatants out of the bases. UNMISS screens refugees before allowing them to enter—and conduct regular sweeps for unauthorized weapons. In February, the U.N. transferred to UNMISS several sniffer dogs from the U.N. Mine Action Service in Afghanistan.
Keeping contraband out is hard. Getting supplies in has proved equally difficult. Armed groups have harassed and delayed U.N. convoys. Increasingly, it’s all UNMISS can do to simply preserve its existing bases and their refugee populations. Actual peacekeeping elsewhere in the country is proving unrealistic.
“The presence of so many civilians on U.N. bases has been a handicap,” Gowan points out, “as it has constrained the mission’s operational and political options. UNMISS cannot de-prioritize the safety of those it protects, but this makes it harder to think creatively about its role in providing broader security in South Sudan.”
There’s no end in sight. Kiir and Machar have shown no interest in reconciliation. Armed clashes are frequent. As a result, many civilians are in no rush to leave the safety of U.N. bases. Some residents are building homes, starting up businesses and planning for futures inside the bases.
UNMISS chief Johnson warned a visiting German delegation that there was a risk of famine. And South Sudan’s rainy season, fast approaching, could pose a host of new challenges.
The U.N. has held out for four months. But as with any siege, the attackers have the advantage. It’s only a matter of time before money, supplies and political willpower run out.
Other groups need to intervene, Gowan says. “In political terms, local African powers and the U.S. probably have greater leverage than the U.N.”
In the meantime, the U.N. Security Council has authorized additional troops for UNMISS. They could allow the mission to do more than merely protect its own bases. But until the warring parties can sit down and talk peace, the siege of South Sudan’s U.N. bases will likely continue.