South Sudan conflict: Britain pledges to send 300 troops - but will it be enough to save a nation facing near collapse?

The world’s newest state is already a failing one. On the ground in Bentiu, Hannah McNeish hears horrifying accounts of murder, rape and abduction

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The Independent Online

“Don’t kill him! Don’t kill him!” were the last words 30-year-old Nyathiran heard two women scream about her brother-in-law as she fled the bullets that had met them, two hours after leaving the United Nations base where they had been taking refuge.

In South Sudan, the world’s newest state – and already a failing one – she was among hundreds of thousands of people sheltering at camps that were originally set up to house international peacekeepers, but which have become the only safe havens from continuing war and civil breakdown.

But after weeks in the camp in Bentiu, Unity state, and hearing that a peace deal struck in August was holding, she set off with family members to deliver some of their meagre food rations to infirm and starving relatives in their village, five hours’ walk away.

She dared not look back but assumed that her brother-in-law had been shot dead. “As I was running, the two women were screaming, so I don’t know if they, too, were being abducted or killed,” she said. 

A war started by feuding leaders from the country’s two largest ethnic groups in December 2013 – one of them the President, the other his former Vice-President – two years after the new country won independence from Sudan, quickly descended into the slaughter of thousands of civilians nationwide along tribal lines. 

Oil-rich state capitals such as Bentiu and Malakal, in neighbouring Upper Nile state, changed hands several times. UN bases emptied and filled along ethnic lines as the fortunes of either side ebbed and flowed. In April last year, 300 youths attacked a UN base in Bor, capital of Jonglei state, where 5,000 people were sheltering, killing 58 people, including children, before UN peacekeepers could intervene.

When rebels seized Bentiu, they laid siege to a mosque and a hospital and killed hundreds of people in scenes that one UN worker said resembled the 1994 Rwanda genocide. 

It is to this violent and volatile country that David Cameron this week promised to send a contingent of some 300 British troops to help “maintain a level of decency” – couching it in terms of preventing a further outflow of migrants to Europe. In fact, few from South Sudan are likely to set their sights so high; and having underwritten the peace deal that led to the creation of South Sudan, diplomats in the capital, Juba, say Britain is bound to help as the country faces near collapse.

How much difference 300 troops will make is another matter. Thousands of women and girls are thought to have been abducted from villages across Unity state during offensives against the rebels by government and allied forces since April.

The UN base is brimming with the women who escaped and with girls who use their fingers to count up how many of their friends were taken away to what were effectively government-sanctioned rape camps.

“At night, if you refuse to go with a man, they shoot you,” said Veronica of the camp to which she and 15-year-old Gladys were taken. Most of the women asked that their real names not be given, for fear of their safety. Gladys just nodded as Veronica told  of the most beautiful women, and girls as young as 12, being chased, raped and marched to transit centres where soldiers and militiamen selected them as “wives”. The two friends managed to escape after a few days.

In nearby Mayom county, others were marched to military bases and cattle camps where an ex-militia leader – now a key government ally – is based. There, youths working for local leaders are paid only in war booty, so seized girls along with cattle during government offensives that have become part of a burgeoning trade in unmarried women .

In every village, according to dozens of testimonies heard by The Independent, boys were also hunted, but for systematic killing. Attackers from rival clans explained that they didn’t want “boys to grow up and take revenge”.

Some soldiers opened babies’ nappies to check their sex and either castrated the boys or threw them on to fires. One woman who escaped her village told The Independent that for the walk to Bentiu, she dressed them in girls’ clothing. She told armed men who stopped her group, “These are my daughters,” and they let her pass. But another woman’s two sons were shot dead. 

“She rushed to the soldiers and said: ‘If you’ve done my kids, then just do me, too,’ and they shot her. She died there with her kids. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak.” Another woman, a plastic cross round her neck,  told how her 11 children were killed.

South Sudan government soldiers in Unity state

Mary, 15, lives in a container in Bentiu town. Friends were abducted from the village which she fled; some have since escaped their captors, bringing horrifying accounts of days or months of rape – and of girls who could take no more being shot. She fears the men coming at night. But so grim is life in the cramped UN bases, with their sweltering tents and no lights, where families fight and at night men attack women at toilets and water points, that she and others have left, despite the risks.

Unity state’s acting governor, Stephen Taker, shrugs off claims about abductions and dismisses detailed reports of looting and rapes as lies. The government is committed to peace with its “brothers and sisters,” he said, adding: “Our problem is our brothers in the bush, because they [the rebels] are just now preparing to attack our positions.”

A Western diplomat in Juba described the South Sudan Foreign Ministry’s response to the Prime Minister’s pledge as “positively hostile”, a reaction that reflects a “pushback” against the Western nations that provide almost all of the country’s aid. “South Sudan does not and should not have a say on who contributes to the UN peacekeeping mission,” he added. 

Simon Mansfield, the British head of the EU’s humanitarian operation, Echo, said: “The humanitarian situation in South Sudan is as bad or worse than anywhere else in the world. We still have extraordinarily high rates of starvation. We have emergency levels of mortality among children. We have to do more.”