The UN Security Council has voted unanimously to nearly double the number of peacekeepers in South Sudan to more than 14,000 and urged swift action to end a violent political and ethnic conflict that threatens to become a full-blown civil war.
Amid reports of mass graves, extrajudicial killings and rapes, tens of thousands of civilians have sought refuge in UN base camps that in some cases were described as under siege.
There appeared to be no sign of a rapprochement today between the central players in the crisis: President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and the former vice-president, Riek Machar, who is a Nuer, as the ethnic killings threaten the world’s newest nation.
“There are definitely ethnic undertones to what is happening,” said Toby Lanzer, the Deputy Special Representative to the UN Mission in South Sudan. “But this is a political struggle within the ruling party. It’s actually by addressing this that we are going to be able to get things under control.”
Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, Tedros Adhanom, said leaders of six East African countries will travel to South Sudan today to try to advance peace talks and end 10 days of violence.
The crisis was sparked by fighting between Dinka and Nuer soldiers. President Kiir then accused Mr Machar of trying to orchestrate a coup. Mr Machar had denied the charge, but is leading a rebellion that has seized vital parts of South Sudan, including Bentiu, the capital of the oil-rich Unity State.
The fighting has spread to five of the country’s 10 states, including Upper Nile, another oil-producing region.
The Security Council action followed a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, that at least one mass grave has been discovered in Bentiu, with “reportedly at least two other mass graves”, near Juba, the capital and South Sudan’s largest city.
Mr Lanzer told the BBC in an interview that the dead were numbered in the “thousands”. One peacekeeper has been killed, and several have been wounded.
The UN resolution authorises the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s request to temporarily transfer – with the permission of their governments – troops assigned to other peacekeeping missions in Africa, including in Sudan, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Congo. He said he has reached out to the African Union and countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, traditional suppliers of peacekeeping troops in Africa, and appealed to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Nuer soldiers and gangs have reportedly targeted Dinka in Bentiu, Bor and Juba, killing many and forcing tens of thousands to seek refuge in UN compounds.
Meanwhile, in interviews over two days this week, more than two dozen displaced Nuer civilians described a campaign of targeted killings, rapes and beatings by Dinka soldiers. The violence has included the alleged killing of scores of young Nuer in a secret detention facility and their bodies buried in four shallow graves.
Witnesses said Nuer men have been rounded up across Juba and many thrown in prisons for days, beaten with rifle butts or killed on the spot. Some had their hands tied up with wire, their arms and heads slashed with machetes, witnesses said. Dinka soldiers reportedly also set fire to and looted Nuer houses. Three-year-old Nyajing Gadet was among the victims.
Dinka government soldiers arrived in her Juba neighbourhood last week to hunt down Nuer, house by house, her mother recalled. Dinka neighbors pointed the soldiers to the family’s home.
Soldiers fired through the walls and windows. A bullet grazed Nyajing’s head, spilling blood down her tiny face, as her father held her in his arms. “They didn’t care if they killed a child,” said her mother, Elizabeth Nakiru, cradling Nyajing, who had a thick white bandage wrapped around her head. Both were inside a crowded tent in a UN compound where they had sought shelter, along with other Nuer. “They were firing on anyone who was Nuer.”
The South Sudanese military acknowledged on Tuesday that abuses against Nuer civilians had taken place and ordered a probe of the army – still referred to as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA – as well as police and security units involved in the operations last week.
“The SPLA we cannot say is perfect. There might be people there who are not properly oriented as national soldiers,” said Col Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the military. “For us to build a nation, we have to carry out a serious investigation. This is bad behaviour, and it will create a big hole in the body of the military.”
Chiok Ring, 32, was stopped by Dinka soldiers in another part of the city. He and four other Nuer men, including his brother, were in his car, Mr Ring recalled. They were easy to spot: all had six parallel horizontal lines etched across their forehead with a razor, part of the Nuer initiation into adulthood.
One soldier barked: “You are Nuer. Come out.”
“Then, they started to shoot at us,” Mr Ring said. “My brother and my three friends were killed. I ran to a church and hid. There were women and children there, so the soldiers did not enter.”
Mr Ring made his way to the main UN base in Juba, joining an estimated 20,000 people who live in a sea of crowded tents, many made from blankets and fixed to muddy ground. They sleep on dirty mattresses and dry the few clothes they possess on barbed wire. They depend on aid workers for food and water. The stench of mud and sewage wafts through the sanctuary, which aid workers say has become a breeding zone for malaria and other illnesses.
Most of the ethnic attacks have targeted Nuer men of fighting age, although in some cases soldiers appeared to fire randomly into houses occupied by Nuer and assault Nuer women and children. Upon arriving at the UN compound in Juba last week, victims told aid workers that sexual assaults had occurred.
Nyajing’s mother, Nakiru, tried to return home last week. She had left some flour in their house, and she wanted to retrieve it to feed her children. But when she arrived, she found her Dinka neighbours had seized her house, she said. When she tried to break in, two Dinka soldiers spotted her and beat her. Like many of her fellow Nuer, she fears leaving the UN compound.
“Going back home will be like committing suicide,” she said.
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