One thing is clear: nobody comes out of South Sudan’s 2013-2014 Civil War looking good. Pitting a viciously sociopathic government against an every-bit-as-bad rebel movement, South Sudan’s civil war is Africa as we’re constantly being told not to imagine it.
Amid the mass-scale bloodletting, there’s the United Nations, which had done most of what little governing had been done in South Sudan since 2005 but still somehow managed to be totally unprepared for what came next.
Bases that the UN had set up as administrative centers or military outposts had to be repurposed, on the fly, into Protection of Civilians sites. These are places that had been designed to house dozens of bureaucrats or hundreds of blue-helmets, not tens of thousands of desperate civilians. Gradually, the UN more or less abandoned any pretense of defending civilians beyond the bases’ perimeters, even those just a few meters outside. The consequences, for civilians both inside and out, are dantesque.
In a rivetting series of investigative reports for the Dutch-funded, Sudanese station Radio Tamasuj, Daniel Van Oudenaren tells the story of how an out-gunned, over-worked, under-staffed United Nations Mission took on an impossible task and all too predictably failed to deliver.
Within a week of the start of the crisis in South Sudan on 15 December, the defected SPLA 8th Division had overrun Bor town and sent tens of thousands of people running in fear. Government forces advanced to retake the town from the south while the opposition rallied reinforcements – mainly armed civilians – from the north, including from Akobo itself.
“Current situation at UNMISS Bor: we’ve been fortifying our defenses,” the military officer said in a message on 24 December. “We’re continuously hearing gunfire and mortars outside, but none has harmed the UNMISS camp yet.”
“Our greatest fear is not the rebel SPLA though, as Gadet’s forces have been rational and cooperative with our flights. Our greatest fear is the Nuer Youth, that they might cause another Akobo incident,” he explained.
“We can’t really conduct any patrols at the moment,” said the same source.
Meanwhile, as the UN dug in, civilians in Bor and in surrounding villages came under attack. Numerous human rights violations during this period later would be recorded by the mission’s human rights division.
National government officials would portray the Dinka Bor as the primary or only victims of the December to January violence, but in reality both Nuers and Dinkas were targeted during the back-and-forth fighting in the area.
Just before Christmas, ahead of the government’s recapture of Bor, the same UNMISS source explained, “Apparently remnants of the Dinka-SPLA forces are hiding in the bush during the day and conducting guerrilla offense during the night on Nuer people.”
“All of the gunshot patients treated at UNMISS Bor so far have been Nuer. Of course, with Nuer-SPLA and Nuer-youth dominating Bor area, things are difficult for Dinkas as well.”
UNMISS, he said, would try to defend itself if it came under attack. But beyond the walls of the base, he warned, the people were in danger of ‘ethnic cleansing’.