In South Sudan, Thousands Rely on Fragile Protection Camps for Survival
U.N. peacekeepers separate warring tribes
In a refugee camp in South Sudan’s capital Jub, Jikany Kuol awaits the rain in a tiny shack cobbled together with pieces of corrugated iron and U.N. tarp. “Our people are fed up with fighting,” he laments as the Chinese soldiers guarding the camp look on despondently.
“The people in the bush are especially sick of all this,” he adds, gesturing to the watchtowers outside. “When our fighters are tired of war, they try to come here for protection, but UNIMISS [the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan] just hand them over to the enemy.”
The smell in this ramshackle camp is overpowering. The shanty town — ill-equipped to cope with its burgeoning population — is now home to U.N. soldiers and lines of small children who queue up to be weighed, their emaciated arms measured with conveyor belt speed by NGO staff.
This is no ordinary refugee camp.
These are South Sudan’s protection-of-civilians, or PoC, camps, born out of the violence of July 2016 when civilians stormed the UNIMISS base and demanded protection as government soldiers from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army — the SPLA — clashed with rebel forces from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, the SPLA-IO.
The rebels fled, but for the civilians such as Kuol who supported them, there was no place to go. So they stayed and refused to leave the UNMISS base
Now nearly 50,000 people are suspended in this strange limbo in Juba — surrounded by Dinke-led SPLA soldiers outside — and, inside, U.N. peacekeepers who have been accused of failing to protect civilians under their charge.
Kids in a PoC. All photos by Norma Costello
Kuol, a young Nuer activist, spends his time fantasizing about the return of former vice president and fellow Nuer Riek Machar, who fled to South Africa this summer after a wave of violence in Juba that spelled the end of any proposed peace process.
“When protection forces come, Machar will come,” Kuol says. “We need his help here. [Pres. Salva] Kir is killing everyone and unless the international community is involved nothing will change. There can be no peace without this.”
Machar seems unlikely to return from exile and this has been seen by many as the death knell for the Nuer, one of the county’s largest tribes.
The county’s brutal war between Nuer and Dinke has now spread to smaller tribes that claim they are also targeted by the Dinke-led government. South Sudan’s PoCs are fast becoming ethnic ghettos, with U.N. peacekeepers guarding those inside from SPLA troops outside, as Kir’s supporters control swaths of terrain throughout the country.
Those inside are wholly dependent on UNMISS protection, yet most distrust the U.N. peacekeepers guarding them, who according to a November 2016 report, failed to protect aid workers and civilians who were raped and killed when clashes between SPLA-IO and SPLA soldiers reached their zenith on July 16, 2016.
The warring sides brought the fight to the UNMISS base as frightened civilians crowded inside for protection and peacekeepers retreated from their positions.
U.N. peacekeepers exercise at a PoC
The United Nations’ report blamed the chaos and failure to protect civilians on UNMISS senior command. “The special investigation found that a lack of leadership on the part of key senior mission personnel culminated in a chaotic and ineffective response to the violence.”
One commander, Kenyan general Johnson Ondieki, was on the receiving end of Ban Ki Moon’s wrath and was fired shortly after the report was published.
The move prompted a wave of criticism from locals and NGO workers who claim Ondieki was a “fall guy” and an excuse for the United Nations to ignore the widespread structural flaws that created a culture of panic among soldiers and fostered a void in the command structure of UNMISS.
The sacking of Ondieki also lead to a spat between Kenya and the United Nations, when the latter temporarily withdrew its troops from the country. They returned to South Sudan early this year after Kenya was offered the United Nations’ Darfur command which, according to new U.N. Secretary-General Antonia Guerres, was “a sign of our confidence in the Kenya Defense Forces.”
The failure of UNIMISS to protect civilians was further compounded by the United Nations’ inability to cope with the tens of thousands now under its protection. U.N. staff were forced to pull together services for sick and starving people now living within U.N. compounds across South Sudan
Bodies were buried hurriedly and without notice, a U.N. worker explains, tearing up when she recalls pulling a baby from its dead mother’s breast.
Disease and malnutrition triumphed and thousands of people with no birth or death certificates died — lost in the quagmire of of the PoCs as South Sudan crumbled.
Now, the situation has improved — minimally. NGOS working within the camps run nutrition programs using World Food Program aid and dispense medicine to the sick. But these places are still an apocalyptic sight.
“See that,” says Neil Barriskell from the Irish NGO GOAL. He points to cordoned-off space with a large platform at the back. “That is the most difficult thing to manage. It’s the food distribution hub. It’s about raw survival and often things get very violent in there.”
Over in one of the camp’s basic health care facilities, a young boy lies on a small mattress as his mother cradles his younger brother. The child is severely underweight and has been ill for several days. The smell in the room is so overpowering a nurse grimaces before quickly dragging the curtain across to block out the scene.
Elizabeth Wahe is one of of thousands of South Sudanese women reliant of the U.N. peacekeepers for protection. “So many people have been attacked,” she explains. “It’s very dangerous for us here. If we go to collect money outside the camps the soldiers steal it and hurt us.”
Wahe animatedly describes life in the PoC. When the topic turns to Kir, she doesn’t hold back her anger. “Now, in the world there is something called human rights, but here in our country the president is killing the elderly, he’s killing the children, raping the women. Where are our human rights? Now the government are advancing to areas they never had before, killing all the children in their wake. What are the international community doing about this?”
Peacekeepers in a PoC
Despite everything, some people inside the camp still strive for change. Recently, students inside the PoC fell afoul of Kir’s government after requesting to be allowed to take their exams inside the camp.
The government blocked requests for examination centers to be established within the camps, which prompted claims that the government was creating a series of roadblocks to impede the education of non-Dinke in the country.
This is particularly depressing in a country such as South Sudan, which — according to data from the Ministry of Education — has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Only 15 percent women and 40 percent men can read and write.
The United Nations managed to negotiate a solution for the students, but it’s one victory in a war of countless losses. Local, who view UNIMISS as an impotent force, still rely on its protection for their survival. “We will witness more and more cleansing of non-Dinke indirectly supported by outside,” a young Kenyan doctor says during a short break from treating people in the camp.
Kuol, who has just organized an anti-government protest in the camp, says voices of opposition are silenced and marginalized in South Sudan.
“The war started with Nuer in 2013 but now it has spread to equatorials. It’s extended to all tribes. In Yay they have big problems and they ran to Uganda. All of those people have been killed by the government. They are starving. Now it’s not just Nuer. Now all Shiluk [and] Murle [are] being killed by the government. Now every tribe is a victim, except the Dinke. They want to destroy the whole of South Sudan.”
As we’re leaving, we meet a young U.N. peacekeeper who seems frustrated by his position in this bizarre arrangement. “It’s like they’re all playing tennis and we’re the net. They all want to keep us in the middle, but we can’t shoot. It makes no sense.”