Peacekeepers Failed to Stop a Horrific Assault on Aid Workers in South Sudan
Soldiers targeted foreigners and help was not at hand
South Sudan was supposed to continue implementing its peace accord in early July, but starting on July 7, government and opposition forces clashed in the capital Juba, continuing a civil war that started in 2013.
Now the Associated Press has published the harrowing account of a July 11 attack on civilians which took place in the upscale “Terrain” residential compound — in the direct vicinity of a United Nations base staffed by armed peacekeepers.
The attack included the execution of a journalist while other victims were forced to watch, multiple rapes and sexual assaults, as well as beatings, looting and mock executions. It was a brutal — but sadly common — form of violence committed by all sides in the country’s civil war.
What got the attention of the AP in this case were some of the victims — dozens of international aid workers, who lived in the compound and repeatedly called for help from the United Nations and their respective embassies, including the U.S. embassy, during the attack.
That help wasn’t forthcoming.
The suffering of victims is not special because of their skin color or passport. As noted above, attacks on civilians — including wanton rape and murder — are common in South Sudan’s conflict, and the overwhelming number of victims are locals in the remote countryside without access to help or medical attention.
But the attack on the Terrain compound showcases two disturbing dynamics in South Sudan’s interdependent circles of violence. First, there was the hatred and mistrust of outsiders perceived as meddling in the country’s affairs and supporting the “enemy,” and the continued incapability of the international community to protect civilians — locals and expats — from harm.
U.N. troops in South Sudan. United Nations photo
The AP’s report alleges that government forces were responsible for the attack, citing a victim that described the soldiers as wearing the insignia of the presidential guard.
An army spokesman didn’t confirm or deny this, but called the allegations premature. “Everyone is armed, and everyone has access to uniforms and we have people from other organized forces, but it was definitely done by people of South Sudan and by armed people of Juba.”
But South Sudanese government representatives, including Pres. Salva Kiir, have voiced their displeasure with the international presence in the country before. In 2014, bodyguards of the information minister threatened U.N. staff when they were denied entry to a refugee camp because they were armed.
Kiir later accused the U.N. of wanting to “be the government of South Sudan.”
The soldiers who attacked the Terrain singled out U.S. citizens, according to the AP. The assailants beat one American for around an hour before releasing him with the instructions to “tell your embassy how we treated you,” after they verified his U.S. citizenship.
Several survivors told the news agency that the attackers specifically asked if they were American, with one soldier raging “you messed up this country. You’re helping the rebels. The people in the U.N., they’re helping the rebels.”
In most African conflicts, this type of targeted attack on members of the international community is unusual. While radical Islamists are the obvious exception, most government and rebel forces try at least not to anger powerful Western governments, being fully aware of potential repercussions such as embargoes, asset freezes or having to face an international court.
In the case of the attack on the Terrain, the scale and organization makes the determination to harm outsiders even more striking.
While much of the report describes the soldiers as being intoxicated and on a rampage, there was also clearly a chain of command present, with certain individuals being able to order soldiers to stop attacks.
It is unlikely that a band of low-ranking soldiers would target a high-profile location like the Terrain without explicit backing from their commanding officers. The South Sudanese government was also unable or unwilling to stop the attack when it was contacted by U.N. and U.S. officials.
There are two possible explanations for this unusual level of hostility and violence against the international community. Either the government, including Kiir, has decided to view the international presence as an existential threat toward his regime, or the government has lost control over its troops who perceive the outsiders as being responsible for their country’s troubles.
There are indications of both, but the bottom line is that Kiir’s regime should be considered incapable at best and actively obstructing the peace process at worst. Kiir is coming under increased pressure in the wake of the July fighting, in which his forces have committed the majority of atrocities.
Based on a U.S. proposal, the United Nations has increased the mandate of its mission from 12,000 to 16,000 soldiers, with plans to stand up a Regional Protection Force drawn from African armies and modeled after the Force Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
U.N. troops with confiscated weapons and ammunition in Juba, South Sudan. United Nations photo
But the international community’s renewed interest in South Sudan shouldn’t distract from its failings. Human Rights Watch accused the U.N. mission, which is authorized to protect civilians from harm, to have been unprepared for the violence in early July and ineffectual in its response.
In several cases, U.N. soldiers stood idle while government soldiers targeted civilians in plain view of their positions. The peacekeepers made no attempt to venture outside their camps, leaving victims like those at the Terrain — which is situated less than a mile from a U.N. base — at the mercy of their attackers.
Asked for comment, U.N. spokesperson Yasmina Bouziane told War Is Boring that the United Nations takes attacks on civilians and the Terrain compound “extremely seriously.”
The United Nations has launched investigations both concerning the behavior of armed groups, as well as the (non)actions of its own forces, according to Bouziane.
“The Force Commander re-confirmed standing orders stating that UNMISS Force is authorized to take all necessary means, up to and including the use of deadly force, to prevent and deter sexual violence against IDPs under the Mission’s protection of civilians mandate, and civilians in imminent danger anywhere in South Sudan.”
Bouziane also noted the “immensely challenging and non-permissive security environment in which UNMISS and other international actors operated in during the recent fighting, and which the Mission still faces, was and is placing severe limitations on the Mission’s ability to conduct extractions of personnel in harm’s way.”
The spokesperson promised the U.N. will revisit “its contingencies plans and procedures in order to adapt them to the prevailing security situation.”
Not mentioned but important in this context is that several Chinese peacekeepers lost their lives in the fighting while guarding U.N. bases, and that thousands of civilians have found shelter in U.N. camps since fighting broke out in 2013.
Still, given the United Nations’ track record not only in South Sudan, it would be foolish to expect a swift change in the way that civilians receive — or rather do not receive — protection. And international personnel shouldn’t get their hopes up that their own government will come to their help, either.
When asked about the response of the U.S. embassy in Juba, which was alerted to the attack on American citizens within minutes, State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau said that the embassy personnel “actively responded” to the calls for help.
But when pressed for details, she came clear that this “active response” consisted of the ambassador making “several” phone calls to the South Sudanese government and the United Nations.
The embassy itself was “not in a position” to intervene, according to Trudeau.
The State Department has had a travel warning discouraging U.S. citizens from travel to the South Sudan. The warning explicitly states that travelers are responsible for their own “contingency plans prior to arrival to ensure their safety and security” since at least December 2015.
Still, for those trusting in the cavalry coming to safe the day, be it in the form of U.N. peacekeepers protecting civilians, or U.S. personnel looking after Americans in a volatile and conflict-prone country, think again.