Peacekeepers in South Sudan Face a Tactical Nightmare
Blue helmets can't protect camps from attack
Since the beginning of South Sudan’s civil war, U.N. troops have been sheltering civilians inside their bases from marauding bands of soldiers and militias battling throughout the country. Both sides of the war regularly rob, murder and rape civilians in their path.
The U.N. has come to call its facilities “Protection of Civilian” sites, or POCs. The U.N. mission estimates blue helmets are responsible for protecting as many as 200,000 people.
But on Feb. 18, the U.N. Malakal POC — home to 48,000 refugees — erupted in violence. According to witnesses, government troops descended on the camp while armed militiamen inside began fighting each other.
Several sections of the camp burned down and thousands fled.
Numbers of dead and wounded are hard to verify, but a recent estimate quoted by Agence Africaine de Press puts the toll at 41 killed, with some camp residents alleging that Rwandan peacekeepers tasked with protecting the camp killed at least five fleeing residents.
Many of the fighters in the camp were not wearing uniforms, so if the five people the blue helmets allegedly killed were indeed non-combatants, there’s a possibility it was an accident.
The POCs pose unique tactical and logistical challenges for the blue helmets. Most of the peacekeepers are lightly-equipped troops from developing countries, far from their homelands and caught in the middle of one of the world’s bloodiest and most confusing wars.
Above — Indian troops treat a wounded South Sudanese child. At top — violence in Pibor, South Sudan on Feb. 24, 2016. UNMISS photos
The war started in December 2013 when a barracks mutiny by ethnic Nuer troops in the South Sudanese army escalated into a full blown civil war. Nuer rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar have battled Dinka troops loyal to sitting president Salva Kiir. Within the first 24 hours, civilians fled en masse to U.N. military bases for protection, and the peacekeepers opened their gates.
In the first month, two Indian troops died protecting Dinka civilians taking shelter in their outpost from an armed mob of Nuer youth. Several other peacekeepers have been wounded in a series of attacks.
This latest massacre is not the first time bloodshed has visited the Malakal camp. Violence both around and inside the camp have long vexed peacekeepers. In January 2014, not long after the civil war began, fighting erupted around the Malakal U.N. base and stray fire badly damaged an Indian military-run clinic inside.
During that clash, armed groups traded fire outside the camp while “inter-communal violence” broke out inside between Dinka and Nuer residents, killing 10 people, according to a UNMISS press release. Peacekeepers worked on both sides of the fences, protecting the camp from assault and clamping down on the fighting inside.
Peacekeepers regularly patrol the camps and conduct searches for weapons and contraband, confiscating them when they’re found. But crowded conditions and political tensions inside the POCs have made these camps difficult to control and maintain. During the rainy season the camps turn into swampy disease dens. Last summer, the British military helped bring in supplies to prepare for the rainy season — and Malakal was a top priority.
Yet the U.N. bases were never designed to house civilians for so long. Peacekeepers hastily constructed many of the housing areas — built to last for weeks or maybe months. Certainly not years. Mobilizing troops or police in crowded, chaotic refugee camps would be a challenge for even the most well prepared military.
The Malakal POC is a sprawling expanse that houses Dinka, Nuer and Skilluk people — and even refugees from neighboring Darfur. Malakal, once South Sudan’s second largest city, became one of the country’s bloodiest and most complex battlegrounds during the civil war.
It’s situated in the former Upper Nile state, which Kiir has since broken into three new states. Some Darfuri rebel groups from the north have been aiding the South Sudanese government in putting down Machar’s rebellion. Meanwhile, Nuer troops have allegedly received weapons from the Sudanese regime in Khartoum.
There were signs the February attack was coming. Armed men moved around the edges of the camp. On the night of Feb. 16, witnesses reported men cutting the perimeter wire and evacuating Dinka and Darfuri women and children.
During the battle, which raged during the dark morning hours of Feb. 18, witnesses reported the use of Molotov cocktails and grenades as glowing red tracers sliced through the air. Sudanese troops, some uniformed, along with Dinka militiamen burned down Nuer and Skilluk tents. Skilluk fighters fought back. As civilians tried to flee, witnesses said that peacekeepers refused to open the gates.
An investigation by journalist Justin Lynch for The Daily Beast sheds some light on what went wrong. The peacekeepers took several hours to organize, and many were reluctant to use force, despite the fact that their mandate clearly allows them to use force to protect civilians. Officers had to coax their troops to use deadly force.
When the peacekeepers opened fire, most of the combatants backed down relatively quickly. But the situation remained confusing. When peacekeepers brought a fire truck with a small armed escort to put out the flames, they took fire — they aren’t sure from whom — and retreated.
The slow response of the U.N. troops has been heavily criticized. But the recent allegations that the peacekeepers killed civilians during the battle could partially explain their hesitancy. The presence of non-uniformed combatants and potentially multiple factions battling in the dark make responding to attacks like last month’s incident a challenge.
U.N. peacekeepers often lack night vision, surveillance equipment or reliable communication gear — all issues peacekeeping veterans have long complained about, with many of these gripes well documented in a Danish-sponsored U.N. report released in 2015.
Despite widespread criticism, aid groups and civilians still go to the blue helmets for help when danger approaches. On Feb. 24, Indian troops evacuated 25 people, including 11 patients, from a Médecins Sans Frontières compound in Pibor as fighting enveloped the area.
Indian military doctors treated several wounded civilians seeking refuge in the base. Peacekeepers report that 2,000 people from the area are seeking shelter at the Pibor base since the last round of violence began.
Before the Malakal attack, some observers voiced optimism that peace talks between Machar and Kiir had been making progress — despite the fact the two have signed countless ceasefires since the war began only for the war to continue. The brazen attack shows that this war is far from over.