South Sudan has rejected the deployment of a further 4,000 United Nation (UN) peacekeepers, insisting that the situation in the country is improving. The new troops were to have strengthened the 13,500-strong UN team already in place. “The government of South Sudan has the ability to provide security and stability for the country and for its citizens without the deployment of a … protection force,” a spokesperson for the foreign ministry said Wednesday.
Despite this confident proclamation, violence in the country continues. Over a million people have fled South Sudan since the civil war broke out in December 2013, mostly travelling to Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. A further 1.7 million remain internally displaced, while tens of thousands of others have been killed in the conflict.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published last November accused both the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) of abuse against civilians, and UN investigators claimed in December the country is “on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilize the entire region.” However an arms embargo backed by the US and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was defeated in a UN Security Council vote on 23 December, only one week after the war entered its fourth year.
Refugees in Kalobeyei, just outside the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, tell of widespread violence against civilians in southern states, often against smaller ethnic groups caught between the Dinka and Nuer.
“When the war started, that’s when life became terrible,” said Margareta, a South Sudanese refugee who arrived at the Kalobeyei settlement camp in March of last year. Unknown attackers set fire to her home during a night time raid, killing five of her children. Margareta fled to the Kenyan border with one son while another was abducted. She does not know the whereabouts of her missing child, but fears he was forcibly conscripted. “The innocent are being killed, she said. “They don’t know anything about politics but yet they are being killed.”
The ongoing fighting has also exacerbated the effects of two years of drought, leaving 4.6 million – almost 40% the population – at risk of acute hunger. Several of those who spoke to VICE News described how raids in rural areas brought farming to a halt, leaving villagers unable to feed themselves.
When fighting spread to his village near Torit, life became unbearable for Mayen, a member of the Lotuku community. Attacked by both rebel and government soldiers, residents were unable to carry on with daily life. Both sides killed villagers, claiming they had been working for the enemy. When government loyalists accused him of rebel sympathies, he sold all he had and left for Kenya with his wife and nine children, arriving at the border in July.
For those fleeing to neighboring countries, the journey out of South Sudan can be treacherous. Several refugees told VICE News that their vehicles were shot at or intercepted by soldiers. The danger means bus prices are high and some have been forced to leave family members behind.
John’s family trekked 100 miles to the capital Juba after SPLM soldiers killed those in his village they suspected were rebels. He said they paid 3,000 Sudanese pounds ($460) per person for transport to Kenya. John doesn’t support either side in the conflict, but believes that Dinka are given an unfair advantage in South Sudan. “If you are a Dinka you will get a job. When you are not a Dinka you will not get any job… [It’s a] government of Dinka, everything is Dinka.”
James, a road engineer working for local government, was suspected of assisting rebels when his brother joined the SPLM-IO in the bush. He narrowly avoided assassination in July when his truck was intercepted between Torit and Kapoeta by soldiers who’d been given a tip-off. Two police escorts saved him and the other passengers by returning fire, killing both assailants. Those living in government-controlled areas are frequently accused of spying for rebels, he said. “Anything and they will do away with you, they will slaughter you.” James said he would be happy to see Machar’s rebels win. “I need someone who can lead our country, not the government. We need regime change.”
But several others spoke about the brutality of the rebels, who have targeted civilians they believe to be assisting the government. Following the murder of her husband in Juba this June, Mary left with her children for the south-eastern town of Torit. She stayed a few days with her brother before joining others a bus to the Kenyan border. Later she received a call saying her brother, along with his wife and children, had been killed. “In Torit there are rebels who come at night,” she said. “Maybe they just come and knock at the door and they tell you to get out of the house. When you come out they just shoot you.”
Some names have been changed to protect those who still have family in South Sudan.