Defying a ceasefire agreement, rebels in South Sudan launched intense attacks over the weekend on the northeast town of Nasir in an attempt to recapture their former base of operations.
“This attack is a clear violation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement,” the UN Mission in South Sudan said in a statement released Sunday, referring to a January pact that has been all but ignored by both sides in the conflict. Between steady eruptions of violence, the rival forces had recommitted to the pact in May and again in June.
The rebels, who became known as the “Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition” after breaking away from government forces in December, were originally headquartered in Nasir, which is located in a predominantly Nuer area near the border with Ethiopia. Fighting has since fallen largely along ethnic lines, pitting mostly Dinka forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against Nuers nominally led by Riek Machar, Kiir’s former vice president.
It’s unclear how many have died in Nasir, but a spokesperson for UNMISS told VICE News that fighting continued into Monday morning and that government forces had not been driven from the area.
If previous battles to retake strategic settlements are any indication, the toll on residents could be heavy. In April, when rebels retook the oil hub of Bentiu, they massacred hundreds of Dinka and Darfuri civilians.
The EU announced sanctions just weeks ago against government commander Santino Deng and rebel chief Peter Gadet, a general who defected to Machar’s forces and who is accused of orchestrating the April attack on Bentiu. US sanctions imposed in May have had little effect on their own.
The UN estimates that at least 10,000 people have died since December and 1.5 million are either internally displaced or have fled to neighboring countries.
Neighboring countries had dispatched small teams of observers from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional trade bloc, to monitor a ceasefire brokered by Ethiopian President Hailermariam Desaleng in May. These teams are present in Nasir and five other cities.
Like the January agreement, the ceasefire was quickly disregarded. Machar later claimed that Desaleng had threatened to throw him in prison if he didn’t agree to it.
Kiir and Machar agreed once more to a détente in June, this time promising to form a unity government within 60 days. With scant weeks left before that deadline, there are very few signs of progress.
Rather than abating, fighting has shifted to a rhythm familiar to both South Sudan and Sudan alike: smaller, sporadic skirmishes unfolding across the country followed by periods of rest that allow combatants to regroup and rearm. It appears that the temporary relief from bloodshed afforded by the three failed peace agreements has only given each side time to organize themselves and renew the conflict.
“All the indications are that both sides are not done fighting and hardliners in both parties feel they are winning,” EJ Hogendoorn, Africa deputy program director at the International Crisis Group, told VICE News.
A unity government would likely see certain senior members of Kiir’s cabinet lose their posts. “They have no incentive to join,” said Hogendoorn.
After each agreement, the two leaders returned to their skeptical constituencies and claimed that outside pressure had compelled them to sign. While the ceasefire was widely reported, South Sudan’s domestic political reality was not.
The list of recent clashes is long, UNMISS spokesperson Joseph Contreras told VICE News.
“There’s been sporadic fighting in Unity State,” he said, running through a few examples. “Sporadic shelling in the vicinity of Rank, in Upper Nile State, not far from the border with Sudan. And there’s been fighting between government forces and forces whose identity is not all that clear in Northern Bahr el Ghazal State.”
Further complicating matters, Ugandan troops are in the country fighting alongside government forces.
UNMISS chief Hilde Johnson stepped down in July and the mission is currently without a permanent replacement.
In December, the UN Security Council voted to increase peacekeeper troop levels by 5,500. After seven months, fewer than 2,700 of these additional soldiers have arrived.
IGAD agreed in May to send 2,500 troops to assist UNMISS. None are currently in the country, Contreras said.
A battalion of Chinese UN peacekeepers is expected to arrive by the fall, but their presence will likely raise questions about Security Council negotiations in May that saw a renewed UNMISS mandate include UN peacekeeper protection for oil workers — many of whom are Chinese. China is the largest foreign investor in South Sudan’s oil industry, and had pushed for the provision covering its employees. Oil provides 99 percent of the South Sudanese government’s revenues.
UNMISS is currently sheltering nearly 100,000 displaced people at ten bases throughout the country — 20,000 more than it was sheltering in May. The largest of the camps, in Bentiu, holds over 40,000.
UN peacekeepers, overwhelmed by the teeming camps, have not intervened in any of the fighting. In April, however, they were forced to repulse an attack on a camp in Bor that left dozens dead.
With the rainy season making main thoroughfares impassable, humanitarian workers have struggled to reach homeless South Sudanese. Navi Pillay, the UN’s human rights chief, last week warned that a famine could soon be declared if conditions in the country didn’t improve. A cholera outbreak this year has inflicted an additional blow on the country’s people, infecting over 4,400 and claiming the lives of roughly 100.
“We don’t have the human resources to keep track of the number of people dying in South Sudan every day,” said Contreras.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford