The South Sudanese conflict has spun further out of control as dozens of people were killed after an armed mob of several hundred attacked a United Nations base that was harboring civilians in the city of Bor on Thursday.
Some 300 people marched from the center of Bor to the UN base on the southwest edge of the city, ostensibly to deliver a petition. Peacekeepers said that they cautioned them to stop advancing; when weapons were spotted among the crowd, they fired warning shots into the air. The mob persisted and breached the camp’s perimeter, opening fire on an estimated 5,000 displaced citizens before eventually being repelled.
A spokesperson for the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) told VICE News that 48 residents had been killed and another 98 wounded, many gravely — making it likely that the death toll will rise even further. Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian chief in South Sudan, said that 10 of the attackers were killed.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the assault as a “war crime.”
The attack is the worst on a UN base since a Nuer militia overran a compound in Akobo last December, killing at least 30 South Sudanese and two Indian peacekeepers.
“The UN is like the underweight referee in the ring trying to hold back two heavyweights that want to spar.”
Fighting in South Sudan broke out that month between government forces under President Salva Kiir and soldiers loyal to his former vice-president, Riek Machar, whom Kiir had deposed in July. Though allegiances among rebel groups in the country are notoriously fickle, the conflict split largely along ethnic lines, as predominantly Dinka forces loyal to Kiir engaged with mostly Nuer rebels who were aligned with Machar.
An agreement on a cessation of hostilities between the two factions was signed in January 23 and immediately broken by both sides. Fighting has continued ever since, adding to the toll of thousands killed and over a million displaced since December.
Formed in the wake of South Sudanese independence three years ago to provide security and assist the development of the country, UNMISS was blindsided when violence erupted in December, despite widespread accounts of mounting tensions after Kiir forced Machar from office.
Once fighting began, UNMISS had to reorient itself from supporting state building to protecting civilians. Part of that effort was taking the unprecedented step of opening its bases — which were previously home to barracks and offices — to tens of thousands of South Sudanese.
Most of the civilians inside the UN compound in Bor were Nuers being sheltered from government troops who control the city. Elsewhere, the dynamic changes depending on which group is dominant in a given town. Machar accused the attackers of being government soldiers dressed in civilian clothes on Twitter.
Skye Wheeler, a researcher in Human Right Watch’s Africa Division who recently returned from Bor, told VICE News that camp residents had been living in fear for weeks.
“The tensions were incredibly high already. Nuer in the camp were terrified, too afraid to leave and get firewood,” she said. “It’s absolutely outrageous that you have thousands of people living in the UN base being constantly harassed,” she added, noting that security forces had obstructed the evacuation of injured civilians from Bor’s nearby airport. A camp resident was also abducted and never seen again.
“The government has failed to investigate and prosecute the security forces responsible for the widespread targeting of civilians,” Wheeler said.
The South Sudanese government said that camp residents celebrating the rebel takeover earlier this week of the strategic oil town of Bentiu had provoked the mob. Local journalists at Radio Tamazuj reported that hundreds of people were missing in Bentiu amid reports of summary executions and other atrocities.
In December, the UN Security Council authorized 5,500 additional peacekeepers to assist UNMISS. Four months later, only 650 of them have arrived.
UNMISS peacekeepers are nearly always outnumbered in conflict areas, and have primarily focused on safeguarding civilians in their bases. But the attack in Bor calls into question even that limited capacity.
“The UN is like the underweight referee in the ring trying to hold back two heavyweights that want to spar,” Cameron Hudson, acting director of the US Holocaust Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, told VICE News.
With no clear sign of progress in the country, the Security Council is expected to renew UNMISS’ mandate when it expires in July.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
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