Armed groups in South Sudan are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in the most grotesque way imaginable, taking to the airwaves to incite mass-scale ethnic killings and rape.
Last week, after wrestling control of the strategic oil town of Bentiu from government forces, predominantly Nuer rebels slaughtered unspecified hundreds of civilians in the area. The rebels put out calls on a local radio station encouraging attacks on members of the Dinka ethnic group and Darfuri residents of the town.
The UN confirmed the bloodshed on Monday, as well as the alarming use of radio broadcasts to incite the violence. Because Darfuri rebels aligned with the government are reportedly active near Bentiu, the rebels sought revenge against innocent members of both groups.
Some of the broadcasts “called on men to avenge past gender-based violence against women of their own community,” Joseph Contreras, spokesperson for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), told VICE News.
During the Rwandan genocide, Hutu radio stations played a pivotal role in directing the massacre, broadcasting calls for Hutus to “exterminate” Tutsi “cockroaches.” April marks the start of a 100-day commemoration of the killing in Rwanda.
According to UNMISS, the killings took place between Tuesday and Wednesday of last week as residents sought shelter in Bentiu Hospital and a mosque. At a nearby church, rebels reportedly asked civilians to identify their ethnicity before murdering them. Nuer civilians who hid rather than celebrate the town’s capture were also executed.
Video from Bentiu released by Toby Lanzer, the UN’s humanitarian chief in South Sudan, shows bodies strewn alongside the road and piled high in the jaws of a giant earth-mover.
Footage shows the aftermath of the attack in Bentiu, with bodies lying on the road.
Since fighting broke out in South Sudan in December, the conflict has broken largely along ethnic lines, with mostly Nuer rebels led by former vice-president Riek Machar combating President Salva Kiir’s SPLA forces, which are dominated by Dinkas.
Bentiu and surrounding oil installations have already changed hands several times between the government and the rebels. In January, after government forces captured it, the UN monitored similar hate speech directed at rebels and civilians from the same station, Radio Bentiu FM. The extent of last week's ethnic violence has cemented the troubling parallels to Rwanda.
The UN base in Bentiu, which is sheltering some 12,000 civilians, was the target of rocket attacks last Thursday. Peacekeepers there are still busy disarming one that landed in the camp but failed to detonate.
UN “blue helmets” have struggled to protect civilians in South Sudan. On Friday, at least 48 people were killed when a mob of hundreds overran a UN base in Bor, where an estimated 5,000 civilians, mostly Nuer, were shielding themselves. President Kiir’s government claimed that the attackers were enraged when some of the civilians celebrated the rebel capture of Bentiu.
According to the Geneva Conventions, the killings in Bentiu and Bor both constitute war crimes.
In a rare public admonishment of their superiors and UN member states, UNMISS released a statement on Monday pleading for reinforcements for their meager ranks. In December, the Security Council authorized the deployment of an additional 5,500 peacekeepers to the country, but fewer than 700 have arrived.
“It’s difficult for UNMISS to be patrolling far without resources,” Ryan D’Souza, research analyst at the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, told VICE News.
D’Souza said that neither side in South Sudan’s conflict believes they can defeat the other outright. They are instead fighting for greater leverage in on-again-off-again peace talks that have been taking place in Ethiopia.
Though the rebels and the SPLA are able to strategically retreat from contested towns, civilians cannot and have borne the brunt of the war. As the rainy season makes roads increasingly impassable, they will have even less of a chance to flee.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford