Human Rights Watch has just published a deeply disturbing report accusing government forces in South Sudan of deliberately and indiscriminately targeting ethnic Nuer in the capitol city of Juba.
South Sudan is on an knife’s edge right now. Earlier this week, the President of South Sudan Salva Kiir, who is an ethnic Dinka, accused his main rival Riek Machar, a Nuer, of attempting a coup. According to this Human Rights Watch report, forces loyal to Kiir have systematically targeted ethnic Nuer in response.
The accounts detailed by Human Rights Watch of government forces targeting Nuer civilians are truly horrifying.
A Nuer man told Human Rights Watch that seven Nuer relatives and friends, all men, were killed on the afternoon of December 17 by soldiers who forced their way into a compound in the Gudele area of Juba, where 15 Nuer men were hiding. Two of the men were killed when soldiers shot into the house from within the compound. When the rest of the men tried to escape from the house through a window the soldiers then shot at them, killing five others. “We came back after the shooting and saw the dead bodies,” the witness said. “One of the [Nuer men] hid in a water barrel and was killed in there.”
An East African woman told Human Rights Watch that 15 Nuer civilians, including women and children, were killed in a Nuer neighbor’s house in the Gudele area of Juba, on December 16, by unidentified gunmen. “I was hiding during the shooting but saw the bodies afterwards,” she said. “They are still there, the Dinka are not allowing them to be moved.” She said that during the fighting on December 16 in Gudele she saw armed men from both Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, at different times, moving from house to house apparently searching for members of the other ethnic group.
Three independent sources who were not present at the scene told Human Rights Watch that soldiers forcibly pulled a Nuer minister, Reverend Simon Nyang Lam, out of his house in the Khor William neighborhood and killed him. “He thought he would be ok because he was a pastor,” a relative said. He also said that another man from his family had been taken from his house in the Amarat neighborhood, searched and then shot on the spot.
A Nuer man said he fled to the UN mission after soldiers killed his two brothers on the afternoon of December 16 in Juba’s New Site area. Soldiers entered the family’s compound and shot the two men, who were also soldiers but were unarmed and in civilian clothes. The soldiers also shot and wounded a third relative, a civilian and took him away. “I don’t know where he is,” the man said.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that soldiers in Juba sometimes asked individuals about their ethnicity before killing or releasing them, or identified them from facial scarification. A Nuer man told Human Rights Watch that soldiers shot and killed his cousin and two other civilians just outside his home the morning of December 16 in the Misah Sabah neighborhood as he hid under a bed. “I heard them crying when they were killing them,” he said. Another man independently said he had witnessed the shooting of the three men: “When they failed to answer if they were Dinka or Nuer, they were shot.”
A Dinka man described being stopped by police as he was driving through a check point. “They greeted me in Nuer so I responded in Nuer. They then asked me to get out, cocked a gun on my head and told me to kneel,” he said. The man was only able to leave after persuading the policemen that he was a Dinka and not a Nuer and by showing them his identity card.
Tens of thousands of South Sudanese in Juba have fled to UN compounds for safety. The UN Peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, known as UNMISS, has about 7,500 troops. They can provide some modicum of safe harbor for civilians who flee to their compound, but these troops cannot prevent the outbreak of a civil war. If armed militias and government soldiers decide to go to war, peacekeepers will not be able to stop them.
The international community, particularly the USA, has invested a great deal in creating a safe and stable South Sudan. Both Presidents Bush and Obama were instrumental in South Sudan’s split from Sudan in 2011. Salva Kiir is very much a US ally. He has been to the White House on a number of occasions, has had bi-lateral meetings with President Obama who chaired a UN summit in support South Sudan’s independence in 2010. Even as Darfur was descending into Genocide in the mid 2000s, the Bush administration kept focus on negotiations with Sudan that allowed for the eventual independence of South Sudan.
Kiir proudly shows off his close connection to the USA whenever in public: his signature black cowboy hat is a gift from President Bush. Now, forces allied to Kiir are allegedly engaging in indiscriminate ethnic-based violence. That is a tragedy. It is also a profound failure of US policy.