PHOTO CREDIT: Fabio Bucciarelli for Al Jazeera America
By Phoebe Pin
In the world’s youngest nation, to speak out against the violent regime is almost certain death.
Crimes against humanity never fail to shock the international community. Images of emaciated bodies make us sick to our stomachs. Visions of mounds of dirt cocooning the bleached bones of hundreds, thousands of victims send shivers down our spines. The wide, toothy grins of soldiers, some not quite big enough to carry the hulking weapon on their shoulders, give us reason to question; how could anyone be so cruel? How could we let this happen?
Sudanese refugee Alex Morro is a towering pillar of a man with strong, dark hands and a voice that crackles like thunder, but even he is rocked by the crimes of the South Sudanese government against its own people. “People are being killed for no reason,” he says. “What type of government is that? That’s not a government, that is a disaster.”
The government in question came into being after South Sudan received its independence from Sudan in July 2011. Earlier that year, the people of Southern Sudan had voted overwhelmingly in favour of succession, which promised to bring an end to decades of civil war and oppression under the Sudanese. Just two years later, their hopes were crushed when a rivalry rooted in entrenched tribal tensions spilled out onto the political sphere. Historically, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, have fought over land and scarce resources but tensions between the new President and his Deputy further politicized the rivalry. Factionalism inside the ruling Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) saw officials within the party align with their respective tribal representative instead of pursing unity. A formal split within the government materialised when President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, dismissed Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, after accusing him of designing an assassination attempt against Kiir. Machar’s cabinet was also dismissed, flinging the young nation into yet another civil war.
In December 2013, a wave of ethnic cleansing swept the country as government security forces searched houses and attacked those believed to belong to the Nuer tribe. Although no official figures have been released, the African Union Commission of Inquiry into the conflict received consistent reports suggesting up to 20,000 Nuer were killed in targeted attacks between 15 and 18 December, 2013. It is not the number but rather the nature of the killings that is most shocking, however. During the inquiry, the Commission heard stories from survivors who had been brutally gang raped, beaten, burnt or even forced to consume human flesh and blood. Once their victims had died, the soldiers then illegally dumped the bodies into one of the mass graves that now litter the countryside. Many of Nuer origin joined with other civilians to create rebel forces in retaliation against the attacks. In turn, the rebels have used the very fear tactics of rape, murder and torture as they were protesting. It would be wrong, therefore, to suggest that the South Sudanese government alone should be held accountable for the crimes against its people. Accountability in any form remains elusive, however, and although there have been repeated attempts at reconciliation, both the rebel and government parties continue to commit atrocities without fear of retribution.
With his bright smile and warm eyes, it is easy to forget that Morro himself has seen such atrocities. Once a child of a prosperous farming family, Morro now belongs to a nation of people scarred by visions too vile to repeat. He does tell me one story, though he warns me it will be a “very sad” tale. But I cannot deafen my ears to the silent cries of the men, women and children as young as two who are being brutally raped, tortured, mutilated, shot, forced from their homes and stripped of all dignity. “Life,” he says, “Is very, very cheap.” Morro’s journey to Australia was not an easy one and began with a dangerous three-day walk across the border to the UN campsite in Uganda. The path, Morro says, was lined with slain bodies and land mines. After 12 long years of waiting in the refugee campsite, Morro and his family finally received a letter guaranteeing their resettlement to Australia.
Now living in Perth, Morro originally hoped to return home to South Sudan where he would be reunited with the family members who had remained. The situation soon became too dangerous and Morro urged his brother, who was staying in Morro’s house in South Sudan, to leave and seek safety elsewhere. “After three days, some military vehicles came,” he says. “They break my house. Then all that is inside, they took it.” Angered by the injustice of the looting, Morro’s neighbour challenged the party of soldiers, insisting that they had no authority to raid another man’s property. “The guy, he was killed,” Morro says. “He was killed in front of his wife, children. He was killed on the spot because of me. Because of my property.” Now, Morro implores his family and others who remain in South Sudan to stay quiet. “When you are there, you don’t need to say any word,” he says. “A word that comes out of you, it is a bullet that goes into your life. You will not survive one hour.”
Looting and ethnic cleansing has led to the displacement of more than 1.9 million people in South Sudan, many of whom have gravitated toward the various United Nations camps in the country. The UN presence in the region is not new, with the launch of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) coinciding with independence in mid-2011. However, the nature of the UN presence in region has since evolved after the mission’s mandate was altered in response to the outbreak of violence in December 2013. The very name of the UN’s Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites bears witness to the mission’s directive to use all means necessary, including the use of force, to ensure the safety of civilians.
“The mission operates under a mandate which, unlike in Rwanda, now very much provides the political backstop and legal authority to use force to protect civilians,” Dr Charles Hunt says. Current research fellow at RMIT University and the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Hunt says this mandate reflects a trend of the increasing willingness of peacekeepers to use force, lest they be seen merely as “bystanders” in the face of genocide, as was the case in Bosnia, Srebrenica and Rwanda. “The UN’s reputation is tarnished so seriously when they fail to protect,” Hunt says. “When there is sexually motivated or oriented violence, there’s an extra level of coverage in the international media and its dynamite to the UN’s reputation as a moral force in international society.”
Nevertheless, there is doubt as to whether UN peacekeepers are actually capable of fulfilling this mandate in South Sudan. “The mission has been both unable and, at times, unwilling to respond to outbreaks of violence or certain incidents,” Hunt says. “There were reports of women and children being sexually abused within sight of the gates of PoC sites and potentially also within the sites themselves.” Furthermore, there have been two major attacks on the UN compounds in Juba and Malakal in the last 18 months, resulting in the death and injury of both South Sudanese and peacekeepers. “The PoC sites were essentially not only attacked but for a period of time overrun,” Hunt says. “The mission was entirely overmatched, it was unable to prevent these attacks and it struggled to stop them and hold them once they were under way.”
The UN mission in South Sudan lacks the number of staff and resources necessary to not only protect civilians from harm, but to also meet the basic needs of the ever-growing number of people flocking to the camps. “Refugee camps are generally housing the world’s poorest, most despairing and most desperate so the support that they need in these kinds of camps is never enough because there is such a magnitude of people in need,” says Sophie Ryan, a former consultant with the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in South Sudan. Initially sent to direct a law and court reform project in Juba, Ryan arrived to a justice system that was practically non-existent. “The court staff and the judges were on strike because no one had been paid for months on end,” Ryan says. “It was not uncommon for the government to just not pay staff for a couple of months.” Corruption, Ryan says, is at the heart of the current conflict in South Sudan. “The corruption is so endemic that it’s incredibly difficult to really get progress,” she says.
According to Hunt, such intractable corruption will no doubt require “something quite radical, something quite unusual” to uproot it and set the country on a path to peace. Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani may have provided such an answer, controversial and unique as it is. Mamdani argues that the feuding President and Vice President cannot be expected to lead the country into a peaceful transition. Instead, he puts forward the idea of a trusteeship which would involve the African Union appointing a government of technocrats originating from African member states who would then oversee the process of social, political and economic reform. Regardless of the method, Hunt believes that peace is in fact possible in South Sudan. “The UN does have a record of being part of successful transitions but they are not quick and the peace dividends take a long time to come through,” Hunt says.
Likewise, Ryan remarked on the “incredible” character of the South Sudanese people and their desire to help bring an end to the war. “They are patriotic people and they are proud of their home,” she says. “Some of the young people are really keen to get skills and to get educated outside of South Sudan and come back and work on fixing their country. They didn’t want to continually be having aid handed out to them; it was definitely not a feeling of hopelessness by the Sudanese at all.”
Morro is a little more reserved in his optimism for the prospects of peace in South Sudan. “The killing is still going on, still things are not going well” he says. “I don’t know whether there is hope for the people of South Sudan.” Nevertheless, Morro remains firm in his belief that those who have committed such barbarous crimes will be held to account. “At the end of the day, we know that there is a human right. Whatever they are doing, tomorrow the consequences, they will be upon them. For us who are praying, we are praying that God will bring them into books so that they will be judged for what they have done to their people.” This is the silent prayer of a nation who cannot speak.