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South Sudan: on the Brink of Catastrophe

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In what the United Nations calls “a horrifying humanitarian and human rights disaster”, the fighting that erupted this past December in South Sudan has forced close to a half a million people to flee their homes while an estimated 10,000 have been killed in just one month.

“Mass atrocities have been committed by both sides,” said the UN’s Ivan Šimonovi, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights. “During my visit, I have received reports of mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, the widespread destruction of property and the use of children in the conflict…One month of conflict has set South Sudan back a decade.”

At barely three years old, South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. In 2011, following a fifty year struggle, 99 per cent of southern Sudanese voted to split from Sudan. Since gaining independence, the country’s leader President Salva Kiir, has been accused by his opponents of being an autocratic.

This conflict began when fighting broke out on December 15th between government troops and rebel forces that support former Vice President Riek Machar. President Kiir fired Machar and his entire cabinet in July. President Kiir blamed the violence on a group of soldiers that support Machar and accused him of an attempted coup, a charge Machar denies. Aid agencies have reported that the fighting has escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group.

“People on both sides are absolutely convinced that the other side is to blame, which makes the situation even more dangerous,” said the United Nations’ Šimonovi. “This highlights the need for an independent fact-finding commission to establish the truth of these terrible events.”

In what Human Rights Watch has called the “worst single incident” it documented, hundreds of Nuer men were gathered by soldiers and policemen in Juba on December 15th. Survivors say that between 200-300 men were squeezed into one room and several people collapsed because it was so hot. Later that night, the attackers said to be government forces, fired into the room through the windows on one side of the building, killing most of the men in the room.

A survivor recalled his ordeal to Human Rights Watch.

“It was very dark,” he said. “The windows were opened and they shot through them. It was just light from the guns and the sound of the shooting. They shot me in the inner thigh, I fell and then dead people fell on top of me.”

“Appalling crimes have been committed against civilians for no other reason than their ethnicity,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides need to leave civilians out of their conflict, let aid groups reach people who need help and accept a credible, independent investigation into these crimes.”

HRW also documented killings which targeted those of Dinka ethnicity by opposition forces in other parts of the country.

“Accountability is key. An independent and impartial fact-finding commission should be established as quickly as possible”, said Šimonovic. “Those who committed these terrible crimes, who ordered them or those who did nothing to prevent them while they were in a position to do so, all these people should be held accountable without delay…I made this very clear to military leaders on both sides.”

It’s estimated that over 400,000 people have fled their homes and have sought refuge at various UN compounds throughout the country. South Sudanese have also fled to Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan.

The UN is seeking over $200 million for the most urgent needs. Food and water are increasingly in short supply.

“Even before the recent fighting…some 4.4 million people were already estimated to be facing food insecurity in South Sudan in 2014,” added Dominique Burgeon, Director of FAO’s Emergency and Rehabilitation Division. “Of those, 830 000 were facing acute food insecurity,”

The UN reports that over 200,000 people have been helped even though there have been continued attacks on aid workers. The UN’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has played a critical role in protecting civilians since the conflict started.

“If UNMISS had not opened their gates to protect civilians fleeing the violence, there is no doubt that killings on an even larger scale would have happened,” said Šimonovi.

”Their impartial presence is also of great importance to help prevent further atrocities from being committed and for the protection of civilians. The reinforcement of their human rights monitoring capacity is a positive step forward. Independent monitoring and public reporting is vital. Within the coming weeks the UN will be issuing a public report on human rights violations committed after 15 December.”

By Nam Kiwanuka

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