When South Sudan gained independence in 2011 after long and bloody fighting throughout the twentieth century, it was seen as a chance for rejuvenation and healing for the country and its people. But 5 years on, with one civil war already having occurred, South Sudan looks set to fall into implosion once again, as the power struggle between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former Vice-President Riek Machar, spills into ethnic and sectarian war.
South Sudan has been in a state of conflict for decades now. Hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced by violence which in the last few years has arisen along sectarian and ethnic lines. 4.8 million are now at risk of starvation and while the violence escalates, aid agencies are unable to combat the dire situation, with valid fears for their workers. In the July uprising in Juba, the country’s capital, earlier this year, 5 aid workers were gang raped in their hotel, a mile down the road from the UN compound. More and more, the feud which began when President Kiir, facing criticism from Machar, sacked his Vice-President in 2013, has morphed into ethnic violence which stands on the precipice of genocide.
Ethnic tension is at the heart of the conflict. President Kiir is a member of the Dinka tribe, the largest ethnic group of the 64 different tribes in South Sudan, while Machar is a Nuer, the second largest tribe. Ethnic violence is nothing new in South Sudan. The massacre of over 400 people in Bentiu in 2014 by the Nuer-led ‘Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition Army’, involved separation of victims and survivors along ethnic lines. Machar himself took part in the 1991 Bor massacre of 2,000 Dinka. Now due to redrawing of state boundaries by Kiir in 2015 favourably to his Dinka tribe, Equatorians in the south of the country are rising up. A US state department report found 1,900 homes have been destroyed already, and there is increased proliferation of ethnically motivated speech, rape and violence, spurred on by the amplified number of South Sudanese government forces Kiir has placed in the region.
Along with increased ethnic tensions, rape has been so prevalent that a UN report in November said that aid workers now described gang rape as ‘normal’. Seventy percent of woman in South Sudan have suffered sexual assault, for which aftercare is non-existent, and impunity for the culprits predictable.
UN involvement has often been seen as powerless and weak to stop atrocities occurring. Leadership of UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) has been called into question, with Kenyan Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kinana Ondienki, formerly head of the peace keeping operation, sacked in November, primarily for UN shortcomings during the July crisis in Juba, during which 73 civilians died including 2 peacekeepers and 20 people under UN protection. Kenya has been in uproar over the decision and looks to withdraw its 1,000 troops from the country. Any chance of the arms embargo called for by the US and Ban Ki-moon looks set to fail as both Russia and China are sceptical that an embargo will decrease violence in a country already full of weapons. The UN hopes that its recent new appointment of New Zealander David Shearer will bring revitalisation of the UN mission there, and calls for 4,000 thousand more peacekeepers to be immediately implemented to prevent genocide demonstrates the urgency of the situation the UN is trying to deal with.
Yet even with the immense casualties and human rights abuses, the war remains largely unreported by western media, as it has for decades now. The lack of mainstream media interest in the conflict of South Sudan has meant that public awareness of the atrocities occurring has been miniscule. The South Sudanese government has cracked down on journalism that reports, or could report, the domestic realities in the country. Justin Lynch, a foreign reporter embedded in South Sudan reporting on the ethnic violence, was arrested and deported by the government earlier on this month. Joseph Abandi, a South Sudanese reported was similarly arrested in December 2015, but was later found dead in March 2016, dumped in a graveyard, having been beaten and tortured. President Kiir openly threatened to kill journalists in 2015 who worked ‘against the country’.
It is no surprise that comparisons between the current status of South Sudan and the Rwandan genocide in 1994 have been drawn. Instead of Tutsi and Hutu, it is Dinka and Nuer. World powers and mainstream media, more interested in other conflicts around the world, keep the world oblivious to the horrors of South Sudan. Between 500,000 and 1 million Tutsi were slaughtered in 100 days by the Hutu government in Rwanda in 1994, and the climate looks apt for a similar repeat in South Sudan in 2017.