By Hilde F. Johnson
The grisly images and shocking accounts of the abhorrent attacks on unarmed civilians in the South Sudanese cities of Bor and Bentiu this month have put South Sudan back in the headlines once again - for all the wrong reasons.
The forces of the main parties to the country’s four-month-old crisis are failing to comply with the cessation of hostilities agreement signed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on 23 January. And there is no letup in sight to the suffering of the people of South Sudan.
The UN peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is implementing its mandate under the most trying of circumstances, protecting in total over 79, 000 displaced in our camps, with thousands of civilians seeking refuge in Bentiu as late as last week. No peacekeeping mission has ever given shelter to such large numbers of unarmed civilians in the 69-year history of the United Nations. No doubt, it helped avert a massive bloodbath of unimaginable proportions.
In recent days, however, our ability and willingness to protect those tens of thousands persons have been questioned. Stories that hundreds of civilians were killed under the UN’s noses have been circulating, referring to the tragic loss of life at the Mission’s compound near the Jonglei State capital of Bor on the morning of 17 April. An armed mob of about 300 people forced their way into the facility and opened fire on some of the nearly 5,000 unarmed civilians living at that UNMISS base. The total number of fatalities in Bor stands at 51. UNMISS peacekeepers tried to stop the attackers through warning shots, and then were forced to return fire on the intruders. Only through decisive use of force did the attackers retreat. Without the determined protection of UNMISS, hundreds if not thousands would have been slaughtered.
UNMISS has also been blamed for having allegedly turned away large numbers of civilians seeking shelter in the Mission’s compound near the Unity State capital of Bentiu on 15 April. On the contrary, UNMISS opened its gates to all unarmed civilians as Bentiu came under attack by opposition forces. The number of internally displaced persons at the UNMISS base jumped from about 8,000 on that morning to an estimated 22,500 by 23 April. Upon learning of the attacks that occurred in town, such as the main hospital and the Kali-Ballee Mosque, UNMISS peacekeepers went to rescue the trapped civilians. Over 500 civilians were rescued by our peacekeepers, and many more were escorted and brought to safety.
The events in Bor and Bentiu this month did not trigger a massive exodus out of the UNMISS bases. To the contrary, the numbers of internally displaced persons at the base in Bentiu nearly tripled in the aftermath of the city’s capture by opposition forces. There can be no better testimony to the safety and security of UNMISS amidst the ongoing hostilities than the continuing presence of tens of thousands of South Sudanese civilians in our compounds.
The primary responsibility for protecting the civilian population of South Sudan lies with its democratically elected government. Yet UNMISS peacekeepers have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to the safeguarding of innocent people caught in the chaos and confusion of their young country’s ongoing crisis. Today, however, the country is at a tipping point. The most recent events in Bor and Bentiu bear all the troubling signs of a country drifting into a dangerous polarization of the conflict along ethnic lines, an escalation that can spin out of control.
We once again call upon the parties to the crisis to refrain from further violence and reach a comprehensive political settlement that will end the bloodshed and allow hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese citizens to return to their homes and villages. The time has come for the leaders of the government and opposition forces to place the peace and prosperity of South Sudan and its resilient people ahead of their own agendas – once and for all. Only in this way can the darkest pages in South Sudan’s history be turned, and the world’s newest nation face a brighter tomorrow.
The writer is Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) and Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)