WARNING: This article deals with distressing content, and some readers may find the images upsetting.
by PETER RUN
Over the past few weeks, crisis has gripped the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, after an internal political conflict spilled into violence which has left thousands dead.
So far, there have been reports of mass graves, as well as one instance where rebel forces killed UN peacekeepers that would not let them get to the frightened civilians behind the gates of a UN compound.
These images are reminiscent of scenes from Hotel Rwanda. The conflict in South Sudan already shows patterns that we have seen in mass atrocities elsewhere: armed militias operating outside traditional military chains of command; forcible recruitment of civilians; and intimidation of the United Nations. It seems that the nation is falling apart, but what is actually behind the violence?
Timeline of events
Violence first broke out at the compound of South Sudanese president Salva Kiir on December 15 last year between soldiers loyal to him and those loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar, who attempted to overthrow Kiir.
Within hours, the United Nations Mission in Juba became a refugee camp and its head, Hilde Johnson, was forced to express grave concerns. By December 17, the UN Security Council already had something coherent to say. A week later, it agreed to a peacekeeping reinforcement, deployable within 48 hours.
The UN Security Council’s reaction has been appropriately swift as has that of South Sudan’s African neighbours – Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, which are currently mediating a ceasefire deal and a roadmap to end the conflict in Ethiopia.
Amid this rush to abate the violence and find a resolution, the United States, Kenya, Uganda, Britain and other countries’ armed forces are actively evacuating their citizens.
These evacuations have increased the fears among locals who interpret the move as a sign of things to come. It all paints the image of foreigners fleeing Rwanda while the Hutus were slaughtering local Tutsis nearly 20 years ago. Human Rights Watch reported a house-to-house killing of people based on their ethnicity as early as December 19.
The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect also made similar claims in a statement issued five days after the violence began. These international concerns about potential mass atrocities are well placed but must not fall into the trap of oversimplification of the conflict.
Is it ethnic conflict?
Reputable commentators and news outlets like The New York Times and the BBC have either used the ethnic identity of the key adversaries as descriptors to indicate the ethnic lines along which the conflict is being fought, or characterised the conflict as “tribalistic”. They say Machar has the backing of his Nuer people and Kiir of his Dinkas.