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MSF criticises ‘complete and utter failure’ of UN peacekeeping mission to stop systematic atrocities, on the two-year anniversary of the start of conflict
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says that although civilians in southern Unity state – an oil-rich area and key battleground in the civil war – have been subjected to murder, rape and abduction for many months, there has been a “shocking” lack of action from the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (Unmiss).
“There has been a complete and utter protection failure on Unmiss’ part in southern Unity,” said Pete Buth, deputy operations director of MSF Holland and manager of MSF’s activities in Unity state.
“There has not been any protection to speak of until now while the violence has been ongoing and there have been thousands of people coming into the [Protection of Civilians] sites in Bentiu from southern Unity – those who manage to flee – and they have been telling their stories.”
He added: “It’s not like this is a secret. They talk about the most horrendous incidents of sexual violence and I’m sure we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
Sexual violence is so common that one woman told MSF staff: “If I came to the clinic every time I’d been raped, I’d be here every day.”
According to the international medical charity, people in southern Unity are so afraid that they are hiding and sleeping in swamps and rivers, and eating waterlilies to stay alive. At night, children are drowning when they slip from the arms of their exhausted parents.
While atrocities including forced cannibalism, sexual violence and the attacks on civilians in their hospital beds have been reported across the country since the fighting erupted in December 2013, Unity state has endured some of the worst and most protracted violence.
In May this year, pro-government forces killed as many as 129 children in the state over a three-week period. Survivors said boys were castrated and left to bleed to death, girls as young as eight were gang-raped, and others were thrown alive into burning buildings.
Buth said the situation in Leer county, the home of the former vice president-turned opposition leader, Riek Machar, was particularly dire:
“If you’re a civilian in Leer county, the odds are that you’ve lost a relative who was either killed or abducted or raped; you’ve been burned out of your village at least once; you’ve been displaced multiple times in the course of the past two years; your cattle have been looted and your few belongings have been stolen; you’ve been hiding in the swamps for months and your children are sick with malnutrition or some other preventable diseases, and you don’t know where to get your next day’s food from. Every single civilian is going through that crisis.”
He added: “We have had systematic, ongoing attacks against the civilian population for months and months and months but no action – and that’s shocking.”
MSF’s hospital in Leer has been targeted repeatedly and looted over the past two years, and its staff forced to evacuate in January last year and in May and October this year.
Although MSF and other NGOs have managed to regain access to Leer and cross the frontlines in recent weeks, Buth said they are simply unable to reach those most in danger and most in need.
“We’re seeing continuing abuses and violence against civilians and a situation that is too insecure to enable proper and sustained assistance,” said Buth. “It is not for us to determine how to fix the situation, but it is very, very frustrating to sit on the sidelines and watch it.”
Unmiss, which currently comprises 11,350 troops and almost a thousand police officers from dozens of countries, is mandated “to protect civilians under threat of physical violence, irrespective of the source of such violence, within its capacity and areas of deployment” and to deter violence against civilians “through proactive deployment [and ] active patrolling”.
A spokeswoman for Unmiss said the mission shared “the deep concerns” over the situation in southern Unity, but added: “We underscore that the responsibility to protect civilians is primarily the responsibility of the host government, and the warring parties are directly responsible for their actions in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law. However, the mission rejects the allegation by MSF of a complete and utter protection failure on the part of Unmiss.”
She said that as well as providing 24-hour protection to more than 185,000 civilians in its bases across the country, Unmiss had followed patrols to southern Unity with the establishment of a base there in early November.
“Since then, our troops have patrolled on a regular basis in the surrounding area to protect civilians and engage with the parties to the conflict,” she said.
“In addition, the presence of the mission is creating an environment that allows humanitarian actors returning to the area, including MSF, to deal with the alarming levels of malnutrition, disease and hunger among the local civilian population.”
The fighting that sparked South Sudan’s civil war erupted in the capital, Juba, on 15 December 2013 after President Salva Kiir accused Machar, his former deputy, of planning a coup.
The bitter feud between Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group and Machar, a Nuer, has split the country along sectarian lines and unleashed a wave of violence that killed tens of thousands of people and decimated an already weak economy.
It has also displaced 2.2 million inside and outside the country and left 4.6 million severely food insecure. In October, three UN agencies warned there was a “concrete risk” of famine in four counties in Unity state before the year’s end.
Like previous truces, August’s peace agreement has failed to end the fighting. In early October, Igad, the regional bloc overseeing the mediation process, said the two sides had violated ceasefire agreements 53 times in 19 months.