Why the World Ignores S. Sudan's Killing Fields
This is part two of a four-part series.
At around 5 p.m. on Dec. 16, 2013, Okot stepped out of the doorway of his hut to see the aftermath of the war’s first day. He tried to appear inconspicuous — or, at the very least, nonaggressive — as he walked along a dirt road toward one of Juba’s paved thoroughfares.
He knew SPLA soldiers were patrolling the area, and he suspected they wouldn’t appreciate finding him out and about. At the edge of the thoroughfare he stopped, leaned against a building and silently prayed that his friend, a Bari man named Joseph, would arrive soon in his Toyota Land Cruiser.
The guillotine of dusk cut slowly to the horizon and the scent of garbage laced the air. In the distance, a group of soldiers guarded the gate of the SPLA Headquarters and watched for any sign of an incoming attack. Gunfire resounded from near and far-off pockets of the capital, and the aural pattern of violence seemed to beat against Okot’s sternum and the sides of his face.
He stood motionless, absorbing the imaginary shock waves and wondering if all of his friends were still alive.
Later, as he sat in the passenger seat of Joseph’s Land Cruiser, he watched his city unfolding all around him — closed storefronts, lightless hotels, and block after block without a civilian in sight.
“By that time the road had no one — only military vehicles and government soldiers looming around,” Okot tells me.
The capital felt irrevocably altered, like a familiar book with pages that had been ripped out.
He traveled with Joseph to Mangaten, a predominantly Nuer neighborhood not far from the Juba International Airport. Joseph hoped to find his relatives and move them to safety. Instead, he found their homes vacant. They must have fled to the U.N. logistics base, like thousands of others had done in the last 20 hours.
Okot saw the bodies of men and women strewn throughout Mangaten, smelled the acrid stench of burning huts, and heard soldiers clashing and killing within the neighborhood.
He and Joseph did not linger.
Neither the government of South Sudan nor the U.N. Mission in South Sudan has taken responsibility for keeping track of the numbers, let alone the identities, of the war’s casualties.
At the beginning of the crisis, the international community made almost no effort to combat the lack of transparency within South Sudan. Without pressure to give an account of the slaughter, the government and UNMISS crafted their own rules for how to respond to the war and each established justifications — some of them understandable, some of them inexcusable — for maintaining silence about the death toll.
The information blackout has continued up to today and is part of the reason so much blood has been shed. No one challenges what they can’t see.
The systematic failure of the South Sudanese government to report on the death toll can be understood in light of its gross misconduct at the beginning of the war, which set the stage for continued abuse. Similarly, the failures of UNMISS throughout the conflict started with its severely inadequate response to the slaughter in Juba. In the aftermath of the violence, UNMISS sidestepped the difficult task of counting the dead.
The SPLA, on the other hand, actively sought to cover up the death toll. Soldiers collected the casualties and shoveled them into mass graves without numbering or identifying them.
In the absence of an official death toll, others have attempted to calculate how many perished in Juba during the first week of the war. A Western aid worker told an AFP reporter that at least 5,000 people died. Machar claims that more than 20,000 Nuer were slaughtered in what he calls the “Juba genocide.” A resident of the capital, who was present during the violence, told me that he was certain 1,500 were killed.
Despite the varying totals, nearly everyone agrees that a substantial portion of the dead were unarmed Nuer civilians.
UNMISS avoided counting the casualties in Juba, and then, rather than seeking ways to correct its mistake, chose to adopt the stance that it was incapable of estimating the death toll in South Sudan. The U.N.’s hesitancy in Juba and in numerous other locales throughout the war has resulted in a blurry picture of an obscene amount of killing. Though the U.N. has effectively used its resources to report on the number of people killed in countries such as Syria, it has failed to properly assess the death toll in South Sudan.
When I spoke with Ariane Quentier, the spokesperson for UNMISS, she defended the mission’s actions by noting that the U.N.’s mandate in South Sudan does not require officials to record and report the death toll. She also stressed that the mission’s primary objective concerns the living, not the dead.
“The priority was to save lives — that was the priority,” Quentier said. “And we did save thousands of lives. Now in the framework of the conflict when there is shooting — when people flee with their entire family, nothing in their hands, hardly dressed — saving lives meant opening our gates and providing them with the basic minimum.”
“That’s what we’ve done. We’ve saved lives.”
Other U.N. officials have argued that the mission does not have the ability to count the dead in every far-flung town and village in the young nation, which is roughly the size of France. No one doubts that U.N. peacekeepers would face serious challenges if they attempted to calculate the death toll.
“Many deaths are unreported and unseen. Others deaths are overestimated or undercounted,” Richard Lobban Jr., a lecturer on South Sudan politics and history, told me last month. “At the same time, if there is direct witnessing or counting there is no reason not to report.”
Regardless of the obstacles, many local and international observers are shocked that UNMISS — one of the world’s largest peacekeeping missions with a $1 billion annual budget — hasn’t stepped up to count the dead. “If the U.N. is able to estimate with such precision the number of displaced, it is inexplicable that they cannot similarly monitor those killed,” Casie Copeland, a researcher for the International Crisis Group, told AFP last November.
Though UNMISS has documented the number of casualties in specific cities at specific times during the war, it has not brought together all the available data — from its own research and from the reports of other organizations — to begin to assess the conflict’s human cost. If the work of calculating the death toll requires more funding and more researchers on the ground, then the mission should prioritize the additional needs in its budget.
With its resources and influence in the country, UNMISS is uniquely positioned to determine the body count, to offer the world a number that carries greater weight — and greater potential to affect change in South Sudan — than the amorphous total that the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon mentioned last December. Tens of thousands — the amount that Ban noted — is a catch-all estimate. It could mean 20,000 people have been killed. It could also mean more than 90,000 are dead.
At best, the calculation is a sincere yet flawed attempt to measure the war’s human cost. At worst, it’s a shrewd evasion — a means of publicly evaluating the death toll without actually taking any responsibility for counting those who have perished.
U.N. personnel, from the blue-helmeted soldiers standing over corpses in South Sudan’s devastated cities to the secretary-general addressing the U.N. Assembly in New York, are trapped in a morally precarious situation, which their decisions have made even more toxic.
They know, on some level, that they have a collective responsibility to tell the world how many people have died, and yet they also accept that the UNMISS mandate technically frees them of that responsibility. They can’t entirely ignore the need to count the dead, and yet they can’t entirely embrace the need, either.
Hence, the U.N.’s indistinct and superficial explanations of how many people have lost their lives.
Despite its refusal to produce a clear evaluation of the casualties, UNMISS has been effective in documenting a large number of human rights violations. In May of last year, it released a lengthy report on the crisis, which shed light on the myriad offenses committed by both the SPLA and the rebel forces.
However, an unknown quantity of abuses — some of which could constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity — have not been researched by UNMISS, partly due to decisions by staff to avoid sensitive areas and blatant opposition to investigations.
“U.N. staff have been intimidated by security forces in South Sudan, who have also sometimes turned [U.N.] patrols around and not allowed them to proceed,” Skye Wheeler, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told me on the phone in September 2014. “This kind of action has made it harder for the U.N. to do some investigations.”
Apart from hindering investigations in Juba, the SPLA and other security forces made a concentrated effort to hide the bodies that littered the streets of the capital in December 2013. The commanders responsible for the cover-up knew that the U.N. and other agencies couldn’t document what wasn’t there. Realizing the damning significance of the dead, security forces loaded the corpses into military vehicles and transported them to various locations for disposal.
Sources within the military have stated that the SPLA buried a large number of the dead in mass graves at the SPLA General Headquarters, the epicenter of the violence that overtook Juba. Evidence to support these allegations has not been found. Some witnesses and human rights groups claim that several truckloads of corpses were taken outside of the capital and either buried or burned.
Everyone in Juba seems to have a theory about where the security forces disposed of the bodies. However, the method by which they were collected from streets and homes is no mystery. The writers of the UNMISS report cautiously noted that “there is information suggesting a concerted effort to remove and conceal evidence of crimes, such as bodies.”
Wheeler was unequivocal in her analysis, saying that the government implemented an extensive cleanup operation. “Witnesses described SPLA and other security forces coming to their neighborhoods to pick up bodies and carry them away in trucks,” Wheeler wrote in a Human Rights Watch report released last August. “Nuer family members were sometimes told by soldiers not to touch bodies of relatives. Many families still do not know what happened to their relatives’ bodies.”
With workmanlike efficiency, the SPLA and police forces removed the sickening tableaus that were on display in neighborhoods throughout the city. The military commanders did not order their grunts to count or identify the dead — they instructed them to erase the evidence.
As the new war dawned in South Sudan, leaders in the SPLA realized that, for all intents and purposes, they’d gotten away with murder.
Since they were able to accomplish such a feat in the capital city, which has the highest concentration of journalists and watchdog humanitarian groups in the country, they believed they could commit atrocities with impunity anywhere within their nation’s borders.
Commanders in the rebellion followed the example set by their counterparts in the government, and, as the first months of the war unfolded, human rights abuses became commonplace. South Sudan has been transformed into a mirrored hall of atrocities, the vengeful killings by the opposition forces reflecting the government’s own appalling actions, and vice versa.
Foot soldiers and generals in both parties have acted with extraordinary cruelty and with little or no concern for the fact that their abuses warrant punishment.
“There’s a complete and utter lack of accountability for war crimes, atrocities, torture, and extrajudicial killings,” Justine Fleischner of the Enough Project told me last December. “We’ve seen the tendency to engage in these kinds of abhorrent actions go completely unpunished on both sides. And really this culture of impunity existed before this conflict.”
Few South Sudanese leaders have suffered legal consequences for the war crimes that they committed in the last civil war. In the midst of the country’s latest crisis, what can possibly stop the old masters of war and their new acolytes from replicating the bloody acts that have plagued the South Sudanese for generations?
Tattered bits of sleep were all that Okot could beg, borrow or steal from the darkness. His eyes snapped open whenever the edge of a dream was too jagged or the report of a rifle too close. A few hours before dawn, he gave up and simply waited, like a patient trying to outlast a malarial fever.
Wide awake and lying on his back, he felt an idea stretching itself over the night, over the fires and the bodies in Mangaten, and over the day that hadn’t yet broken. He couldn’t stop his country from tearing itself apart. There was nothing he possessed that could persuade the government forces and the rebels to disarm themselves. But he had something he could offer to the war’s victims.
In the morning, he called Joseph and asked him for a lift to the hospital.
As fear and violence coiled around the capital in the opening days of the conflict, people started to bring the dead and the wounded to the Juba Teaching Hospital, which holds the double-edged distinction of being the only referral hospital in the entire country. Even before the war started, the facility was overwhelmed by the medical demands of the citizens in Juba as well as the needs of patients who traveled to seek treatment that wasn’t available in their towns and villages.
When the victims of the war began to arrive, the hospital was faced with a seemingly impossible task — to care for the injured with limited resources and personnel while finding a way to identify the dead and then dispose of them before they became a health hazard.
Near the gates of the hospital, Okot climbed out of the Land Cruiser, thanked Joseph for the ride and slammed the door shut. He had a pint of blood to give, but first he needed to see what the conflict had done to his people. Morbid curiosity mixed with compassion coursed through his veins.
He walked through some of the wards and across the open spaces in between the buildings, taking in the damage and the death. He did not merely inventory the war’s first round of carnage. He felt it in his bones.
Outside the mortuary he saw a “forest of flies” hanging above heaps of corpses in body bags. He watched a woman giving the bodies a wide berth, but the smell still got to her and she suddenly doubled over like someone had stabbed her with a knife. After minute or two on her knees, everything she’d eaten that morning was haphazardly arrayed on the ground before her.
Later Okot stepped into a crowded ward and saw an injured Nuer soldier splayed out on a bed and vehemently refusing a blood transfusion. The man said he’d seen a Dinka giving blood under the mango tree. Now he’d rather die from his gunshot wound than be saved by the blood of a man whom he considered an enemy.
“It was something that really provoked me so much,” Okot, who is neither a Nuer nor a Dinka, explains. “Someone is at the point of dying and he’s refusing the blood because of tribal tendencies.”
The memories from December are still sharp in Okot’s mind, partly because they keep returning unbidden. Sometimes he closes his eyes in the stillness of his room or catches the scent of raw meat on a butcher’s counter and his stomach starts to churn, his thoughts become tremors, and the dying in the hospital and the dead in Mangaten surround him.
One day a peace agreement will be signed but for Okot and countless others the war will persist.
Black boxes of war
On the same day that Okot donated his blood, the hospital staff and civilians began to move the causalities. “What I know is the dead bodies were hurried to New Site [a neighborhood in Juba],” Okot tells me. “And no journalist was allowed to take photos.”
Wheeler of Human Rights Watch visited the hospital after most of the dead had been taken away. An official showed her a list of between 260 and 270 individuals who had been killed. Most of the deceased were unnamed when Wheeler saw the list, probably because the hospital staff did not have the time or the means to identify all of the bodies. A South Sudanese prosecutor told her essentially the same information that Okot provided — the dead were transported to New Site and buried in a mass grave on Dec. 17 and 18.
A Nuer student, who asked not to be named, told me in January of this year that he witnessed the interment and confirmed that the bodies of roughly 250 soldiers and civilians were laid to rest. Unlike the covert burials that military forces carried out during the same period, the inhumation at New Site may not have been motivated by a desire to conceal the carnage.
“What happened is that all tribes buried the bodies during that time [at New Site],” the student explained. “It is done because you love and it is not good to see the body unburied.”
If his statement is true, then the scene that he witnessed at New Site was an aberration in the midst of chaos, violence and reawakened hatred. Instead of killing each other, Nuer and Dinka may have joined together to bury their people and give them some measure of respect.
On Christmas Eve 2013, less than a week after the dirt had settled on the dead at New Site, the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, made a statement from Geneva in which she noted that two mass graves had been allegedly found in Juba. The UNMISS report on the crisis, published five months after Pillay’s statement, offered no new information about the graves. In fact, it made no direct mention of them at all.
When asked to comment on Pillay’s statement, the spokesperson for UNMISS, Ariane Quentier, gave me the following explanation.
With all due respect to Navi Pillay, I think she had been a bit carried away by making statements that were not verified on the ground and that has created, as far as I remember, a number of issues … She mentioned mass graves on a large-scale, and we did have a lot of questions and we didn’t know what she was talking about. … I’m not surprised it [the mass graves] doesn’t come up in any other reports. Again, we really never knew where she got that from, as far as I remember.
Pillay identified two neighborhoods in Juba where the dead were reportedly buried — Jebel-Kujur and Newside. The written names of some places in South Sudan are still being standardized. Thus, Newside is also known as Newsite or, as it appears some maps, New Site.
On the northern edge of Juba, not far from Mangaten, the thatch-roofed tukuls and sheet metal shacks of New Site bake in the sun. It’s known as a predominantly Nuer enclave, but most of its inhabitants fled in December 2013 and have yet to return. They have a formidable reason to stay away — at the beginning of the war New Site turned into a slaughterhouse.
According to the UNMISS report, rebels tried to take control of an SPLA armory within New Site on Dec. 16 but were defeated by pro-Kiir soldiers. Multiple witnesses told U.N. investigators that, shortly after the battle ended, large numbers of Dinka-speaking troops began to harass the residents of the neighborhood. They were accompanied by tanks and they set to work arresting and interrogating Nuer men.
The report notes that the soldiers detained as many as 200 men, most of whom would never see their families again.
In a few cases, following the interrogation, men would be returned … [I]n the majority of cases they did not. Gunshots could be heard throughout the night. Those who remained the next morning were reportedly released into the custody of NSS [National Security Service] personnel and thereafter detained and interrogated for some days. The approximately eight men who survived reportedly either could speak Dinka or spoke only English. None of the survivors had Nuer facial markings.
Apart from this incident, the report details another case of detainment that ended in extrajudicial killings at New Site. Nuer men in Mia Saba, a neighborhood to the south of New Site, claim that on Dec. 16 they were abducted by Dinka soldiers, thrown into a group of roughly 40 men and ordered to walk to a cemetery in New Site. Before starting the trek, the soldiers tied the men together with bed sheets. Along the way, the troops stopped to drag other men from their huts and force them to fall into line.
Two or three times during the course of the march, they encountered the bodies of SPLA soldiers. One witness reported that the captors murdered four or five Nuer men each time that they saw a dead soldier. When they finally arrived at the New Site cemetery, the troops murdered 20 men. The survivors spent a few days in confinement before being released.
The report does not explain if any of the men killed at New Site were also buried there, nor does it reveal whether or not U.N. investigators traveled to the neighborhood to look for physical evidence of the massacres. Ariane Quentier admitted she does not know if UNMISS followed up on Navi Pillay’s statement that a mass grave was reportedly located at New Site.
Given the provocative information that they’ve known since early 2014 — such as the testimonies concerning the killings at New Site and Pillay’s statement with regard to mass graves — U.N. officials should have organized a thorough investigation into the events at New Site, which is located approximately 10 miles north of the UNMISS logistics base. Excuses such as the need to prioritize saving lives over investigating human rights abuses start to break down 18 months after the conflict began.
The situation in Juba has stabilized, and gun battles are not raging in the streets. Now would be an opportune time to follow-up on the events at New Site — and in other locales — to gather tangible evidence of war crimes.
UNMISS officials refuse to calculate the war’s death toll and have proven they have the capacity to disregard the sites of mass graves. In certain cases, however, U.N. peacekeepers have counted the dead and even helped to bury casualties. During the course of the war, UNMISS has been called upon to help inter bodies in mass graves in at least two cities, Bor and Malakal.
There is a glaring inconsistency in the mission’s approach to casualties, which begs a number of questions. Last month I emailed the U.N.’s Communication and Public Information Office in South Sudan to try to understand the mission’s official protocol with regard to the dead.
I asked the following questions.
1) Does UNMISS have an established procedure for when peacekeepers or other personnel encounter casualties?
2) Is there a procedure for when UNMISS personnel bury casualties? For instance, do peacekeepers count the bodies and/or record any information about the bodies for the sake of identification?
Six days later, Lt. Col. Gatete Karuranga, the force public information officer, sent me this response —
I contacted both the Force Medical Officer and Legal Adviser over the issue. Military do not have any “established procedure” for when peacekeepers or other personnel encounter casualties in South Sudan. They only provide necessary life support such as first aid, etc. but do not keep any track records, except for uniformed UNMISS personnel.
In a separate message, Ariane Quentier echoed Karuranga’s words. “Regarding the handling of bodies and burials, there are no specific operating procedures for such situations, as much of the assistance that is deemed necessary is based on circumstances at the time on the ground,” Quentier explained.
Quentier added that UNMISS has assisted in burying bodies when they posed a health hazard and “when no other appropriate authorities or institutions were available.”
In January of last year, U.N. officials helped the local government in Bor to bury 525 bodies. Quentier referred to this event as an example of how UNMISS has, at certain times and under certain conditions, aided in the interment of bodies. She noted that the local authorities requested UNMISS to help gather and bury bodies that had begun to decompose in and around Bor.
“UNMISS sought the assistance of ICRC [the International Committee of the Red Cross] who advised regarding the appropriate protocol and provided body bags, etc.,” Quentier explained. “The bodies were photographed and relevant details taken consistent with ICRC’s advice before they were buried.”
The events in Bor point to the mission’s willingness to partner with other agencies in order to solve a hellish sanitation problem. However, the fact remains that UNMISS has no official protocol for dealing with the dead in South Sudan.
The absence of rules governing how the mission responds to casualties begins to illuminate why officials count some bodies but not others, why they assist in burying some but not others, and why the organization, as a whole, can’t demonstrate that they’ve consistently sought to record information for the sake of identifying the dead.
U.N. peacekeepers have waded through over half a century of casualties. From the Congo Crisis in the 1960s to the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990s to conflicts around the world today, peacekeeping forces have come across the same bloody scenes, again and again. And yet in the escalating conflict in South Sudan, the U.N. has no established procedure for when a blue helmet, patrolling a neighborhood in Juba or Malakal or Bor, finds a dead child lying on the ground.
Since the start of the war, an unknown number of killing fields and burial sites have been passed over by the U.N., the SPLA and the rebels. Even when evidence of wrongdoing is screaming out to be collected and assessed, soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers have covered their ears and kept marching forward.
Kiir, Machar and leaders throughout the world are in mutual agreement that it is just too difficult, too damning and too expensive to open the black boxes of war in South Sudan and listen to what the dead inside have to say.