In a single week, government soldiers gang-raped U.S. and other aid workers, shot at U.S. diplomats and ransacked and looted a U.S.-funded aid-agency base, people who were there said, as the world’s youngest nation moved closer to becoming a failed state.
The attacks came as the battle-scarred capital of Juba was plunged into violence in July, with government and rebel forces—fighting a civil war that erupted in late 2013—killing dozens of civilians and raping hundreds of local women.
Aid workers and assets have always been vulnerable in South Sudan, but the manner in which they were singled out marks a watershed moment as the economy has tanked. Most private investors have fled, oil production has plunged to 130,000 barrels a day from 500,000 at its peak, and inflation is edging toward 700%. Troops haven’t been paid for months.
Over the weekend, South Sudan became one of the few countries to top one million refugees, with many fleeing to neighboring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The international community here is nearing an hour of reckoning: how to aid a nation it helped create without calling out those responsible for sending it toward its demise. Aid agencies fear that speaking out against government abuses will further undermine staff security in the country and could get them kicked out, leaving millions of people without aid.
At the forefront of that debate is the U.S., South Sudan’s leading donor, which has poured $1.6 billion into the country since the civil war started. The U.S. had supported the split of the mostly Christian south from Muslim Sudan in 2011.
The civil war has pitted President Salva Kiir and his Dinka tribesmen and state army against ethnic Nuer then-Vice President Riek Machar and his rebels.
A peace agreement this year put the two archenemies back together in government, but fighting resumed in July. Juba has been calm in recent weeks, but violence has racked most of the rest of the country.
The government has most recently confiscated aid workers’ passports, halted humanitarian aid flights and banned access to organizations like Doctors Without Borders to parts of the country where fighting has left thousands of civilians in need of medical attention.
“[U.N. Security] Council members came away feeling as if the situation was much worse than even we went in expecting,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told the council last week after visiting Juba recently. She said the government restricts movement for U.N. agencies “in a way that we’ve not seen anywhere else in the world.”
South Sudan’s vice president, Taban Deng Gai, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview in New York on Tuesday that the country was making progress in addressing its issues and expressed optimism about reconciliation among warring parties.
The account of July’s events and their aftermath is based on interviews with more than a dozen United Nations and other aid-organization workers directly affected, as well as senior Western diplomats in Juba and elsewhere.
On July 11, nearly 100 soldiers entered the Terrain compound, a collection of bungalows and apartments near the U.N. base. They beat foreign aid workers, raped at least five of them, and killed one local staff member of a nongovernmental organization. When one of the Western aid workers texted her employer’s security officer to alert him to the raid and ask for advice, he told her to stay calm. “You are not targeted,” he texted back.
For the next 12 hours, she was gang-raped by five soldiers and watched some of her friends get brutally abused too. Several victims said U.S. citizens were singled out, one being told to tell her embassy what they had done to her.
A U.N. panel of investigators believes the attack at Terrain was orchestrated, targeted and deliberate, not a random act by unruly troops.
That same day, more than 100 South Sudanese soldiers started looting the compound of the World Food Program. For more than a week, they ransacked the relief agency’s warehouse and logistics base, seizing 4,500 tons of food and around 20,000 gallons of diesel.
The soldiers plundered offices, stealing dozens of computers. Gutted vehicles with the U.N. insignia were flipped and strewn across the base.
“It was an unprecedented attack, especially as it happened in the capital and by uniformed armed men,” said Joyce Kanyangwa Luma, the WFP’s country director, who estimates the looting of the agency’s compound cost $20 million and the food stolen would have fed 220,000 South Sudanese for a month. “We didn’t see it coming. We never thought we’d be targeted like that,” she said.
Four days before the WFP and Terrain attacks, South Sudanese soldiers fired on two U.S. Embassy vehicles carrying diplomats and bearing the U.S. flag and embassy car plates at checkpoints in the middle of Juba. When the U.S. ambassador to South Sudan complained about the attack—which ended when U.S. Marines intervened—she was told her colleagues hadn’t been targeted.
Gai on Tuesday said the attacks weren’t government policy and that an investigation in Juba had led to some arrests of culprits.
“The Americans are our friends. South Sudan has been alive because of the help of the Americans,” he said, dismissing the idea that U.S. citizens were being targeted specifically.
The U.S. and U.N. have expressed outrage but continue to cooperate with the government on working out a political agreement to restore peace as well as providing technical and other assistance.
In a press conference in Nairobi in August, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that U.S. taxpayers wouldn’t continue to help South Sudan if its leaders don’t stop the atrocities, but he also announced an extra $138 million in assistance.
Last year, South Sudan overtook Afghanistan as the world’s deadliest posting for humanitarian workers. This year, Humanitarian Outcomes, a USAID-funded project, said a third of aid-worker deaths recorded this year have been in South Sudan.
Some in the aid community are advocating leaving the country entirely. “The best thing we can do in my opinion, and it’s harsh and hard, is to leave,” said Mukesh Kapila, a veteran former U.N. director who in 2004 was removed as resident representative in Sudan after he pulled out his staff and called what was happening in Darfur a genocide. “By providing that modicum of a fig leaf, we encourage the local authorities. We are condoning their actions by remaining silent and not speaking up.”
While humanitarian organizations claim they have channels of coordination with the government, they privately admit they can’t speak out because it will jeopardize their operations.
“I had an SPLA soldier rip the panties off a Western member of staff and threaten her with rape for five hours,” one head of a nongovernmental organization here said. “But if I speak out against this, my local staff will get attacked and eventually we’ll all get kicked out.”
Victims of the Terrain attack said they believe the muted response of the international community has a direct negative effect on the local population.
“If we tell the [South Sudanese army] ‘you can rape Americans and Europeans and no one will come after you,’ what do you think that makes them do to the locals? A million time worse than what they did to us,” said one Western aid worker who was raped there.
The other aid worker, who was gang-raped by five soldiers, said she wanted to see all victims speak out and push for justice.
“If we stay silent, they win,” she said.
Source: Wall Street Journal