The parched field in the town of Leer, South Sudan, was covered in a carpet of dried grass. Nearby was a sheet of corrugated metal — a roof to a home that, like most in this town, was now in ruins. Lying in the field were scattered clothes: a desert camouflage shirt in the pattern the U.S. military calls “chocolate chip,” a blue T-shirt that read “Bird Game” with characters resembling those of the video game Angry Birds.
Not far away was a human spinal column, pelvis, and rib cage. A few paces farther lay a femur and part of another spine. To the left sat a gleaming white skull; several more lay not far away. Human remains — ribs and femurs, among other bones — were strewn across the area.
This was the scene in Leer a few months back, during a lull in the atrocity-filled civil war that began in December 2013, decimated this town in 2015, and flared again last week, leading to five days of violence that left hundreds dead.
Leer was all but razed to the ground by government soldiers and allied militias who attacked the town for months before and after a peace deal was signed last August by President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and opposition leader Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. After forming a unity government, troops loyal to both men were stationed in the capital, Juba, leading to lethal skirmishes last Thursday and Friday that exploded into urban warfare over the weekend and running street battles that only ended on Monday.
The fighting coincided with the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, the product of a long struggle with Sudan that left millions dead and displaced, as well as copious U.S. political, economic, and military assistance. Both current Secretary of State John Kerry and former Secretary of State and now Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have referred to the U.S. as South Sudan’s “midwife.”
At least 42,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting in Juba. Many in the capital have sought safety at two bases run by the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, including one that was already sheltering tens of thousands of displaced Nuers. At least eight civilians and two U.N. peacekeepers were killed on or near the bases.
“Both U.N. camps in Juba have sustained impacts from small arms and heavy weapons fire,” said Ellen Loej, the special representative of the secretary-general in South Sudan.
Government soldiers also employed helicopter gunships and tanks against Machar’s lightly armed forces, overrunning one of their bases in Juba.
“Several hundred people have already been killed, including civilians seeking refuge. Some of the civilians killed were reportedly targeted based on their ethnicity,” said Adama Dieng, United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, on Monday. Echoing statements by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he called on Kiir and Machar “to de-escalate hostilities immediately and ensure the withdrawal of their forces to their bases. If they fail to do so, South Sudan could be plunged back into civil war, at unimaginable human cost.”
Initial government reports said at least 272 people, including 33 civilians, were killed in the recent fighting. “But I would believe that this is only the tip of the iceberg,” U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, suggesting the number could rise in the coming days.
In the meantime, an uneasy ceasefire in place since late Monday remains in effect in Juba, where government troops maintain control. Both army and rebel forces are, however, mobilizing around the towns of Malakal and Leer, according to Ladsous.
Shantal Persaud, a spokesperson for the U.N. Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, told The Intercept that the organization had received reports of small arms fire around Leer, Machar’s hometown, on Wednesday. Hundreds of civilians have reportedly sought refuge at the U.N. base in the town.
Questions linger about the ability of Kiir and Machar to control their forces and stop a war that has splintered into a complex collection of sub-conflicts and increasing instability driven by political, tribal, and ethnic tensions, corruption, land grabs, economic woes, food insecurity, and a host of other factors — including the tremendous quantity of weapons and ammunition in the country.
On Monday, Secretary-General Ban called for an immediate arms embargo on South Sudan, something the Security Council has been unwilling to impose since the war’s outbreak. The U.S. State Department would not commit to outright support for Ban’s call. “While I’m not going to get ahead of our negotiations in New York, we believe the proposal for an imposition of an arms embargo should be taken very seriously and are currently in discussions with our fellow members of the Security Council on what additional tools the international community requires to address this dire situation,” State Department spokesperson Jeffrey Loree told The Intercept.
For some in South Sudan, the latest round of violence evokes fears about the potential for a slaughter akin to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when up to 1 million men, women, and children were killed in just 100 days.
“The international community should act urgently if they don’t want to see ‘Rwanda again,’” Edmund Yakani, a prominent civil society leader, told The Intercept, adding that the key is to strengthen the U.N. mission’s ability to protect civilians.
“The five days of violence in Juba have proved clearly that [Mission in the Republic of South Sudan] has no capacity for protecting civilians,” he said.
Yakani supports an arms embargo but notes that it won’t protect civilians in the near term. Ultimately, he says, the future of the country rests with its leaders and their choices for a path forward. “The big question is: Does South Sudan have the leadership that wishes to see the country peaceful and stable? Or does the leadership wish to embrace violence more than a nonviolent approach for resolving their political differences?”