UN troops ‘left us to be killed’ say Sudan massacre survivors

The Times of London
Nairobi, Kenya

Survivors of a tribal massacre in South Sudan have accused the United Nations of failing to protect them against thousands of armed warriors who left hundreds of people dead.

The attack on a small town in a remote corner of the vast country has raised questions at UN headquarters in New York about whether the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is adequately equipped to carry out its job.

The UN has been accused in the past of failing to defend civilians, most notably in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and in Srebrenica the following year during the Bosnia war.

Diplomats say that Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, is particularly angry at the lack of helicopters to move troops across South Sudan’s roadless expanse. The UN accuses Russia of refusing to allow its helicopters, which are stationed in South Sudan as part of the mission, to provide help.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ethnic Murle were hunted down and killed in and around Pibor, Jonglei State, during a rampage by a vengeful army of the Lou Nuer people over New Year.

“They came in huge numbers,” said Jacob Lodocho, a survivor of the attack which was on New Year’s Eve.

The killings occurred despite the fact that 400 UN peacekeepers, mainly Indian, had been sent to the town in anticipation. The intentions of the column of 8,000 marching warriors with AK47s and spears were never in doubt. Its leaders had issued public statements threatening to wipe the Murle out in revenge for an attack last summer that left about 600 Nuer dead. Such attacks are part of a generations-old cycle of violent cattle-raiding through decades of civil war and in recent years, a relative peace that preceded independence from Khartoum last year.

Mr Lodocho described how Nuer warriors with assault rifles and spears marched on Pibor in December. Thousands of Murle had heeded UN advice and fled, but thousands stayed.

Village after village was burnt; men, women and children were killed, and cattle stolen. Mr Lodocho was hiding when the force reached Pibor — and he claims, so were the 400 UN peacekeepers. “The UN was not doing anything, the Army was not doing anything. When the Nuer came all these troops were around, they saw everything but they did nothing,” he said.

Other observers criticised the decision to deploy only 400 peacekeepers against an army of thousands. They did not fire a shot.

However, Kouider Zerrouk, for UNMISS, said the UN did what it could: “This was not a failure. Thousands of civilians found refuge within the perimeter area guarded by UN peacekeepers in conjunction with the South Sudanese Government forces. Their combined actions saved countless lives.” In the days before the massacre the UN told Murle people to flee and deployed 1,000 peacekeepers — nearly half the mission’s 2,100 “combat-ready peacekeepers — to Jonglei State.

“Jonglei is the size of Bangladesh and the population is in scattered settlements, many of which are inaccessible by road,” said Mr Zerrouk. “This is a very difficult area.” The “primary responsibility” for protecting civilians lies with the Government, not the UN, he said.

The crisis was compounded by Russia refusing to use its helicopters because they lacked a “Letter of Assist”, a document agreed between the UN and countries contributing troops, but this was flatly contradicted by the UN.

“We do not believe that administrative hurdles were the reason for the Russian helicopters not to fly,” said Anayansi Lopez of the UN Department of Peace Keeping Operations.

Privately, many diplomats say the Russian refusal is a symptom of a breakdown of relations between Security Council members. One diplomat said Russians were “still angry about Libya” when the UN “right to protect” doctrine led to military intervention there.

The Government in South Sudan is only six months old and there is a delicate balance of tribal interests. Some say that to have protected the Murle after the slaughter of Nuer last year would invite trouble. “You can’t protect one ethnic group more than another and the UN is trying to be neutral,” said one observer who did not want to be named.