MALAKAL, South Sudan — Smoke billowed high into the air, and small fires raged where homes used to be. A group of women in colorful South Sudanese garb picked through what was left of their burned-down houses. The midday heat was ferocious. In the near distance, perhaps 100 yards away, came the sound of gunfire.
“This used to be my sister’s home,” one of the women told me, pointing to one pile of ash that was nearly impossible to distinguish from all the others.
According to United Nations security staff, humanitarian workers, and civilians inside the Malakal Protection of Civilians site, on Wednesday night or Thursday morning around 50 soldiers from the South Sudanese government, known as the SPLA, breached the walls of the camp with weapons. The attack had grown out of tribal feuds within the UN-run camp, and when it came it started a wild gunfight. At least five people were killed and 30 injured.
In the midst of a civil war that has raged for more than two years, it has appeared in recent days that President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machaar were close to forming a unity government that could end the country’s civil war.
In some towns like Leer, local agreements have helped to set the stage. But such incidents as the destruction at the United Nations facility here built and organized to shelter the innocents—the Protection of Civilians site—could work to derail the negotiations.
The camp held roughly 48,000 people from three different ethnic groups living in tight quarters.
After the SPLA troops, many from the Dinka tribe, breached the gate, there was a brief firefight, and the POC site quickly became a war zone. Militias from all three main ethnic groups in the camp began shooting, according to UN security personnel who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Civilians, including children, were trapped by the gunfire.
“There was fighting inside the POC,” 17-year-old Mujit told The Daily Beast. “The Dinka, they started killing people with guns, and people started running, because we don’t have a gun.”
Sections of the camp quickly went up in flames, and it was unclear if the fire was caused by a deliberate act of vandalism, or accidentally as civilians raced out of the camp. UN personnel say they tried to put out the flames but were shot at.
In the afternoon, those who had fled outside of the POC returned in an attempt to collect what belongings had not turned to ash. The dirt road between the POC site and the base of UNMISS (United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan) became a highway of misery, as people carried furniture, wood, and water to brace for a long stay outside of the camp.
Inside the camp, fires raged and gunfire continued sporadically. A thick smell of burned rubber billowed from all directions amid the smoldering homes. Men and women searched for what valuables they could find, almost all of it appeared too hot to touch.
Troupes of young men carrying machetes, spears, or sharpened sticks wandered throughout the devastation with no apparent destination. Just outside the end of the POC, men in civilian clothing carrying AK-47’s marauded in packs, their vehicles kicking up plumes of dust, but from a distance it was impossible to say definitively if they were militias, and if they were, which ones.
By nightfall, the humanitarian situation was alarming. Almost all of the residents inside the POC had fled outside the site. On the rocky path between the UNMISS compound and the site, thousands of people took shelter in dense, claustrophobic conditions. There appeared to be no food, no water, and there was open defecation.
Among the displaced in these squalid conditions, there was a visceral anger at the United Nations for failing to protect the site.
“The UN has to protect the people, not themselves—this is what I want to say because what I saw today in the POC here, for example, the [UNMISS troops], they can’t stop the SPLA there, and they can do that,” said Jack, who declined to give his last name.
“This is a POC!” yelled another man, listening it. “It means protection of civilians!”
“The rules of engagement and the mandate are very clear, you have a right to self-defense, so if he is shooting at me I can shoot at him—or if he is shooting at a civilian—and that’s in the mandate, you are there to protect the civilians, you can shoot him, shoot to kill,” said a UNMISS security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a total clusterfuck.”
“It’s total incompetence,” added another UN security official.
In response to a query from The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for UNMISS, Ariane Quentier, emailed the following statement:
“As the fighting unfolded during the night of Wednesday, UNMISS police in charge of maintaining order within the protection sites immediately intervened with tear gas to disperse the crowd. Casualties were brought to the international NGO clinic in the site. UN troops have further increased perimeter patrolling while physically securing areas in the vicinity of the Protection of Civilians site. UNMISS is also engaging with local authorities in Malakal to de-escalate the situation.
“UNMISS troops have also mobile patrols within the sites to support the UN Police. This operational measures will be ongoing thoughout the night in order to secure the PoC site as per UNMISS mandate to protect civilians.”
When the camp was opened in 2014, the head of UNMISS at the time, Hilde F. Johnson, promised that people would be safe. “As long as people feel afraid,” she said, “they can know they have our protection.”
UPDATE: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office issued a statement late Thursday condemning the violence and updating the casualty figures to seven dead, and some 40 injured so far. “He underscores in no uncertain terms that any attack directed against civilians, UN premises and peacekeepers may constitute a war crime,” the statement said.