PARIS — It’s been more than a month since soldiers in South Sudan, a country that gets more than a billion dollars a year in U.S. assistance, singled out American aid workers for beatings and abuse amid an orgy of theft, intimidation, and gang rapes.
The U.S. embassy in Juba knew what was going on when it was happening, but proved powerless to stop it. And the Obama administration’s public reaction? Nothing until the story finally broke Monday through Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press.
“The United States is outraged by reports of assaults and rapes of civilians,” began a statement by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as if her office and the administration had just discovered what was going on in the capital of a country that the United States had helped win its independence five years ago.
In fact, as Power conceded in her statement, on the day of the atrocities at a hotel complex called The Terrain, popular with foreign aid workers in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, the U.S. embassy was kept informed by victims and witnesses from the beginning.
“We are deeply concerned that United Nations peacekeepers were apparently either incapable of or unwilling to respond to calls for help,” said Power, who made her reputation in 2003 with her Pulitzer-winning book “A Problem From Hell” about the world’s failure to stop genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda.
Clearly some wheels have been turning behind the scenes. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein issued a report on Aug. 4 deploring the sexual violence of soldiers on both sides of the on-again, off-again civil war. The report said the UN had documented “at least 217 cases of sexual violence in Juba between 8 and 25 July,” some of them targeting “foreign nationals.”
And last week, the UN Security Council voted to create “a robust unit of 4,000 peacekeepers to respond swiftly to security challenges in South Sudan,” as Power put it.
But the new report from Human Rights Watch and the detailed picture of what happened in Juba in July published by AP correspondent Jason Patinkin on Monday, after he had left the country, makes it clear just how feeble the UN and U.S. peacemaking initiatives have become.
The Terrain compound, with its swimming pool and squash courts, has been seen by many foreigners and the South Sudanese elite as a kind of refuge, much as the Mille Collines hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, was before the 1993 genocide there.
On July 11, the latest peace settlement between President Salva Kiir, whose supporters and soldiers are mostly from the Dinka ethnic group, and Vice President Riek Machar, whose core strength is with his Nuer people, was falling apart and fighting raged in the capital.
By mid-afternoon, it seemed that things were calming down, and people gathered at The Terrain thought they’d be safe. “We are not targeted,” they were told by at least one private security consultant, according to the AP.
But they were targeted, and very specifically. About 100 men broke through the compound gate, firing into it and prying it open with tire irons, according to one witness. Security guards armed only with shotguns fell back, and seem to have put up little or no resistance. The soldiers rampaged “door to door,” according to the AP report, taking money, phones, laptops, and car keys.
“They were very excited, very drunk, under the influence of something, almost a mad state, walking around shooting off rounds inside the rooms,” one American witness told the AP. Most had on military fatigues and several bore the tiger-face shoulder patches of Salva Kiir’s presidential guard, he said.
They beat that same American with belts and rifle butts for about an hour, accusing him of hiding rebels. They fired bullets at his feet, according to AP, then sent him out of the compound: “You tell your embassy how we treated you,” one soldier told him as he fled to a nearby UN compound.
A woman aid worker, a foreigner whose nationality is not otherwise specified by the AP in an obvious effort to protect here identity, said a soldier pointed his AK-47 at her and told her, “Either you have sex with me, or we make every man here rape you, and then we shoot you in the head.”
Over the course of the next few hours, she told AP, she was raped by 15 men, some of them very violent, some of them boys who were almost apologetic as they were ordered to assault her. One of them told her, “Sweetie, we should run away and get married,” she recalled. “It was like he was on a first date…. He didn’t see that what he was doing was a bad thing.”
Several people had retreated to what they thought was a safe room behind a secure door and its adjacent bathroom, but the soldiers shot their way in.
“The soldiers then pulled people out one by one,” AP reports. “One woman said she was sexually assaulted by multiple men. Another Western woman said soldiers beat her with fists and threatened her with their guns when she tried to resist. She said five men raped her.”
Again, AP is careful not to specify the nationalities of the women, but several survivors told Patinkin that soldiers specifically asked the terrified aid workers if they were American, and when someone said yes, the beating would begin.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, witnesses recalled soldiers cheering as they took turns raping women. When one woman resisted, a soldier shot a bullet next to her head.
A South Sudanese journalist named John Gatluak was dragged outside in front of the other captives. His tribal scars showed he was from Machar’s ethnic group. One of the soldiers shouted, “Nuer!” And another pumped two bullets into his head, then several more into his body.
All during these horrors, phone calls and text messages were going out to the UN, to the U.S. embassy, to anyone who might be able to help. But for hours nobody came.
Chinese, Nepalese, and Ethiopian troops were serving with UN forces in the immediate vicinity, and an Ethiopian “Quick Reaction Force” mobilized—then stood down, for reasons still not fully explained.
The U.S. embassy, aware that the UN was unlikely to deploy without clearance from Salva Kiir’s military commanders, pressed them to send government soldiers to bring their own troops back into line. Eventually, hours later, they did, but three Western women and 16 hotel staff were left behind in the hotel, according to the AP report, and did not get out until the following morning with the aid of private security contractors.
As Human Rights Watch noted, Gatluak’s body was not retrieved for several days.
The next day, reflecting the uncertainty of the situation, and its impotence to affect it, the U.S. embassy sent out an advisory to Americans in Juba: “The U.S. government is assessing the feasibility of bringing assets in to Juba to provide support to the U.S. Embassy in Juba and to provide support to private U.S. citizens over the coming days.” But with Kiir’s forces by then in complete control of the capital the idea apparently was dropped.
Of course investigations are being promised by Kiir’s government and by the United Nations. But atrocities and investigations are nothing new in South Sudan’s civil war, while prosecutions for murder and rape have been virtually nonexistent.
At a time when many Americans are asking why the United States gets heavily involved in conflicts like South Sudan’s, at a moment when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is pandering to isolationist sentiment at every opportunity, it will be hard for the administration to continue struggling with such an intractable conflict.
And for the aid workers and diplomats trying to bring peace to the country, there clearly is a sense of frustration, but also a growing sense of fear. All know that they are now potentially under threat, and that the reign of terror has becomes the status quo. Yet many, including some of those assaulted on July 11, want to keep trying to make things better.
Human Rights Watch on Monday proposed what may be the best, most immediate short-term response to the events of July: an arms embargo making it harder for renegade troops to get ammunition, even if they already have guns; and sanctions—including travel bans and frozen bank accounts—directly targeting Kiir, Machar, and other South Sudanese military and political leaders ultimately responsible for the violence.
Meanwhile, the war continues in other cities and villages in South Sudan where there is nobody to see, nobody to bear witness. One can only imagine their descent into hell.