A deadly outburst of violence between residents of a United Nations protection-of-civilians (PoC) site in the South Sudanese capital of Juba has prompted the Organization's strong condemnation and triggered wider concern over the safety of internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the country.
According to a press release issued by the UN Mission in South Sudan earlier this morning, the fighting erupted on Friday, 8 May following a domestic dispute and steadily degenerated into a series of clashes between individuals wielding machetes, sticks and metal bars that continued throughout the weekend despite repeated interventions by UN peacekeepers.
One person was killed during the violence on Sunday and about 60 more were injured in the disturbances, which also provoked the departure of an estimated 3,500 IDPs from the protection sites.
The Mission noted that it had sought assurances from South Sudanese authorities about the safety and well-being of the IDPs who left the Mission's protection sites earlier this week, adding that “the primary responsibility for the protection of civilians continues to lie with the government of the Republic of South Sudan.”
In addition, the Mission reiterated its “long-standing policy” that all departures from UNMISS protection sites are done so on “a strictly voluntary basis,” and that it does not prevent IDPs from leaving its premises if that is their preference. In the meantime, the Mission said, it is engaging with community leaders in the Juba PoC sites to defuse the situation and avert a recurrence of the disturbances of this past weekend.
South Sudan has been in the grip of conflict since December 2013 – a conflict marked by brutal violence against civilians and deepening suffering across the country. The major humanitarian consequences are widespread displacement due to the violence, including high rates of death, disease, and injuries, severe food insecurity and disrupted livelihoods, and a major malnutrition crisis.
Some 119,000 people are sheltered in UNMISS compounds across the country while the Organization estimates that the number of people in need for 2015 will include an anticipated 1.95 million IDPs and a projected 293,000 refugees.
Last weekend's violence in Juba coincides with a deterioration of the security situation in South Sudan's northern Unity State. A series of “continuing and consistent reports” indicate, in fact, a surge in kidnappings and rapes and an overall uptick in violence, which has forced the UN and other aid agencies to withdraw staff from the region.
Addressing reporters at today's press briefing in Geneva, spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Rupert Colville, said his office remained “deeply concerned about the escalation of fighting in the strategic, oil-rich Unity State” and cited reports of killings, rape, abduction and looting of cattle and other property.
Mr. Colville explained that thousands of civilians have fled the attacks – with at least 2,200 new arrivals seeking refuge at UNMISS' PoC site in Bentiu as of 10 May, while others had fled or are in bushes between villages south of Nhialdiu and Koch, and Leer.
According to interviews with civilians who managed to flee, he added, perpetrators of these atrocities are Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers and armed youth. There are also mobilized youth reportedly clad in civilian clothes and wielding AK47s.
“Ahead of the rainy season, when people are planting crops, we urge absolute restraint by the parties to the conflict,” Mr. Colville concluded. “Attacks on civilian lives and infrastructure amount to clear violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law and must be investigated.”