Since a tense ceasefire settled over the conflicted country of South Sudan following renewed fighting on July 8th, the area has seen a spike in the prevalence of sexual assault against women and girls seeking safety in UN Compounds. With government soldiers being cited as the main culprits, and a notable ethnic divide between the Nuer and Dinka populations, UN peacekeeping troops are being asked to do more to protect civilians seeking safety, but have been simultaneously accused of resting on their laurels. Reports have even come in stating that peacekeepers “stood by and watched” as soldiers wearing government uniforms dragged women off to be beaten, assaulted, and gang raped after they ventured out of safety compounds to look for food.
The South Sudanese region is currently experiencing a vast amount of ethnic tensions, as the divide between Nuer and Dinka populations has been exacerbated by the violent clash between Dinka president Salva Kiir, and opposition leader and former Vice President Riek Machar, who is Nuer. Supporters of both sides have been accused of using sexual violence as an intimidation tactic in the conflict, but the main proponents have been soldiers under President Kiir, who have been targeting Nuer women and girls as a retaliation strategy against the opposition led by Machar. To evidence this claim, multiple Nuer women living in the UN camps have been cited as saying that the soldiers accused women of being allied with Machar due to their ethnicity prior to attacking them. Shantal Persaud, UNMISS representative, issued a statement affirming the rumours that the perpetrators have been government soldiers under President Kiir, saying that “For a fact, uniformed soldiers were involved, heavily involved, in horrific acts of violence against civilians,” and condemning their actions.
Since the most recent fighting broke out, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS, has documented over 120 cases of sexual violence and assault in the region, according to Ms. Persaud. Addressing the reports that peacekeepers had born witness to several of the assaults without acting, she stated that “The mission takes very seriously allegations of peacekeepers not rendering aid to civilians in distress and the UNMISS force command is looking into these allegations…” Further investigation into the accusations is required, as reports of inactivity on behalf of peacekeepers have surfaced before, and are taken very seriously by the global organization.
In a statement given to CBS News by one witness to an attack, he described watching peacekeepers stand by as a woman was forcibly dragged away by soldiers. “They were seeing it. Everyone was seeing it,” he said. “The woman was seriously screaming, quarreling and crying also, but there was no help. She was crying for help.” It is perhaps at least partially due to the mounting dangers for women and girls in the area that more refugees than ever are fleeing into bordering countries. In an article released on July 26th, it was stated that on Monday the 25th alone, “an estimated 2,442 refugees were received in Uganda from South Sudan. More than 90 per cent of arrivals are women and children.” With this statistic only expected to mount unless the situation comes under control, UN officials and mission representatives have sworn to investigate claims that peacekeepers are not protecting civilians, as is their duty.