‘Even if an attack was happening right outside our base and we could see it, we would close the doors. Our job isn’t protecting civilians but monitoring the peace agreement’.
This is what a UN peacekeeper told me in South Sudan back in autumn 2009. I will never forget the resignation with which he uttered those words. We were in Yambio, close to the border with DR Congo, where the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army had been on the rampage. Earlier that day, I had spoken to a group of boys who had described the atrocities they’d witnessed. Now armed, mainly with bows and arrows, known as the ‘Arrow Boys’, they were patrolling the bush to protect their communities from further attacks. They were angry and baffled that the nearby peacekeepers had done nothing to help them (see my report on this more).
On the one hand, I was outraged at the injustice. How could it be that boys had dropped out of school to protect their families while peacekeepers hunkered down in their bases? But on the other hand, I felt sorry for that peacekeeper. He was thousands of miles from his home. He hadn’t received clear instructions or training from the UN as to what protecting civilians really meant. And while the UN mission had a mandate from the UN Security Council to protect civilians, that came way down a long list of other priorities. In any case, like many peacekeepers, he was almost certainly receiving instructions from his own government not to get in harm’s way.
Fast forward five years and I am walking around a UN peacekeeping base in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, which is now home to thousands of displaced civilians. Their community leader is telling me that they owe their lives ‘to the UNMISS’. Today, South Sudan’s peacekeepers are sheltering around 100,000 men, women and children. When violence gripped Juba last December, and spread to other parts of the country, the UN peacekeepers opened their doors, and in doing so, saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.
What caused this radical change in the UN mission’s approach? Cynics would say it was the sheer force of circumstance. As one tired aid worker put it to me, ‘it would have been a PR disaster’ if the UN had turned away the crowds that descended on its bases.
Perhaps. But I believe UNMISS deserves more credit. It had contingency plans to host civilians (even if, like the rest of us, it did not anticipate anywhere near the numbers of people that would seek safety). It showed leadership and resolve in letting people in. I also like to think that the painstaking advocacy that NGOs, including Oxfam, have done over the years on civilian protection played a part. At a more abstract level, could this be the influence-by-osmosis of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ concept that my colleague Ed Cairns wrote about here, or the impact of the UN’s ‘Rights Up Front Initiative’ that emerged following the human rights failures during Sri Lanka’s civil war? Whatever the reason, in my mind UNMISS actions in South Sudan amount to a major UN protection achievement.
But that does not mean, ten months later, that UNMISS is doing enough. A fraction of South Sudan’s conflict-affected people are in formal ‘Protection of Civilian’ (PoC) sites. UNMISS should patrol much more robustly and actively outside of these camps so that, for example, women can go to market without being attacked. Peacekeepers should get out of their vehicles, patrol by foot, talk to communities. Women in Malakal recently said that where Rwandan peacekeepers are taking this more proactive approach, they feel safer.
Even in the PoC sites themselves, people face a range of threats – some of which, ironically, are a result of living in the very camp to which they fled for
protection. There is next to no privacy; people (especially the young) are bored, frustrated, penned in; and women and girls are experiencing high levels of sexual violence. While improving, conditions in the camps range from tough to abominable. In the site in Bentiu, it has been so swampy that families sleep standing up knee deep in mud (see MSF video). That people choose to stay in such conditions is a measure of how frightened and traumatised they are about what will happen if they leave.
A similar story can be told about South Sudan’s hunger crisis. The collective effort of aid agencies together with the incredible resilience of the South Sudanese has pulled communities back from the brink of starvation. But the risk of famine early next year remains real and there can be no let up in our efforts, as Oxfam and 35 agencies describe in a new report, From Crisis to Catastrophe: South Sudan’s man-made crisis – and how the world must act now to prevent catastrophe in 2015.
But no amount of peacekeeping, however robust, and no amount of aid, however effective, can end wars. Only the leaders of South Sudan can end this conflict – a conflict which has exacted a most devastating toll on men, women and children who were so hopeful that, after decades of violence and poverty, an independent South Sudan would mean a brighter future.
And that brings me to the toughest question of all: what can be done to change the calculations of the warring leaders to make peace rather than wage war? I don’t have the answer. I’m not sure if anybody does. But surely part of it must be about exposing the fundamental inequality of this conflict: that those most responsible for unleashing violence are most immune from its consequences. As a South Sudanese friend, a young mother of two, said on my recent trip: ‘Those two men are safe. Their wives and children are outside of the country, going shopping and to school. They are safe. But here our children are dying.’ She concluded with the proverb: ‘When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that is flattened.’