A sudden eruption of fighting in South Sudan’s capital city of Juba sent as many as 20,000 people to seek refuge at the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Juba.
Civilians were caught in the cross fire between battling members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the national army. The government of South Sudan estimates that 500 people have been killed and another 800 injured due to the fighting. Gunfire continued into the night in Juba, but subsided by today.
Hospitals in the city are struggling under the sudden inundation of patients. The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is providing whatever support it can to ensure that people receive treatment.
“We know there are more people who need care, but they are having difficulty reaching healthcare facilities because of the security situation and the lack of available transportation,” said Felicity Gapes of the Red Cross.
The UN urged South Sudanese to ‘exercise restraint’ and put an end to the violence. UN assistant secretary-general Toby Lanzer, working in Juba as the deputy special representative and development & humanitarian coordinator, tweeted that it is quiet in Juba and people are traveling around on foot and in motor vehicles. Meanwhile, thousands still demand UN assistance.
— Toby Lanzer (@tobylanzer) December 18, 2013
The US State Department, some NGOs and other diplomatic missions ordered the evacuation of some personnel. Flights resumed on Wednesday in and out of Juba, after a days of closures and disruptions. The US embassy posted information to its Facebook account on how American citizens in Juba can receive assistance if they want to leave.
The Kenyan-based airline Fly540 offered a few flights out of South Sudan and into Kenya. Tickets were going for more than $600, as people reported overcrowding and long lines to get a flight.
— U.S. Mission in Juba (@USMissionJuba) December 18, 2013
The cause of the fighting remains unclear. President Salva Kiir announced that he fended off a coup attempt by his former Vice President, Riek Machar, but that may not be the case. Ethnic divisions between two, Kiir is a Dinka and Machar is a Nuer, have also been cited as a potential cause.
A division between Machar and Kiir opened when he was dismissed from his position as vice president, in July. While he has opposed Kiir, his actions have been political say analysts.
“What took place in Juba was a misunderstanding between presidential guards within their division, it was not a coup attempt,” Machar told the Paris-based Sudan Tribune. “Kiir wanted to use the alleged coup attempt in order to get rid of us.”
Fighting is now reportedly spreading from the capital city. Soldiers apparently attacked each other at two military barracks in the town of Bor. Located in the embattled Jonglei state, a supposed mutiny was led by commander Peter Gadet, he launched a rebellion in 2011 only to later rejoin the army.
The deputy governor of Jonglei state told Reuters that the fighting is contained to the barracks, but there are concerns that it could quickly spill over to the town. The Gadet-led soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar may have siezed control of one of the barracks, but the details are still hazy at the moment.
“Hundreds of civilians have been streaming into our camp on the outskirts of the town, they’re now over the 1,000 mark, and Bor is very tense,” said UNMISS spokesperson Joe Contreras.
Ethnic-based attacks have been reported, despite assurances from the government that the divisions are not ethnically based. With scant information available, it is hard to know what is exactly happening. France’s ambassador to the United Nations and current president of the Security Council, Gerard Araud said he is concerned that the fighting may spiral out of control.
“The two main ethnic groups the Dinka and the Nuer could go into a full fledged civil war in the country,” said Araud to the BBC.
Worries about increasing divisions are heightened by the accusations by Kiir that the fighting was a coup attempt. The between 7,000 and 8,000 peacekeepers in South Sudan will not intervene in the conflict, he said.
Jok Madut Jok, the Executive Director of the Sudd Institute, a South Sudanese policy research institute, shared the story of a recent attack in a Facebook post. A personal friend of his who fought with the SPLA soldiers returned home during a lull in fighting yesterday to see his family. The ethnic Nuer was found dead with his family, slain by his fellow soldiers, for being a perceived enemy.
It is possible that incidents like these are isolated. However, Jok and others have expressed concerns that it could be the start of escalating ethnic violence.
“I’m hoping that this can be attributed to poor command and control of the security forces rather than to a concerted government policy,” wrote Africa security analyst Lesley Warner.
A confusion reigns and information changes from moment to moment, what is happening in South Sudan is hard to know precisely. A return to calm in Juba may or may not indicate a coming end to the sudden crisis.