Q&A: Sanctuary for South Sudanese

The head of the UN mission in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, on offering bases for people seeking protection in Juba

'I took a decision immediately that we have to open our gates,' says the UN's Hilde Johnson [Reuters]

Juba, South Sudan – The capital of the world’s newest country was rocked by violence in December when fighting broke out within the military. The conflict quickly spread across the country as the armed forces split between those loyal to the government and those allied to former Vice President Riek Machar.

From the start of the conflict, people arrived at United Nations bases for protection, but after several months they show no sign of leaving and humanitarian agencies are faced with the prospect of having to provide assistance to almost 70,000 people living on UN compounds around the country.

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General is Hilde Johnson, who has been in charge of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) since independence in 2011. She talked to Al Jazeera about her decision to open up the gates to people seeking protection.

Al Jazeera: On that day when the fighting started, civilians flocked to the UN for sanctuary. How did you make the decision to let them in?

Hilde Johnson: The violence started quite late on December 15, so it was in the early hours of December 16 when [UN] security sent me messages that people were coming to our gates in big numbers. I think the first numbers were 500, and then suddenly it started increasing and of course I took a decision immediately that we have to open our gates.

We have a mandate to protect civilians at UNMISS and there have been incidents in the past where gates have remained closed when civilians have been in need of protection, and I’ve made it very clear to myself that’s not going to happen on my watch. So we opened the gates. What surprised us was the numbers, because in a very short time it was increasing to thousands and thousands and thousands of people in both locations in Juba.

Al Jazeera: How long will you care for these people for?

Johnson: We have no choice but to continue to give people protection. There is no way we can force people out of our bases and compounds, so we are now at a rush against time. The rains are coming much earlier than expected, we were expecting to have maybe three to four weeks more to prepare for this very tough situation and we’re extremely concerned about the fate of the displaced civilians in our camps, because this is not an environment fit for protecting so many people over such a long time. We have humanitarian partners working around the clock to assist.

We’re trying to develop sites that can be ready and be better and give more space, and also to move to the other site here in Juba, which has more space, but it is a rush against time – it is really a desperate situation.

Al Jazeera: The UN has been accused of harbouring rebels or former soldiers at these camps, as well as of assisting opposition leader Riek Machar and his family. What do you say to that?

A woman cheers during a rally in support of President Salva Kiir [Reuters]

Johnson: These are baseless accusations. Firstly, UNMISS and the UN is guided by international humanitarian law. It is our obligation to protect civilians that are in need of protection but are fleeing for their lives whatever their circumstances are. And the minute people come to our gates – leaving uniforms, weapons if any are ex-combatants – they become civilians and under international humanitarian law, have the right to protection the minute they enter our gates.

That is the situation. We have not in any way supported or given refuge to Riek Machar or his family. In this context, these accusations and allegations are totally baseless and I have repeatedly refuted them. We have now a situation where in all crises and conflicts and trouble like this – the UN usually is blamed for a lot of things. We are now facing criticism and blame from both sides and my thinking then is: If we’re facing criticism from both sides, we’re probably doing something right.

Al Jazeera: On the subject of the camps, given what happened and the fact that people do look like they’re going to stay for a long time, if you had to take the decision again would you make the same one?

Johnson: I would not be able to face the mirror if I were not to say “open the gates”. We have no choice in situations like this than to give people protection. The alternative would be, in the situation they were in, that they would be killed. I think that’s clear to most of the South Sudanese in this country. So we saved thousands of people’s lives and we will in any alternative scenario, I would have done the same. 

Source: Al Jazeera

More from Features
Most Read