Corpses lining Bentiu’s main road, piles of lifeless figures outside a mosque, so many dead bodies they have to be removed in the jaws of a bulldozer. The images from Bentiu are deeply disturbing. The killings have been condemned by the United Nations, and described as an “abomination” by the United States. Such horror will strengthen calls to put an end to the conflict, and so it should. What happened in Bentiu is only one in a long series of massacres, not just committed during this four-month-old war, but stretching back decades into South Sudan’s troubled history.
Riek Machar and his commanders have denied responsibility for the hundreds of deaths in Bentiu, either feigning ignorance, blaming a security vacuum after the government troops left the town, or accusing the government soldiers of murdering the civilians as they prepared to flee the town. However, the UN said the killings continued for almost two days after the rebels had announced the capture of Bentiu, a period described by the main rebel leader in the area as one in which his forces were “mopping and cleaning up” in the town. Privately, one rebel source admitted to me that the rebels had carried out the massacre.
There is particular outrage over what the UN is describing as “the targeted killing of civilians based on their ethnic origins and nationality” in Bentiu. The mainly Nuer rebels reportedly killed non-Nuers, Nuers perceived not to support them, and Sudanese living in Bentiu. This war has, on the frontlines and in Internet forums, taken on traits of naked ethnic hostility. The rebels’ largely Nuer fighters often say they took up arms because of the slaughter of their relatives in Juba at the start of this conflict.
Revenge has been taken, in Bentiu and elsewhere, on President Salva Kiir’s ethnic group, the Dinka, and others seen as supporting him. Sudanese groups say the Sudanese citizens who died in Bentiu were traders. They were almost certainly targeted because the South Sudanese rebels accuse the Sudanese rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement of fighting for Kiir. My rebel source claimed that those slaughtered in the mosque were JEM soldiers who had taken off their uniforms when the rebels approached.
The mass killings, ethnic targeting and the UN’s claim that hate speech, including incitement to carry out “vengeful sexual violence against women from another community”, was broadcast by rebel commanders on the local radio network, has led some to draw parallels with Rwanda. Shocking though the latest violence is, it thankfully does not come close to mirroring the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago, when up to a million people were killed in 100 days. A closer comparison comes from South Sudan itself.
Disregard for civilian lives
This conflict has been marked by a persistent disregard for the sanctity of civilian lives. Both sides have killed non-combatants, including women and children. Both sides have carried out massacres. The first was in Juba, when troops loyal to Kiir went door to door looking for those they considered supporters of Machar. In some cases, belonging to the same ethnic group was considered sufficient evidence. Rebels, and in particular the unruly mob known as the White Army, have raped and slaughtered in Bor and Malakal, including in the hospitals of both towns. In most cases, civilians who reached a UN base were safe. Not always though. In Akobo, and last week in Bor, displaced people inside a UN base were murdered by intruders. The UN believes the Bor attack may have been a war crime.
There should be a credible investigation to establish whether what happened in Bentiu, but also in Juba, Bor, Malakal and elsewhere, constituted crimes against humanity.
Ethnicity is not the only driver for these abuses. The war began because of political tensions within the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. People fight for a variety of reasons: The bounty of victory; the desire for revenge; self-defence; community pressure; and many other factors.
Ethnicity is not the only driver for these abuses. The war began because of political tensions within the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. People fight for a variety of reasons: The bounty of victory (both large, in the case of politicians hoping to govern, and small, like soldiers carrying away looted goods after combat); the desire for revenge; self-defence; community pressure and many other factors.
Yet within this complicated web of motivations, ethnic animosity is undoubtedly present. Building a cohesive nation out of more than 60 ethnic groups, which have relatively little in common beyond a common hostility to rule from Khartoum, has been one of South Sudan’s biggest challenges since independence in 2011. Every mass killing in which one community targets another makes that task all the harder. It is helpful to remember that there are examples that buck this depressing trend.
Every war has massacres, of course, but South Sudan’s own history is full of them. South Sudan’s own national narrative is in part constructed through common revulsion at abuses carried out by Arab slave traders, Ottoman officials, brutal British “pacification” campaigns, and attacks carried out by Sudanese soldiers and allied militias during the two north-south civil wars that preceded South Sudan’s independence.
At least 1,000 southerners were murdered in Juba in 1965, and educated southerners were killed at a wedding party in Wau the same year, during the first conflict (1955-72); hundreds of thousands of others died in combat or through hunger.
Rival southern Sudanese groups
The second civil war (1983-2005) was longer and even more devastating. Often the violence was among rival southern Sudanese groups. In perhaps the most famous example, Machar broke away from John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, protesting against Garang’s lack of democracy and human rights abuses. Yet, soon enough, Machar’s forces carried out the 1991 Bor massacre. Amnesty International estimated at least 2,000 civilians were killed, though the number may have been higher. In all, it is estimated that 2 million people died in the second north-south war, that led to South Sudan’s independence.
This historical suffering has had a brutalising effect. Tragically, many South Sudanese have only known conflict and its ravages throughout their lives. I once interviewed a Murle woman, Nyandit, who had been shot by Nuer raiders who stormed through Murle land in the east of Jonglei state in late 2011 and early 2012. A bullet had grazed her cheek, and another had hit her leg, a decade after she had survived another deadly assault by the same group. On this occasion, Nyandit’s only child, a three-year-old boy, was snatched from her by the attackers. Ten of her relatives were killed. She showed no surprise. This was life. Her relatives would seek revenge and the cycle would continue.
In the period before and immediately after independence, deadly inter-ethnic cattle raids in Jonglei state were one of South Sudan’s greatest challenges, a visible manifestation of the weakness of the state, the lack of opportunities for young men and the ethnic fractures in the new nation. Each clash created more grieving relatives, and a greater need for revenge.
In some ways, the civil war is similar, albeit played out on a vaster, more political scale, one that threatens the stability of the nation as a whole. The White Army is now part of Machar’s forces and stands accused of some of the worst abuses in Bor and Malakal. South Sudanese are desperate for all this carnage to stop. Yet like Nyandit, many are wearily resigned to violence, numbed by the weight and abundance of past blows. One South Sudanese friend told me he did not think the Bentiu massacre would change people’s perception of Riek Machar much, because Salva Kiir’s troops would have done the same given the chance. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that as long as the fighting continues, there will be more horrendous scenes like the one in Bentiu.
James Copnall is the author of “A Poisonous Thorn in our Hearts” about Sudan and South Sudan after the 2011 split. He was the BBC correspondent for both countries from 2009-12. He was also based in Ivory Coast (2004-7) and Morocco (2008-9).