Until the summer of 2016, South Sudan’s Yei region was a leafy oasis in the midst of the country’s civil war. But when a national peace deal broke down and government soldiers ransacked the area, a handful of U.N. and U.S. officials begged their leaders for help.
The United Nations must send peacekeepers to Yei to protect civilians from President Salva Kiir’s forces, who are burning villages and slaughtering men, women and children, they argued. And the U.S. needs to change its approach in the face of a potential genocide, they warned.
The pleas of officials and residents fell on deaf ears. The U.N. did not send peacekeeping troops to stay in Yei, and the U.S. continued to support South Sudan’s military, possibly in violation of U.S. law, an AP investigation found. The investigation is based on more than 30 internal or confidential documents from the U.N., White House or State Department, and dozens of interviews with current or former officials and civilians.
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In a matter of weeks, Yei became the center of a nationwide campaign of what the U.N. calls ethnic cleansing, which has created the largest exodus of civilians in Africa since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. More than 1 million people have now fled to Uganda, mostly from the Yei region. And while there is no tally for how many people have died in South Sudan, estimates put the number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Kate Almquist Knopf, director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the U.S. Defense Department, compared the situation in South Sudan to Rwanda, where nearly a million people died in 100 days with little action from the U.S. or other world leaders.
“The same thing is happening now in South Sudan,” she said. “It’s happening on Africa’s watch. It’s happening on America’s watch. It’s happening on the United Nations’ watch.”
More than a year later, the U.N. says it is still considering sending a permanent peacekeeping force to Yei if it gets more troops. The U.N. now has about 12,000 peacekeepers throughout South Sudan, but U.S. officials say it would take roughly 40,000 to secure the country. That leaves Yei and other major population centers — such as Bentiu, Malakal and Wau — vulnerable.
“There are always discussions,” said Daniel Dickinson, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in South Sudan. “It’s all about what resources the mission has available.”
For its part, the U.S. budgeted $30 million for technical training, non-lethal equipment and advisers to South Sudan’s military for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. The State Department in July gave a further $2 million for a military and security operations center that supported the country’s security service and presidential guards.
The assistance appears to violate a U.S. law prohibiting support to any unit that has committed a gross violation of human rights — in this case including an attack on a popular hotel that targeted aid workers and American citizens, the AP found. South Sudanese soldiers have killed a journalist, gang-raped women, and conducted mock executions on civilians and aid workers.
A spokesperson for the State Department said military officials who received assistance “were vetted and not credibly implicated in the gross violation of human rights.” They added the U.S. has exerted pressure on both the government and the rebels to stop fighting.
However, the U.S. aid is a “red flag,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the law. “The South Sudanese security forces, like their rebel counterparts, are notorious for violating human rights without fear of being punished. We do not want the United States to be associated with such misconduct.”
The U.S. failed to respond
The U.S. also struggled to respond to the crisis in South Sudan, according to documents and interviews.
In July 2016, the South Sudanese military fired dozens of bullets into two U.S. embassy vehicles. The same month, government troops killed a journalist, gang-raped women and beat people, including Americans, as they rampaged through a hotel.
Still, the U.S. continued to believe it could fix South Sudan’s military. In September, President Barack Obama sought a “long-term military to military relationship” with South Sudan, according to a letter to Congress obtained by AP. The letter, which allowed military training and education for South Sudan’s army, circumvented a law blocking U.S. support for countries that use child soldiers.
“Once again in South Sudan, we have shown a pattern of having bad analysis, either ignoring the symptoms of the problem entirely, not seeing them, or analyzing them in the wrong way,” said Cameron Hudson, the director of African affairs at the National Security Council in the Bush administration.
One State Department official was blunt.
“We just don’t have a policy,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “There is no game plan.”
The centerpiece of the U.S. response to South Sudan was a push for an additional 4,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force to protect civilians under attack. The U.S. got the force approved by the Security Council. At a press conference in South Sudan in September 2016, Samantha Power, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., described an agreement with President Kiir on the extra 4,000 peacekeepers, known as the Regional Protection Force.
“We came to get consent to the RPF, and that is a consent that has been given,” said Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book that details America’s failure to prevent genocide in Germany, Rwanda and the Balkans. “The details have to be worked through.” If the government didn’t accept the troops, Power warned, the Security Council would place an arms embargo on the country.
But in a stark reversal, as Power left the next morning, South Sudan’s government denied having ever accepted the extra 4,000 peacekeepers.
“I think the government won the game,” South Sudanese Cabinet Minister Martin Lomuro bragged to reporters.
One State Department official described Power’s visit as “supremely embarrassing” because of the public failure. Others doubted that she was fooled by South Sudan’s leaders. Power declined requests for comment.
In the fall, a dissent cable drafted within the State Department argued that the U.S. support for the peace deal and failure to act was fueling violence.
“Further calamity is likely; the risks of famine, continued mass atrocities, and genocide are among the highest in the world,” the draft cable said. The risks of not changing U.S. policy, it continued, “are immediate and unacceptably high.” The draft was never finalized because it did not gain enough support, two U.S. officials said.
Senior Obama administration officials said pulling out of the country’s peace deal would have created even more violence, and there was a limit to what the U.S. could accomplish without partners in the African Union.
Others disagree. The U.S. gave “tacit endorsement” to South Sudan’s government, according to Alan Boswell, a researcher on South Sudan.
U.S. policy “did not start the violence, but it meant that we were not going to try and stop it,” Boswell said.