Is Nowhere Safe in South Sudan?

Ten thousand dead, 1 million displaced, and things are only likely to get worse for the fledgling country.

JUBA, South Sudan — Nyazode Thiyany is desperate to leave South Sudan. As strangers wander by the tent where she is tending to her severely malnourished infant son, Shamis, she calls out to ask them whether they will buy her a bus ticket out of the country. Much better, she adds, if they can do it soon. Once Shamis recovers, she will have to move out of the inpatient clinic that Doctors Without Borders is running on the United Nations base in Juba and return to her small shelter nearby in the midst of the stinking, overcrowded displacement camp.

Thiyany fled to the base on Dec. 16, the day after clashes broke out in her Juba neighborhood. Along with the more than 20,000 people who sought refuge at the base, she spends most of her time standing in lines -- for food, for vaccinations, even for the bathroom. Streams of dirty water flow through the base each time it rains, and they course through the low-lying area where the thousands of tents have been set up, destroying all the clothes and sheets she brought with her.

Thiyany blames the lack of clean water for Shamis's severe diarrhea and the sudden weight loss that led to his hospitalization. "I'm not comfortable since I left my house. The camp is congested. The camp is not OK for him."

Still, Thiyany said she will not leave the base unless it's to board a bus for Ethiopia, Kenya, or Uganda. Not even to move to a nearby camp where higher ground means her shelter won't flood with every rain shower. She said she is not safe outside the U.N. compound.

Her neighborhood on the outskirts of Juba was one of the first battlefields in the fighting that broke out in mid-December and rapidly engulfed most of eastern South Sudan. Despite a cease-fire agreement that was reached in late January, clashes between government forces and troops aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar have continued, forcing hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes and into U.N. bases, churches, and mosques in search of a safe haven.

Then a bloody Easter weekend brought with it the realization that there is no safety anywhere in South Sudan.

On Thursday, April 17, civilians armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons stormed the U.N. base in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, and killed dozens of civilians sheltering there. On Monday, the United Nations released a report accusing rebel forces of conducting ethnically targeted killings of more than 200 people who had sought shelter in a mosque in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state. The murders, coming in the days after rebels took control of Bentiu, were reportedly spurred by messages broadcast on a local FM station.

Toby Lanzer, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official in South Sudan, counted hundreds of bodies still lying on Bentiu's streets during his visit to the town this week. The dead were found in "the market area and around religious institutions," he said in an interview. They were in "places where people thought that they would be safe."

Even as President Salva Kiir and Machar publicly repeat their commitment to peace and reconciliation, Lanzer said the latest incidents "brought home the extent to which South Sudan seems to be sliding into a cycle of extreme violence, extreme bitterness, and a cycle of revenge, which really has to stop. It's not only casting a dark shadow over the present -- it's really calling into question the future."

It's a future that Thiyany and an increasing number of citizens no longer want any part of.

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The fighting in South Sudan that started in mid-December followed a growing split over the past year within the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party. In July, Kiir sacked his entire cabinet, including Machar, without explanation. The former deputy held his tongue for months, before unloading a torrent of public criticisms against Kiir in early December and then walking out of a meeting with senior SPLM officials on Dec. 14. The next evening, Juba exploded, and within hours the former vice president was leading a ragtag rebellion of disaffected politicians, army officers, and youth warriors in a bid to overthrow Kiir's government -- or to at least take control of the oil fields that fund it. In the early days, homes across Juba were destroyed and shops looted -- activities that have continued as fighting has spread across the country. The political split within the SPLM has also exacerbated ethnic rivalries between Machar's Nuer community and Kiir's Dinka -- the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan.

There is no official casualty count from the four months of clashes, but observers estimate that more than 10,000 people have been killed. More than one million others have been forced from their homes. Control over the capitals of the country's two oil-producing states -- Unity and Upper Nile -- have changed hands multiple times, and both have been leveled in the process. And the United Nations is warning that 7 million people -- more than half the country's population -- may not get enough to eat this year if violence keeps them from planting crops in the coming months.

Reports on the fighting charge that there have also been serious human rights violations. An interim U.N. report released in February found evidence of targeted killings of civilians, gang rapes, and torture in the first weeks of the crisis. And while leaders on both sides have said in interviews that there is no ethnic dimension to the conflict, the Bentiu massacre undermined those claims while marking an escalation in brutality. In his interview, Lanzer described Bentiu as "an episode of violence, I think, never before seen in South Sudan to this extent."

Along with the killings in the mosque, the United Nations reports that civilians were also deliberately tracked down in a Catholic church, at a World Food Program compound, and at Bentiu Hospital. There, "Nuer men, women and children were killed for hiding and declining to join other Nuers who had gone out to cheer the [opposition] forces as they entered the town," according to the April 21 U.N. report on the Bentiu massacre.

In response to the U.N. report, the rebels have refuted the "ridiculous allegations fabricated by enemies of [the] war of resistance for democratic reforms." They blame the killings on government forces and allied fighters from Sudan's Darfur region.

Despite denials of responsibility for the killings from all sides, Simon Monoja Lubang, a sociology professor at the University of Juba, worries that the denials will not be enough to halt revenge attacks in response to the Bentiu massacre. "You know the kind of communities we have: Often the reaction of people to situations of this nature, the other side will also look for an opportunity of revenge killings."

Aid agencies say thousands of Bentiu residents are now streaming into U.N. camps on the town's outskirts. Lanzer said the number of displaced people sheltering at the base has grown from 4,000 a few weeks ago to 25,000 this week -- at a compound that was not built to accommodate anyone but U.N. staff. Medair, a humanitarian group providing emergency services in South Sudan, sent a team to help provide desperately needed drinking water and latrines for the new arrivals. Medair spokesperson Wendy van Amerongen said in an interview that they also found shortages of food, shelters, and medical supplies -- "really the basic needs people have when they leave everything behind."

The U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has put out a call for urgent military reinforcements to shore up protection for the camps. But despite the overstretched peacekeepers and the lack of food and clean water, Lanzer said people are still crowding into the camps because "there is nowhere else for them to go." And even there they might not be safe.

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The April 17 attack on the U.N. compound in Bor, coming in the days after the Bentiu killings, underscored just how deeply the fighting has divided South Sudan and just how tenuous the situation on the ground really is. Following the April 15 rebel takeover of Bentiu, opposition supporters in displacement camps across South Sudan broke out in spontaneous celebrations. The celebrations in Bor upset local youth, who organized themselves and marched to the U.N. compound to deliver a protest letter to officials.

There is a dispute as to who fired the first shot on April 17. Was it U.N. peacekeepers firing warning shots or protesters trying to force their way into the camp? Either way, the situation quickly spun out of control. Nearly 60 people, including two aid workers, were killed before peacekeepers expelled the attackers from the camp.

The next day, government spokesperson Michael Makuei Lueth called a news conference to condemn the incident, while also making clear whom he really held responsible: "Anybody who celebrates successful operations being conducted by the rebels against the government means that person is a rebel and we cannot continue to accommodate rebels inside UNMISS compounds and allow them to celebrate or do whatever they want at any time."

William Koang, a South Sudanese doctor working in Bor, fled to the compound when fighting reached the town in late December. He has been helping provide medical care at the U.N. base in Bor. Currently, he is treating 37 people who were severely injured in the mid-April fighting.

Six days after the attack, on April 23, his read on the situation was that tempers were finally "cooling down, but what remains is fear." People want to flee the camp, Koang said, but there are rumors that armed youth are patrolling outside the perimeter. In the meantime, the residents are trapped and steeling themselves for another attack.

Even if Kiir and Machar reach a peace agreement, Koang is not convinced that he and other displaced Nuers living in the compound could safely leave. He says Jonglei is permanently fractured and the only solution is for Kiir to split the state, permanently separating Dinka from Nuer. Otherwise, like Thiyany in Juba, he thinks the only other option is to permanently leave South Sudan.


Monoja, the sociology professor, thinks it's too soon to give up on South Sudan. The country's communities have a long history of conflict, he acknowledged, but also of reconciliation led by local leaders who are asked to act as peacemakers. The communities "allow them to sit down and talk peace." Once an agreement is reached, "ceremonies are performed and compensation is paid [for the dead] and people go back to their lives."

Still, he acknowledged that peace between the communities will be predicated on an accord between the political leaders who sparked the fighting. There is little evidence that this will happen soon.

Both sides continue to speak the language of resolution: At the launch of a national reconciliation effort in early April, Vice President James Wani Igga announced, "I'm very optimistic that we can agree, we South Sudanese, and we can begin to hug ourselves, embracing one another."

It is the action that is lacking. Peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have been suspended for almost the entire month of April; the cessation-of-hostilities agreement signed in late January molders.

"It is the political leaders who caused this problem," Monoja said. "It is not the local people. It is the political leaders because of the struggle for power. And if they had never done that struggle within the SPLM, I'm sure the struggle would never have erupted like that."

But it did. And the last two weeks have shown that so long as peace is delayed, no one in the country is safe.

Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images


The Candidate in His Labyrinth

Egypt’s president-in-waiting says he’s widely loved, so why does he sleep in an undisclosed location and fear for his life?

CAIRO — In the remote, well-to-do Cairo suburb of Fifth Settlement, the headquarters of former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidential campaign are heavily fortified. Checkpoints cordon off the streets leading up to the four-story villa, and half a dozen armed guards, one of whom holds a semiautomatic weapon in his hands at all times, surround the entrance.

To get into the facility, you must present your ID, pass through a metal detector, don a color-coded visitor's badge, and then be escorted by a campaign staff member through the building. It is a far cry from the campaign atmosphere of 2012, when leading presidential campaign headquarters were guarded -- at most -- by an unarmed desk clerk. But the winner of that election now sits in prison, and though the man who ousted him is a leading presidential contender, he is also a leading target for Muslim Brotherhood supporters eager for vengeance.

Make no mistake: Many Muslim Brothers want Sisi dead. Young Muslim Brothers are especially blunt in this regard. "He should be executed when the coup falls," one 18-year-old Brotherhood activist at Cairo University told me. The Brotherhood's typically cautious leaders are only slightly more circumspect. One top Brotherhood official proposed that, as a first step toward national reconciliation, an "independent committee" would investigate the deadly violence that followed President Mohamed Morsi's ouster, "and the results will be compulsory for everyone, with the killings ... considered murders" -- implying that Sisi would be convicted of mass murder and thus put to death.

Muslim Brotherhood officials also speculate on other ways that Sisi's demise could come about. Brotherhood leader Gamal Heshmat, whom I interviewed in Turkey, where he fled post-coup, suggested that Sisi's demise might come from a different source: "Those who are around him" -- meaning other Egyptian officials -- "might kill him in order to find an end the crisis."

The Brotherhood's blood lust -- as well as rising violence against police and military targets -- has compelled many Egyptians to support a strongman like Sisi ever more ardently. But despite the ubiquity of Sisi posters and occasional sightings of Sisi-branded cookies and underwear, "Sisi-mania" is a myth.

Instead, Egyptian politics are dominated by a sense of resignation -- a feeling, even among Sisi's backers, that there is simply nobody else. So though many Egyptians view Sisi as their last hope and fully intend to support him, they aren't particularly hopeful. They know that electing a president who is squarely in the cross-hairs of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brothers is an extremely risky gambit, and they are also leery of handing political power back to the military. But they view Sisi's presidency as far preferable to the total leadership vacuum that they fear would emerge without him.

Of course, the Sisi campaign is most mindful of the significant risk to the candidate's life. When I asked Sisi campaign manager Mahmoud Karem about the security concerns, he was blunt: "I'd advise him against traveling around the country," he said.

According to retired Gen. Sameh Seif Elyazal, who has been among Sisi's most outspoken supporters in the Egyptian media, at least "2 to 3 million" Egyptians actively "hate" the former defense minister. "Everybody knows that he is a target."

As a result, Sisi now sleeps in an undisclosed location. He will also send emissaries into the countryside to stump on his behalf, rather than making campaign appearances.

Whether Sisi can effectively govern Egypt without being able to leave the capital remains to be seen. But his confinement will not prevent him from winning the upcoming presidential election, which is scheduled for May 26 and 27. After all, Sisi's most critical support will come from the big clans and tribes that dominate Egyptian political and social life outside the major cities -- groups that can mobilize a critical mass of voters. Although these familial networks are often referred to as felool -- meaning "remnants" of the old regime, due to their support for former President Hosni Mubarak -- they are not primarily ideological. Their key aim is reinforcing their local power, and their main objection to the Brotherhood is that it sought to exclude them from politics under Article 232 of the Brotherhood's 2012 constitution, which banned members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) from entering politics for a decade.

"We spoke with our Islamist counterparts and said, 'If you find that I've been corrupt, take me to court,'" Atef Helal, a family leader in the Nile Delta governorate of Menoufiya, who served in parliament as an NDP member told me. "But saying that all [NDP members] were corrupt is wrong.... This was the Brotherhood's biggest mistake."

Helal said the Brotherhood's refusal to work with the big families added to Egypt's post-Mubarak instability. As he put it, "400,000 [Muslim Brothers] can't rule 90 million [Egyptians]."

And though he remains pessimistic about the future -- he says he won't run again for parliament anytime soon, because the country is still too unstable -- he views Sisi as the only person with a remote chance of restoring security.

"There are huge problems in the last three years, so progress declined and there was chaos," he said. "So you need someone from the military to rule the country. Normally, though, I would oppose this."

Cairo-based former leaders of Mubarak's ruling party voiced similarly reluctant support for Sisi. "We never wanted military leaders," a former NDP official told me. "But the two civilian forces are now in prison. The NDP is in a mental prison and the Brotherhood is in real prison, so the military is all we have."

To be sure, many Egyptians respect Sisi. They tout his ouster of Morsi in the wake of mass anti-Brotherhood protests and appreciate his calm, empathetic manner of speaking, which contrasts sharply with Morsi's often laborious bombast. "Sisi comes from a [military] intelligence background, so he has a global vision," Abdel Azim Farid, who chaired the local council in the Nile Delta village of Bagour for 17 years, told me. "I think his [presidential candidacy] announcement was very clear, and people will be happy to work with him."

But time and again, Sisi's supporters admit that they would have preferred a different candidate. "I wish he would stay as defense minister," Farid said, before adding, "It doesn't mean I'm not happy. I'm not against him."

The non-Islamist business community, which strongly supported Morsi's ouster in July, is equally lukewarm on Sisi. "The amount of cheer that he's received can blow up his mind," said one businessman, who feared that the former defense minister could become a new dictator. "And he's a military guy, so he thinks he knows better." 

Despite their misgivings, however, practically every non-Islamist businessman with whom I spoke vowed to contribute to Sisi's campaign. "I don't want him to think that I'm against him," one said. And besides, he worried, what if Sisi fails? "It will be the end of Egypt."

Indeed, the fear of what might come after Sisi permeates every discussion about Egypt's future. His close identification with the Egyptian Army means that Egyptians fear that a blow to one will be a blow to the other -- and this effectively paralyzes even those non-Muslim Brothers who are least enthusiastic about Sisi's presidential ambitions. "If we see demonstrations against Sisi, it will be a disaster," said one Alexandria-based leftist activist who campaigned for Morsi's ouster but now opposes the current regime's repressiveness. "People view Sisi as the military, and if they lose faith in Sisi they will lose faith in the Army, and it's our only institution."

A similarly uneasy leader of the Salafi al-Nour Party in the western Matrouh governorate warned that imprisoning thousands of Islamists has enabled the spread of violent radicalism within the prisons and is thus creating an even more explosive situation. Despite his misgivings, however, he saw no alternative to supporting Sisi. "[We] believe that the Egyptian Army is the only remaining Arab army and must be protected," he said. "Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen -- they've all been destroyed. We support the Army although it made some mistakes, to keep the Egyptian state."

The shallowness of Sisi's support may become even more apparent after he becomes president. Foremost among the challenges he will face will be a natural gas shortage, which is already leading to frequent power outages nationwide, since the fuel is used for generating 70 percent of Egypt's electricity. According to an official in Egypt's Ministry of Petroleum, the country's summer electricity needs amount to 125,000 cubic meters of gas per hour, but it can currently provide only 70,000, and the government's expensive plan to import liquefied natural gas will still leave it 20,000 cubic meters per hour short of what it needs. Some estimates predict that power outages will be extended from two to six hours per day, and the worst outages will hit in the summer, coinciding with Sisi's first months in office.

In all likelihood, these outages will not spark immediate mass protests against Sisi. Egyptians are largely exhausted from the rough-and-tumble of the past three years and are thus willing to give Sisi some leeway. Yet there are two big reasons Egyptian politics will likely remain fluid in the long term.

First, while practically every national leader faces death threats, the fact that hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brothers -- and perhaps a few million of their supporters -- want Sisi dead means that the threat of a game-changing assassination is real and constant, no matter how well Egypt's next president is guarded. Moreover, the kill-or-be-killed dynamic that has defined Egyptian politics since Morsi's ouster in July 2013 is constantly broadening: Pro-Brotherhood forces recently threatened Sisi campaign officials' lives by posting their personal information online.

Second, the threat to Sisi's life means that the autocratic politics that catalyzed uprisings against both Mubarak and Morsi are here to stay. Fearing that the Brotherhood might exploit political openings to return to power and seek vengeance, the current regime is already imposing strict limits on dissent that affect everyone. In recent months, it even arrested those working as oppositionists within the current transition process, detaining supporters of Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi and sentencing activists who campaigned against the recently passed constitution to three years in prison.

Indeed, on the eve of Egypt's second presidential election in two years, Egyptian politics are already disastrous -- and also a bigger disaster waiting to happen. Given the existential stakes for every political player, Washington's well-intentioned push for greater political inclusiveness has no shot of success right now. The current regime views efforts to encourage democracy as an underhanded conspiracy to hasten Sisi's demise. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters believe that Washington conspired to remove Morsi and thus view American human rights concerns as disingenuous.

For this reason, Washington won't get the progressive post-Arab Spring Egypt that it rightly wants. Even sadder, neither will Egyptians.

STR/AFP/Getty Images