South Sudan's Coming Famine

Renewed fighting in the war-torn country has derailed humanitarian relief efforts, and now tens of thousands are facing starvation.

JUBA, South Sudan — Shots rang out at daybreak on Friday in Bentiu, the capital of the oil-producing Unity state, and continued for much of the morning. At least one artillery shell exploded close to the U.N. base, where some 40,000 people have taken refuge, many of them knee deep in water from rainy-season floods and forced to sleep standing up. Government forces also clashed with rebels in the Ayod region Jonglei state, southeast of Bentiu, where a military spokesman for the government said that 120 rebels were killed.

This fresh round of fighting, which erupted over the weekend between government forces and rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, further erodes the prospects for peace in the world's newest nation and imperils critical humanitarian efforts aimed at keeping a potential famine at bay.

Both sides blame the other for the resumption of hostilities, with rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang claiming it was a "long-awaited government offensive" and Joseph Marier Samuel, a spokesman for the South Sudanese military, saying that the government has "maintained a defensive military position."

South Sudan has been mired in civil war since December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused Machar of attempting to mount a coup, touching off a round of ethnic killings in the capital and igniting a domestic rebellion. Since then, more than 10,000 people have been killed and another 1.5 million have been displaced.The United Nations has called the resulting humanitarian crisis "the worst in the world," while aid agencies warn that more than 1 million people are in need of emergency food aid.

The origins of the food-security crisis are layered. War disrupted the planting season, not just where there was active fighting, but across the northern half of the country as farmers fled their fields in anticipation of violence. But systematic underinvestment by the South Sudanese government, which has battled numerous corruption scandals since it became independent in 2011, is also part of the equation: Roughly 90 percent of South Sudanese territory is suitable for agriculture, but only about four percent of it was being cultivated, even before the current crisis. This combination of greed, violence, and lack of capacity has proven deadly.

"This is as bad as I've ever seen it," Toby Lanzer, the top U.N. aid official in South Sudan said in an interview from Juba. "By the end of the year, we're facing a situation where one out of every two people in South Sudan are either going to have a real threat to their lives because of hunger or they will have been displaced from their homes ... or they will have fled from the country."

The outbreak of fighting makes delivering desperately needed food aid and other humanitarian assistance that much more difficult. During the rainy season, which typically runs from April to November, it is virtually impossible to reach most of the country by road, and boat travel along the Nile River has all but ceased because of the violence. In Bentiu, where control has changed hands several times since the fighting broke out, the roughly 40,000 people holed up in the U.N. base must rely on humanitarian airlifts to survive.

For the last two days, those flights have been cancelled because of the fighting.

"If we can't get flights in in the next couple of days, we risk running out of essentials, including therapeutic food used to treat severe acute malnutrition," said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF's representative in South Sudan.

Such complications couldn't come at a more inopportune time. According to a recent report by Doctors Without Borders, at least three children under the age of five are dying every day from malnutrition in the U.N. camp in Bentiu.

Experts have yet to formally declare a famine -- a step that requires rigorous analysis of food supply, malnutrition, and mortality rates and can take months to complete -- but the United Nations has classified South Sudan a "level-3 emergency," a designation it shares with only three other countries: Syria, Iraq, and the Central African Republic. But aid agencies, like UNICEF, caution against relying too heavily on formal declarations or quantitative analysis. Waiting for a famine declaration before taking action, they warn, could be catastrophic. "By the time the famine was declared in Somalia in 2011," said Veitch, "Half of the people that would die in the famine were already dead."

Renewed hostilities come less than a week after government and rebel negotiators missed a key deadline, agreed to by both parties, to stop fighting and form a transitional government. The failure to reach an agreement prompted sharp criticism from human rights advocates and regional governments alike. The United States, arguably South Sudan's most important ally, was uncharacteristically blunt: "Deadlines keep passing and innocent people keep dying," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "This is an outrage and an insult to the people of South Sudan."

A recent U.N. Security Council visit to South Sudan led by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, threatened to impose sanctions on both sides if the violence continues. The United States and European Union have already sanctioned military leaders on either side.

While the peace talks drag on in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia -- the first four rounds of peace talks reportedly cost $17 million -- the humanitarian disaster continues to deepen in South Sudan. By the end of the year, 50,000 children could die from severe acute malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.

"The needs are unmet. Healthcare is virtually absent. I really don't know how people live and survive on a day-to-day basis," said Mukesh Kapila, former high-ranking British U.N. official who was among the first to raise the alarm about the genocide in Darfur.

In Bentiu, a plan to drain the flooded camp inside the U.N. base has been held up because of the inability to transport machinery and water engineers from Holland. Aid workers had intended to dig a roughly two-mile drainage ditch to allow the water to flow into nearby lowlands, but after two weeks of work with only two backhoes, the project remains unfinished.*

"The place is completely flooded and people are suffering," said Veitch of UNICEF. "As long as we are prevented from landing, 40,000 people are under threat."

This reporting was made possible in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. James Sprankle contributed reporting.

*Correction, August 24, 2014: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of backhoes working to drain the camp in Bentiu. There were two, not one, and considerable progress has been made, although the ditch has not yet been finished. 



'A Reckoning Hasn't Happened'

A new tribunal might prosecute some of Kosovo’s top leaders for gruesome crimes allegedly committed in the late 1990s, including organ trafficking and murder. But could it actually deliver justice?

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Without answers, Milorad Trifunovic fears the worst.

Tifunovic says his brother, Miroslav, a fellow Kosovar Serb, was abducted in July 1998 near Kosovo's capital by an ethnic Albanian guerilla army and has been gone ever since. Miroslav is one of the 1,700 people still missing from the 1998-1999 war fought between Kosovo and Serbia, in which 10,000 people were killed. Since allegations first surfaced in 2008, just after Kosovo declared independence from Belgrade's authority, that some ethnic Serbs were interned in northern Albanian prisons soon after the war and had their organs harvested and sold on the black market, Trifunovic has feared that his brother met death that way.

"All of us who have lost someone, we all have the right to fear that our relatives were subjected to that fate," he says.

Now the head of an advocacy group for Serb families of missing persons, Trifunovic hopes that he and other relatives will finally find out what happened to their loved ones.

Accusations that officials in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) were responsible for post-war revenge killings and persecution have dogged Kosovo since 1999, when military leaders began transitioning into civilian government positions, and they have clouded Kosovo's quest for international legitimacy ever since. In 2010, Swiss politician Dick Marty, working for the Council of Europe, reported that he had found evidence senior members of the KLA had committed war crimes and murders, and abused ethnic Serbs, Roma, and even ethnic Albanian political opponents in the months after the war's official end. Some of them, he found, may also have trafficked organs.

Now the European Union is working to set up tribunal dedicated to addressing these findings and, when appropriate, bringing people to trial: On July 29, Clint Williamson, an American prosecutor leading an EU investigative team, published a report that largely squared with Marty's findings and that said the team "will be in a position to file an indictment against certain senior officials in the Kosovo Liberation Army" -- some of whom are still active, even powerful in Kosovo's government today. The indictment would be brought in a new court, likely based in The Hague, that would open in 2015 expressly for the purpose of dealing with KLA cases. (Kosovo's legislative assembly approved the tribunal in April, but it still needs to pass legislation harmonizing its structure and mandate with the country's constitution.)

The prospect of the tribunal has aggravated sensitivities about yet another international body meddling in Kosovo's affairs, reviving old resentments, and dragging claims of savagery onto the world stage. Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, who was mentioned in the 2010 Marty report as "one of the most dangerous of KLA's criminal bosses," has called the court "the biggest injustice and insult which could be done to Kosovo and its people." Many ordinary Albanians, whose population sustained the large majority of casualties in the war under the iron fist of Slobodan Milosevic's regime, also feel aggrieved that the court would only try those associated with one side of the war.

Others, by contrast, see it as a chance to address past wrongs long left in the shadows. For Trifunovic and other Serbs, who now comprise less than ten percent of Kosovo's population, the court is working to right an historic judicial imbalance. "There are victims on both sides, Serbs and Albanians, but... Serbs did much more to punish their citizens," says Aleksandar Jablanovic, leader of Kosovo's main Serb political party. "Serbia has surrendered presidents, ministers, and generals to the Hague, and on the Albanian side, such a reckoning hasn't happened." The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has sentenced 60 Serbs to almost 1,000 years in prison, plus five life sentences, for crimes committed in the 1990s Balkans wars. Of six indicted Albanians, only one received a conviction, with a sentence of 13 years. (Kosovo did send a prime minister to The Hague: Ramush Haradinaj, who was acquitted and will likely be the country's next prime minister.)

As for the most salacious -- and infamous -- allegations in question, many Kosovo Albanians hope that the tribunal would put an end to the speculation for good. "Maybe history once and for all will prove that organ trafficking has never taken place," says Nora Ahmetaj, founder of the Prishtina-based Center for Research, Documentation, and Publication, an NGO that advocates for regional reconciliation and objective interpretation of the past.

"I really think this organ trafficking thing is a bit unrealistic," echoes Yll Rugova, 29, a political activist.

Yet for Rugova and the 70 percent of Kosovo's population that is under the age of 30, discussions about the tribunal are also prompting more critical evaluations of events that happened while they were young. Typically, history has been presented to them in a simplified victim-perpetrator narrative. "I do think that some people from the KLA did commit crimes. There probably were some people who did kill unarmed civilians, during and after the war," Rugova says. "We need to do this," he says of the court.


An indictment in the new court would likely have a serious impact on Kosovo's international credibility. "To a great extent these allegations damaged the image of Kosovars and the KLA, and those who really fought for an idea," says Ahmetaj. "For them, the entire idea of liberation is completely diminished." It also could be damning for Western countries that have enthusiastically supported Kosovo's post-war leaders (even though some of those same countries are helping sponsor and pay for the court).

Yet the planned tribunal, which has a three-year budget of 300 million euros ($400 million), is just the latest in expensive international judicial solutions in post-war Kosovo -- and some people are questioning whether it can avoid the pitfalls of those that came before it.

After the war ended, the U.N. Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) ran the judicial system until Kosovo declared independence in 2008. Then, the European Union deployed EULEX, an ambitious, unprecedented rule of law mission, tasked with trying war crimes, organized crime, and corruption cases as well as mentoring local authorities. EULEX has handed down approximately 350 verdicts for high-profile war crimes, torture, corruption, and organized crime cases -- but it is often criticized for bureaucratic inefficiency, inadequate witness protection, high human resources turnover, and failures in sentencing "big fish."

The tribunal, which would technically fall under EULEX's mandate, would function under Kosovo law, but much of the proceedings would likely be exported to the Netherlands due to witness-protection concerns. Physical separation from Kosovo, however, may not be a surefire way to prevent witness obstruction: A former KLA commander who was to provide key testimony in a EULEX trial against another KLA leader, Fatmir Limaj -- who served as a Kosovo government minister -- was found hanged in 2011 in Germany. It looked like a suicide, but his family said it was not. At the time, the former commander was under EULEX witness protection.

Limaj, a prominent politician, had previously been acquitted of war crimes against Serbs and Albanians before the ICTY. The judges said in their ruling that a "context of fear, in particular with respect to witnesses living in Kosovo, was very perceptible throughout the trial."

Andrea Capussela, a long-time policymaker in Kosovo's International Civilian Office (which oversaw the country's governance from 2008-2012), also worries about political influences on the new court. "The 15-year track record of internationally administered justice... is not great," he says, raising concerns about potential interference from the tribunal's sponsors. "What if they say, ‘We cannot de-stabilize Kosovo by sending [top officials] to jail?' Then you have an international acquittal, and the worst of both worlds for someone who is interested in the democratic development of the country."

Then, there is the matter of what happens after Williamson's planned indictment, which is intended only for a handful of top KLA members. There is a backlog of more than 800 war crimes cases in Kosovo, and a renegotiation of EULEX's mandate in June handed authority over to local prosecutors, who have led fewer than ten war crimes prosecutions since 1999.

Despite the lack of local capacity, Ahmetaj is among many Kosovars who would prefer that the country try the crimes themselves, without international assistance, as a state-building and accountability exercise. "I see this as a short cut, an injection, an external push for the process of dealing with the past," Ahmetaj says of the new court. "Maybe the conditions are not met in Kosovo, but the more grassroots, bottom-up the process is, the better for our country."