BENTIU, South Sudan — The tall, blade-like grass sawed into her arms and legs. Snakes slithered underfoot. But Elizabeth didn’t fear the dangers lurking in the vast swamps of the Nile River basin, where she and thousands of other South Sudanese regularly sought refuge during the country’s three-year civil war, just the men who drove her there.
“That thing that is chasing you, the enemy, is more powerful and can kill you faster,” she recalled recently from the relative safety of a U.N. base. “Snakes in the river can only bite. But bullets can actually kill you.”
South Sudan’s civil war has played out largely along ethnic lines, pitting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, against supporters of vice president turned rebel leader Riek Machar, a Nuer. An internationally mediated peace agreement that restored Machar to the vice presidency was supposed to have ended the bloodshed last year. But the deal fell apart amid renewed fighting in July, and the violence has since spread to new parts of the country. Now, the U.N. is warning of an impending genocide, even as the Security Council failed once again last month to impose an arms embargo on the warring parties.
With the resumption of fighting, Machar fled into exile in South Africa. Kiir seized the opportunity to replace him with Taban Deng, a onetime ally of Machar’s who is now widely seen as a traitor by the rebels. Greeted with a collective shrug from the United States and other Western powers, the move amounted to an internationally sanctioned palace coup, and all but guaranteed the escalation of a war that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced more than 3 million people from their homes.
“It’s actually going to fracture the conflict even more because you’ve removed any possibility of the opposition being in negotiations,” said Joshua Craze, a researcher focusing on South Sudan at the Small Arms Survey. “The government is effectively negotiating with itself.”
Meanwhile, analysts say, it is doubling down on a brutal counterinsurgency: With no legitimate opposition to negotiate with, the government is allowing its troops to rape and pillage through opposition strongholds, killing rebels and civilians alike.
After a brief lull in the fighting that coincided with the short-lived unity government, Elizabeth said, the “enemy” came back.
“We call them Dinka,” said Elizabeth, who is Nuer, underscoring the ethnic nature of the conflict. “I’ve seen children killed, women killed, men killed in my presence. You know that the next thing after these people might be you.”
For the last three years, Elizabeth ran and hid in the swamps whenever she heard gunfire, which was often. But when government soldiers swept into town one day in August, she didn’t manage to flee in time. She was captured and forced to carry looted property to the soldiers’ base.
“I was scared,” she said, gesturing to her back, shoulders, and arms, where she said the men beat her with sticks and a belt. “They came to kill.”
Soldiers “burn down the houses and take your food,” she said, echoing accounts of other displaced people interviewed by Foreign Policy. “They take women to carry stuff to their base. … They rape you there and your child is alone.”
Elizabeth only escaped this fate by pleading with a commander to let her return to her newborn baby, who the soldiers had forced her to leave behind. The three other women she was taken with weren’t so lucky, she said.
In early December, Elizabeth decided to seek refuge on the U.N. base here in Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan’s northeastern Unity state. She wasn’t alone. As violence flared in November, the base recorded a 19 percent increase in new arrivals. It now hosts over 120,000 displaced people, more than at any other point in the war. And that number is expected to climb as security continues to deteriorate in Unity.
The majority-Nuer state has been the theater for some of South Sudan’s worst atrocities, but Deng’s appointment as vice president has added a troubling new wrinkle to the conflict. Though it is often framed as a fight between Dinka and Nuer, South Sudan’s civil war is vastly more convoluted: Alliances are constantly shifting, forces forever splintering. The breakdown of the peace deal and Machar’s subsequent exit have only accelerated these centripetal forces.
“Since Taban Deng, you have a real fracturing of the forces in Unity,” Craze explained, mainly because Deng’s supporters are now fighting against their former rebel brethren on behalf of the government. (Deng may be the official face of the opposition, but his forces are engaged in a bloody internecine battle with Machar’s followers.)
Things have grown so chaotic that many of the civilians fleeing to the U.N. base aren’t sure who is doing the killing anymore.
“All we know is that they come, attack the town, and push us away,” said Rhoda, a 30-year-old mother of seven, as she stroked the cheek of her youngest child.
Rhoda had recently fled her home in Leer, a symbolic—if not strategic—flashpoint in the war owing to its status as Machar’s hometown, to a nearby island in the swamps for safety. But the fighting there was constant; random gunfire routinely sprayed the island.
“The people who came to attack Leer were not sparing civilians. They have killed people,” she said, adding that the fighters had looted their property and cows.
Nyataba, a young mother of two whose feet were still swollen after a four-day walk from outside Leer, said fighting in the region had escalated since November.
“I saw women and children, they got put into a house and burned. It was very bad,” she choked, starting to cry. “Remembering what you saw is really terrible. I can’t talk anymore.”
But while the situation in Unity has deteriorated markedly in recent months, international attention has shifted to a different part of the country: the Equatorias, considered South Sudan’s breadbasket. The region is home to Juba, the capital, and until recently was spared the bitter fighting seen in the northeast of the country.
But the region was drawn into the war after the July clashes in Juba, when Machar fled with some of his fighters through the Equatorias and government forces pursued them. Even before then, several Equatorian militias had aligned with Machar’s faction. Now Kiir is reportedly preparing to mount a new offensive against them, raising fears of fresh atrocities once the rains cease and military units are no longer bogged down in the mud.
Already, ethnic cleansing appears to be underway, with a U.N. commission on human rights reporting on massacres, gang rapes, and the destruction of whole villages. A recent Associated Press investigation found evidence that people had been rounded up and burned alive in the Equatorian town of Yei.
“If we fail to act, South Sudan will be on a trajectory towards mass atrocities,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned before the vote to impose an arms embargo, which ultimately came up short in the face of abstentions from key Security Council members, including Russia and Japan.
Failure to impose the embargo or to challenge Deng’s appointment as vice president means that the South Sudanese government has effectively been given “carte blanche” to go “through the country killing and raping the opposition,” Craze said. “The opposition is fractured, and the government now increasingly has won the political battle so it feels less need to restrain itself in any way from fighting.”
That’s a chilling prospect for an already traumatized population.
Njaliett, a wide-eyed and skeletal single mother, arrived recently in Bentiu with nothing but a cloth to cover her 5-month-old baby.
She’d survived previous attacks and mounting hunger, collecting water lilies from the swamps to feed her child. But one morning a few weeks ago she was sitting at home when gunfire broke out. Njaliett hid in the swamps with the baby until the soldiers retreated. When she emerged, her house was gone.
“They burned our house,” she sputtered. “There is not any house still there.”
The next day she set out for the Bentiu, praying not to encounter fighting on the way. It took her six days on foot to reach the U.N. base. More than angry or sad, she says she is confused by the conflict.
“If it is a war between the government and [the rebels], why are they killing civilians?” she asked. “We were thinking it was between the government and [the rebels]. But they kill us. We are confused. Why do they kill?”