UN’s Wau base strained as violence spreads

A UN peacekeeper stands guard around a refugee camp site adjacent to the UNMISS base in Wau town (Credit: IOM/Muse Mohammed 2016)

United Nations peacekeepers in South Sudan’s Wau town are hoping to prevent a crisis of permanent dependence by sending home 41,000 war-displaced ahead of the April-May harvest.

The newly arrived head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), David Shearer, like other mission chiefs before him, has adopted a wait-and-hope approach to the refuge-seekers, uncertain what to do them as more and more arrivals strain UN logistical capacities in and around the UN protection sites in Wau, Bentiu, Bor, Malakal and Juba.

“The internally displaced people in Wau urgently need to return to their land ahead of the planting season in April and May,” said Shearer on Wednesday during his first field trip outside the capital, Juba, in the town of Wau. “If they do not there will be no harvest and they will be further dependent on aid.”

But if the residents don’t want to go then under UN rules they don’t have to. And security conditions in some outlying areas of Wau are getting worse, not better, threatening to send more refugees into town.

The UN mission says that some 41,000 people are sheltering in Wau “due to insecurity.” This is a euphemism for civil war: rebels seeking to topple Salva Kiir’s government and dissatisfied with re-drawings of state and local boundaries have been battling SPLA forces for over a year.

Fighting under the umbrella of the SPLA-IO, the country’s largest rebel group, the rebels around Wau control significant territory especially among the Fertit tribes to the south and west of Wau. Now tensions between government-backed Dinka pastoralists and Jur tribesmen to the north are threatening to push the latter into rebellion as well.

A lawmaker representing Jur River County told the local Radio Tamazuj that at least 20 civilians were killed in attacks in the area involving Dinka from neighboring Warrap State since last week.

The significant of this new conflict lies in part in the closeness of the Jur people to the Dinka, culturally and politically – a bond that had thus far kept their area largely at peace. Wau’s governor hails from the Jur and the Jur-Dinka relationship is critical to maintenance of government control in the territory.

wau-poc-aug-01-22-2-mrAnother brutal incident in Wau has highlighted the deep suspicion still rife in and around the city. A ceasefire monitor, attached to the international monitoring mission in Wau as a liaison officer by the pro-government SPLA-IO faction, was killed by unknown perpetrators. Either side had motive for the killing – SPLA extremists may have seen him as an enemy because of his tribe, even though he belonged to an allied faction, while rebels or sympathizers of the other SPLA-IO faction may have seen him as a traitor. The victim identified as Lieutenant Colonel Al Fadil Meil Issa was found beheaded.

Shearer, the UN mission chief, says that he is “committed to helping the South Sudanese create the conditions of peace and security,” in order that internally displaced people can feel confident about returning home. The question is: how?

Memories of atrocities are still fresh in the minds of the refuge-seekers. 48-year old Hajat Karama fled her home in the village of Busari in June last year. “There was fighting between government soldiers and the opposition and many people were killed including children,” she says.