'Piles and piles' of bodies in S Sudan slaughter
23 April 2014, 11:10
Nairobi - The UN says hundreds of civilians were killed in
the massacre last week in Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan's oil-producing
Unity state, a tragic reflection of long-standing ethnic hostilities in the
world's newest country.
"Piles and piles" of bodies were left behind after
the shootings, said Toby Lanzer, the top UN aid official in South Sudan.
The violence appears
to have been incited in part by calls on the radio for revenge attacks,
The attack, which targeted members of certain ethnic groups,
was a disturbing echo of what happened two decades ago in another country in
eastern Africa. Rwanda is marking the 20th anniversary this month of a genocide
that killed an estimated 1 million people and also saw orders to kill broadcast
over the radio.
Thousands of people have been killed in violence in South
Sudan since December, when presidential guards splintered and fought along
ethnic lines. The violence later spread across the country as soldiers loyal to
President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, tried to put down a rebellion led by
Riek Machar, the former vice president and an ethnic Nuer.
But Lanzer told The AP in a phone interview on Tuesday that
the 15-16 April mass killings, carried out by Nuers, are "quite possibly a
game-changer" in the conflict.
"It's the first time we're aware of that a local radio
station was broadcasting hate messages encouraging people to engage in
atrocities," said Lanzer, who was in Bentiu on Sunday and Monday.
"And that really accelerates South Sudan's descent into an even more
difficult situation from which it needs to extract itself."
Lanzer said thousands of civilians from several ethnic
groups are streaming to the UN peacekeeping base in Bentiu because many believe
more violence is coming.
The base now holds 22
000 people - up from 4 500 at the start of April - but can supply only one litre
of water per person per day. Some 350 people must share one toilet.
"The risk of a public health crisis inside our base is
enormous," he said.
Raphael Gorgeu, the head of Doctors Without Borders in South
Sudan, said people will die inside the UN base in the coming days because of
the water and sanitation situation.
Children, elderly killed
As rebel forces entered Bentiu last week, residents were led
to believe that by entering the mosque they would be safe, Lanzer said, citing
accounts from survivors. But once inside they were robbed of money and mobile
phones and a short while later gunmen began killing, both inside the mosque and
inside the city hospital.
The UN hasn't spelled out clearly who exactly the victims
were, but it is likely that ethnic Dinkas were among the dead. Nuers who refused to take part in the attacks
were killed, according to the UN, as were former residents of the Darfur region
The gunmen killed wantonly, including children and the
elderly, Lanzer said.
UN officials began helping to clear the bodies from the
streets and city buildings after the bloodshed. Lanzer arrived in Bentiu on the
third day of that operation but still counted 150 bodies. He said the UN is
documenting the killings and will soon have "a pretty good grasp" on
the precise number killed.
At UN headquarters in New York, spokesman Stephane Dujarric
said on Tuesday that many bodies remain by the side of the main road between
Bentiu and Rubkona, another town in Unity state, and that the Rubkona market
continues to be looted.
Gorgeu said his team members in Bentiu - including 12
international staff - have treated more than 200 people wounded in the
violence, including many gunshot victims.
UN base attacked
British Ambassador Ian Hughes said on Tuesday that the killings
are a clear violation of international law. He said those behind the atrocities
and those inciting them will be held to account.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in a statement late
on Tuesday called the violence "an abomination" and said the perpetrators
on both sides must be brought to justice.
"They are a betrayal of the trust the South Sudanese
people have put in their leaders," the statement reads. "This is
exactly the violence and suffering the South Sudanese people fought for decades
The violence is only one part of a dual crisis in South
Sudan, a landlocked country that gained its independence from Sudan in 2011.
Because of the fighting, more than 1 million people have fled their homes, and
few residents are tending crops. Lanzer cited a severe risk of famine in the
The UN has been warning of mounting evidence of ethnically
targeted killings as both government troops and rebel forces lose and gain
territories in back-and-forth clashes. A cease-fire signed earlier this year
has done little to quell violence.
Though thousands of people are cramming into the UN base in
Bentiu, they may not even be safe there. Dujarric said four rockets were fired
at the base on Thursday, including two that exploded within the compound and
one just outside, wounding two people who had sought refuge.
When asked how the UN could protect the 22 000 people at the
base in Bentiu, given what happened in Bor, Dujarric said there are 500 UN
peacekeepers in Bentiu.
He reminded South Sudan's government that it has a
responsibility to protect civilians and that all armed groups have a
responsibility to avoid civilian casualties.