A wave of fighting on the 24th of June in the South Sudanese city of Wau has resulted in the death of at least 43 people and the displacement of a further 120,000. Several sources report that the violence occurred when members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army accompanied by youth from the Dinka ethnic group attacked villages inhabited predominantly by the ethnic Fertit.
It is believed that 39 of the dead were civilian casualties and the other four police, Makuei Lueth, a South Sudanese government spokesperson said in a statement. Although, Al Jazeera speculated over the absence of an independent casualty count, amidst reports that southern parts of the city are inaccessible to aid workers, suggesting that the actual death toll could be “much higher than the government estimate”.
The UN Office of the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) estimated the number of internally displaced people in Wau to have reached around 50,000 immediately following the attacks. Whilst the South Sudan Red Cross (SSRC) expect that in excess of 70,000 people have been displaced from areas around the city. Layal Horanieh for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Juba said that the SSRC provided rations for 5,200 people in the first 48 hours following the violence, and that food rations have since been distributed to more than 73,000 people in areas surrounding Wau. Al Jazeera reported renewed hostilities on the 7th of July, estimating that the number of displaced has now increased to around 150,000.
In response to the escalation of violence, the UN introduced 150 peacekeepers and added 50 personnel to formed police forces, with the number of UN troops in Wau now exceeding 1,000. According to the OCHA, amongst the displaced more than 12,000 people have sought refuge near the local UNMISS base, although, there are concerns that the site is not equipped to repel an attack.
“Regrettably two people were killed on Saturday [June 25th] close to the perimeter around the site […] it is not clear whether they were killed by stray bullets, or whether it was a deliberate attempt to prevent them from reaching the camp”, Shantal Persaud for the UNMISS reported.
The UN was criticized earlier this year for failing to prevent an attack on the Protection of Civillians (POC) site in Malakal, in which 19 were killed and over 100 wounded. With regards to the current situation in Wau, however, the UN Security Council affirmed in a statement that the South Sudanese Transitional Government of National Unity is responsible for the protection of civilians, asserting that “attacks on civilians may constitute war crimes and those involved could potentially be subject to sanctions.”
Tribal conflicts between different ethnic groups are not uncommon in South Sudan, and predate the nations independence from Sudan in 2011. Such violence typically occurs over scarce resources, but is often amplified by the prevalence of other significant wars and militant groups in the same region.
Thousands of Dinka, who are South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, are said to have recently migrated to Wau, which is comprised of majority Fertit. Locals perceive the increased Dinka presence as a government-backed initiative to increase Dinka control over land and local resources, reports The Guardian.
Lueth reported for the South Sudanese government that national forces battled fighters loyal to militia leader Ali Tamin Fatan, who is allegedly trying to establish an Islamist State in South Sudan. He added that Fatan’s force included members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who gained widespread notoriety in 2012 when a social media campaign sought to bring their leader Joseph Kony to justice.
“The official narrative is that ‘rebels’ are causing instability a researcher based in South Sudan, who asked to remain anonymous told The Guardian, “but the reality is that local men have been targeted by the SPLA as potential dissidents and are forced to go into the bush.”
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