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Impunity should not be allowed to continue in South Sudan’s Unity region, says Shearer after visit

Impunity should not be allowed to continue in South Sudan’s Unity region, says Shearer after visit

Joyful songs and dancing greet the arrival of the head of the UN Mission in South Sudan to Ganyiel, located in the north of the country.

That warm hospitality, however, inadvertently masks the reality on the ground.

Some 300 metres away from the singing and dancing, 11-year-old Ruach Matjang Kuol lies writhing in pain, at a makeshift medical centre.  

He looks stoic, but can hardly speak, so his mother, Rhoda Nyawika, volunteers to tell his sorrowful tale.

“We were just hiding under a tree as fighting took place in Rubkway payam (district), in Mayandit County,” she says. “And a [bullet] just came and [hit] the boy. We don’t know where the [bullet] came from. And people from government came and chased us out of our homes. We don’t know why,” she adds, concluding the short story of how Ruach came to find himself confined to a hospital bed.

Shot at the end of May this year, he’s one of the civilians who have borne the brunt of a brutal war that has been going on since December 2013.

At the makeshift medical centre, more than 40 other victims like Ruach are being treated for bullet wounds.

The head of the UN Mission has come to see them, as a part of his visit to assess the impact of ongoing fighting on civilians. Ruach’s name and story is what first comes to his mind when asked to describe what he saw at the medical facility.

“A young 11-year-old boy, his name is Ruach, who had been shot through the abdomen. He’s 11 years old… I saw other children there who had also been shot; a young girl who had lost part of her arm…”

Run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the makeshift medical centre in the opposition-controlled area, is the only source of hope for the victims – 90% of them civilians.

That staggering figure is given by Benny Bosan, the centre’s Head Nurse.

“We receive most of the patients with gunshot wounds. Most of our patients are civilians, but we also receive some iO [SPLA in Opposition soldiers],” he says.

A short helicopter flight away, in Leer, Ghanaian peacekeepers guard a temporary protection area, providing sanctuary to some 2000 fleeing civilians.

Mr. Shearer was here just over a month ago, to see first-hand the impact of the fighting on civilians. Today, he is back to see what has changed since he ordered a reinforcement of UN patrols in the area to better protect civilians under threat and deter more fighting. At the temporary protection area, he endures a heavy downpour to listen to harrowing tales of the displaced civilians

 “The situation is still bad,” he says, later. “There’s still ongoing fighting, although that seems to have reduced a bit. The numbers of people that are coming to our base for refuge had gone up, but I understand now that a few hundred have just left, so we have about two thousand people taking refuge with us,” he says, quickly adding: “But the most appalling thing that I am hearing are the stories from people; what’s happened to them; how they were targeted by soldiers.”

Because of these stories, the head of the UN Mission has made it a point to meet with area leaders in the Unity region, from the government and the opposition parties to the conflict: Deputy Governor Joseph Nhial in Ganyiel; Governor John Matip Galok in Leer, Southern Liech; and Governor Them Machar of Ruweng. At every meeting, he has been delivering the same, strong message:

“I told them that targeting of civilians is completely unacceptable,” he says, unequivocally.

“It’s one thing to fight against each other for political or strategic military advantage, he goes on. “It’s quite another thing to go into a village and shoot women and children, and burn their houses down. That’s completely unacceptable, under international law of any description,” says, invoking the international law: “And our feeling is very much that we need to find those responsible, to make sure that impunity does not continue to reign in that area.”

According to the head of the UN Mission, the conflict in South Sudan has become more complex than when it broke out in December 2013. Ceasefire agreements, including one signed just over 5 months ago, have been violated numerous times by parties to the conflict.

As civilians like Ruach wait in pain, the head of the UN Mission in South Sudan multitasks between protecting civilians as the mandate of his Mission demands, and reaching out to local leaders to both remind them of their obligations under international law, and stress the urgent need for a political solution to the conflict.