NAIROBI: The townsfolk believed the mosque was safe. They crammed inside as rebel forces in South Sudan took control of the town from government troops. But it wasn’t safe. Robbers grabbed their cash and mobile phones. Then gunmen came and opened fire on everyone, young and old. The U.N. says that 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 U.N. aid official in South Sudan. Many were in the mosque. Others were in the hospital. Still more littered the streets. The violence appears to have been incited in part by calls on the radio for revenge attacks, including rapes.
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 Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday that the April 15-16 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 U.N. 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 a liter 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 would die inside the U.N. base in the coming days because of the water and sanitation situation.
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 U.N. hasn’t spelled out clearly who exactly the victims were, but it is likely that ethnic Dinkas were among the dead. If you were not Nuer, then nothing could save you. And even Nuers who refused to take part in the attacks were killed, according to the U.N., as were former residents of Sudan’s Darfur region.
The gunmen killed wantonly, including children and the elderly, Lanzer said.
The White House described the violence as an “abomination.”
“We are horrified by reports out of South Sudan that fighters aligned with rebel leader Riek Machar massacred hundreds of innocent civilians last week in Bentiu,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“These acts of violence are an abomination. They are a betrayal of the trust the South Sudanese people have put in their leaders,” he said.
“Images and accounts of the attacks shock the conscience: stacks of bodies found dead inside a mosque, patients murdered at a hospital, and dozens more shot and killed in the streets and at a church – apparently due to their ethnicity and nationality – while hate speech was broadcast on local radio,” Carney added.
According to John Prendergast, co-founder of the anti-genocide Enough Project, only a “high profile initiative of the international community” including the United States – which was instrumental in helping South Sudan separate from Khartoum – stands any chance of preventing a protracted conflict and more atrocities.
“If it’s a low-key, under-the-radar begging operation, these parties are just going to laugh at it,” he said.
“If you have a very serious, high level engagement that has senior representation in key countries with some level of past and present influence, that brings to bear that kind of pressure, then you’ve got a chance,” said Prendergast, a former Africa director for the National Security Council during Bill Clinton’s presidency.