A UN peacekeeper stands guard as children walk by in South Sudan. Picture: REUTERS
A UN peacekeeper stands guard as children walk by in South Sudan. Picture: REUTERS

South Sudan is teetering on the brink of genocide. Government soldiers and rebel militia have gone on the rampage, killing civilians, raping women and torching villages. In an echo of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, civilians in South Sudan are being targeted based on their ethnicity.

On the one side are largely Dinka government soldiers and their allied militia loyal to President Salva Kiir. On the other are the largely Nuer rebel forces of opposition leader Riek Machar, who has sought refuge in SA.

In November 2016, the UN’s special adviser on genocide, Adama Dieng, visited the town of Yei, 150km southwest of the capital, Juba. He concluded that immediate action was needed to prevent ethnic-based attacks from evolving into genocide. Nothing much has changed since then if the recent harrowing accounts of refugees are anything to go by.

Every day, at least 2,000 cross South Sudan’s southern border into Uganda in what has become the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.

Since civil war broke out in December 2013, 1.8-million people, 1-million of them children, have fled to six neighbouring countries.

In 2016, Uganda alone took in almost half-a-million refugees, which is more than the total number of refugees who crossed the Mediterranean to Europe that year. The number of refugees in Uganda is expected to exceed 1-million soon.

This is the world’s third-largest humanitarian crisis after Syria and Afghanistan but the world has yet to express the same level of outrage at the horrors that South Sudan’s civil war is inflicting on the civilian population — and the enormous strain the influx is putting on its neighbours.

Atrocities committed by rebels against civilians are widely documented. Children who run are hacked to death. Villagers flee into the bush with just the clothes on their backs, often returning to find their homesteads burned to the ground. Leaving everything behind, they embark on the long and hazardous walk to the border through the bush to avoid patrols, some for as long as nine days.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, SA’s special envoy to South Sudan, needs to be bold and consequent

Some refugees recount being attacked, molested or raped. Those who make it in one piece are severely traumatised and in dire need of counselling or medical care.

Aid agencies are already warning that their emergency response is woefully inadequate and underfunded to cope with what one Ugandan official described as a "refugee tsunami".

The UN’s refugee agency warns that $1.4bn more is needed in 2017 to provide "life-saving aid".

It is time for SA to step into the breach. This country should step up to the plate with emergency aid contributions, peacekeeping efforts and military force if need be.

SA has shown itself capable of playing an important military and peacekeeping role in bringing an end to the M23 rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo under the auspices of a UN brigade authorised to use pre-emptive force.

There is no reason why the same approach should not be used in South Sudan.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, SA’s special envoy to South Sudan, needs to be bold and consequent.

The only solution to this crisis is a combination of strong diplomatic pressure exerted on both sides of the conflict to arrive at a workable peace agreement, enforced by military might if necessary.

No amount of hand wringing and polite recommendations by African leaders and the UN will bring the two warring parties back to the table.

We need to wake up and heed the call to action before it is too late; before the world says we have the blood of another genocide on our hands, one that could have been prevented.

 

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