South Sudan Returns to Civil War

South Sudan turned five years old on Saturday. But the gunfire in the capitol, Juba, was anything but celebratory. Hundreds of people were killed this weekend in fighting that seemed to pierce any hopes that a fragile peace agreement could prevent the re-emergence of civil war.

The fighting is reported to have begun following a shootout between rival bodyguards of the two main belligerents of South Sudan’s civil conflict — President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar. The two men were meeting in the presidential palace for talks to shore up a shaky peace to a civil conflict that erupted in late 2013, displacing millions.  The United States and other international leaders played a heavy hand in forcing both sides to the negotiating table last August to sign the peace deal. But after a weekend of heavy fighting in the capitol city, it seems that any pretense of peace has been dispensed with.

Civilians and UN Peacekeepers Caught in the Middle

The fighting in Juba has followed a familiar pattern in South Sudan in which civilians flee to UN compounds, but peacekeepers are only able to deter some of the violence. From the AP:

Much of Monday’s fighting in Juba centered in the Jebel area where there is an opposition camp and another U.N. base where some 28,000 displaced civilians have been sheltering since 2013. Thousands more fled to the camp in the current fighting. The Jebel neighborhood also has several embassies, the airport and an opposition camp.

Government forces overran the opposition base in Jebel on Monday, leaving the opposition forces with only their camp in the Gudele area as a foothold in Juba, said William Gatjiath Deng, opposition spokesman.

Two government helicopters have been bombing areas near the U.N. base while ground forces have shelled the camp which houses tens of thousands of displaced civilians, according to a source within the U.N. compound, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. [Emphasis]

Also today, two Chinese UN peacekeepers were killed when their convoy was hit by a tank shell.  Ban Ki Moon, meanwhile, called for the Security Council to re-enforce the embattle peacekeeping mission and to impose a full arms embargo on the country.

Peacekeepers in Juba are outgunned and out numbered by the warring parties. Still, the fact that tens of thousands of civilians are massed in and around UN compounds in the city shows that people in South Sudan believe that proximity to UN peacekeepers can offer them some protection. But so long as the belligerents continue to fire on these bases with impunity, it is just a modicum of safety and not full protection from violence.

This is a fast-evolving situation. Government forces have reportedly been ordered back to their barracks. Now, those countries that pressed so hard for this peace now have an obligation to do what they can to make sure those troops stay there.

Related: A podcast interview with an Oxfam humanitarian policy expert on the deteriorating situation in South Sudan.