Members of the White Army
The rebel White Army (pictured), so-called after the ash its fighters sometimes smear on themselves, killed anyone they suspected of supporting the government, including—it is reported—200 people in a single mosque and others in churches and aid-agency compounds. Local radio broadcasts helped to stir up ethnic hatred and to direct the violence at perceived enemies of Riek Machar, the vice-president, whose sacking by President Salva Kiir nearly a year ago led to the civil war that erupted in December.
Members of Mr Machar’s Nuer tribe were evidently encouraged to cheer on the violence. Toby Lanzer, a UN official who visited Bentiu in the massacre’s aftermath, said he saw “piles and piles” of bodies, almost all of whom appeared to be civilians. The killings were, he said, “perhaps the most shocking set of circumstances” in the four-month-old conflict. They were a “game-changer”
Yet, despite the ensuing outcry, outside mediators have few means of changing the game for the better. The fighting has swilled viciously back and forth over the handful of towns that make up the pitifully poor country. With each new offensive, large numbers of civilians from the two main ethnic groups, the Dinka, from which Mr Kiir hails, and Mr Machar’s Nuer, have found themselves caught in enemy territory. Both sides have committed atrocities.
Messrs Kiir and Machar have each recklessly sought to involve outside parties to gain the upper hand. Uganda has backed Mr Kiir’s government with a large force. The rump state of Sudan to the north has sold weapons to both sides; Ethiopia is courted by the rebels, who accuse Egypt, with whom Ethiopia has sour relations, of backing Mr Kiir.
The atrocities in Bentiu threaten to regionalise the civil war more. The attackers appear to have deliberately targeted traders from Darfur, the troubled western region of Sudan. This may have been an act of revenge, because the Justice and Equality Movement, a Darfuri rebel group that seeks to overthrow Sudan’s government in Khartoum, had previously helped attack Mr Machar’s forces.
Meanwhile, the UN has increasingly found itself in the line of fire. More than 50,000 civilians are sheltering in five of its bases. Some 10,000 UN peacekeepers are trying to protect them, but on April 20th they failed to do so when 58 people were killed by a mob of largely Dinka youths who attacked the UN base in Bor, a town that has changed hands four times since the fighting began. More than 1m of South Sudan’s 6m people have fled their homes. Tens of thousands have been killed. Hugely reliant on foreign aid, the country is on the brink of widespread famine.
Even so, large delegations representing the rebels and the government have been staying for months in plush hotels in neighbouring Ethiopia, supposedly negotiating for peace. They half-heartedly agreed in January to a ceasefire, but failed to uphold it on the ground. Foreign diplomats close to the talks see scant prospect of progress.
The roots of the conflict lie in a failure to build the basis of a functional state. When South Sudan got full independence from the north in 2011, its abundant aid money and oil revenue (virtually its sole domestic source of income) were used for two baleful purposes: to pay for an expanding army and to enrich the country’s new elite.
But when the oil income shrank, thanks to chronic instability and the pipeline’s periodic closure, elements of the army and the elite were set against each other as they sought to retain or expand their share of the wealth. South Sudan’s main international sponsors, such as the United States and the EU, have become less willing to pay off the warlords to keep the peace. Instead, the Americans are thinking of targeting the one thing that both sides have in common: wealth stashed abroad. Key people may face sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes. But a list of names has yet to be drawn up.
For once there are no glaring divisions in the UN Security Council over South Sudan. China, whose large investment in South Sudan’s oil is under threat, is in tune with the West. This rare consensus could enable the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on all sides. The International Criminal Court at The Hague could also get involved, though that would be opposed by several governments in the region, especially those of Sudan and Kenya, whose leaders have been indicted in separate cases. Meanwhile, there is little hope of a quick end to the horror. No side is winning. Hopes of building a new country from scratch are drowning in blood.