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A 'Chaotic And Ineffective Response To The Violence' By U.N. In South Sudan

A photo from July 25 shows a United Nations base in South Sudan's capital Juba. Earlier in July, South Sudanese troops attacked civilians near the U.N. mission's headquarters in the city.
Jason Patinkin
A photo from July 25 shows a United Nations base in South Sudan's capital Juba. Earlier in July, South Sudanese troops attacked civilians near the U.N. mission's headquarters in the city.

An independent review into attacks against civilians in South Sudan this summer has found the United Nations peacekeeping mission failed to respond adequately, despite their physical proximity to the violence.

The investigation was requested by the U.N. secretary-general and carried out by retired Dutch Gen. Patrick Cammaert, after South Sudanese soldiers went on a rampage in the capital, Juba, killing and raping civilians over the course of four days, despite a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the city.

One of the targets the soldiers attacked was the Hotel Terrain, where they killed a South Sudanese journalist before assaulting and raping aid workers on July 11. As we reported, aid workers described horrific scenes inside the hotel compound:

"Among [those in the hotel] was Jesse Bunch, a private contractor, who was hiding in a room with several other Westerners and was shot through a door in the leg.

"'They broke down the door, they came in, they began to threaten women, they separated us into groups, they took us outside,' he told NPR. 'We saw where they shot the local journalist and then they began to separate women into the various rooms.'

"'I said, 'Look, these women are here to help you, don't hurt them.' But they continued to take them out and I heard crying in the other rooms.'"

Since the attack, western aid workers have accused the United Nations of failing to respond. The newly published investigation backs up those claims, and faults the leadership of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan for not acting to protect civilians.

The Hotel Terrain is about a mile from the U.N. headquarters in Juba.

"The Special Investigation found that a lack of leadership on the part of key senior Mission personnel culminated in a chaotic and ineffective response to the violence," the report states.

The attack on the hotel, it finds, came at the end of four days of fighting between government troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and soldiers aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar, during which at least 300 civilians died, and two U.N. peacekeeping troops were killed.

As we have reported, many of the aid workers fled to the Hotel Terrain thinking they would be safe there, given its physical proximity to the U.N. mission headquarters.

But the situation at headquarters at that point was "chaotic," according to the investigation. There were more than 1,800 U.N. infantry troops in Juba, but they "did not operate under a unified command, resulting in multiple and sometimes conflicting orders," the report says. Although commanders "made multiple requests to stand up a quick reaction force to respond [to the hotel]," none of the four national troop contingents actually went to the hotel.

U.N. peacekeeping troops from China, India, Nepal and Ethiopia are under the command of Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki of Kenya, who took over that post in June.

Now, Ondieki's time as force commander in South Sudan appears to be coming to an end. Shortly after the damning report was published on Tuesday, Reuters reported U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had asked for Ondieki's immediate replacement.

In a separate report, also published today, the U.N. mission to South Sudan said more than 200,000 internally displaced people are now living in so-called "protection of civilian" camps set up by the U.N. That's up slightly since earlier this month, as the nearly three-year-old civil war continues to threaten people across the country.

You can read more about life inside one of those camps in an extensive NPR report here.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.