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Is South Sudan Government Engaged in Ethnic Cleansing, Triggering Africa’s Biggest Refugee Crisis?

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An ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the South Sudanese government has triggered one of the biggest refugee crises in Africa. The United Nations has accused the government’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, known as the SPLA, of committing atrocities including mass rape and torture, as well as burning down entire villages. A U.N. report published in May says the abuses may amount to war crimes. We speak with journalist Nick Turse, a reporter with The Investigative Fund. He spent six weeks in South Sudan and refugee camps in neighboring countries.

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AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show by looking at South Sudan, where the United Nations warns an ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the South Sudanese government is threatening to empty the country. The United Nations has accused soldiers with the government’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, known as the SPLA, of killing, torturing and raping civilians, as well as burning down homes and villages. The violence has caused one of the biggest refugee crises in Africa. More than 1.7 million South Sudanese civilians have already fled to neighboring countries since the civil war erupted in 2013. This is a South Sudanese refugee named Maria Lalum, speaking from a refugee camp in Uganda.

MARIA LALUM: [translated] I crossed into Uganda at the beginning of this year, when government soldiers started attacking us. We just heard gunshots and took to the forest for safety. My children and grandchildren scattered off in different directions, and we were reunited just recently in this camp.

AMY GOODMAN: South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. The United States backed South Sudan’s independence in 2011 and South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, whose troops are now accused of carrying out the majority of crimes in the ongoing war.

For more, we’re joined by journalist Nick Turse, a reporter with The Investigative Fund, spent six weeks reporting from across South Sudan and in refugee camps in neighboring Uganda and the Central African Republic. His new article for Harper’s is titled “Ghost Nation: An Ethnic-Cleansing Campaign by the Government Threatens to Empty South Sudan.”

We welcome you to Democracy Now! You just actually were recently in South Sudan. Talk about what’s there. This is covered almost not at all in the United States.

NICK TURSE: Yeah, it’s very difficult to get coverage of it here. Thank you for having me on. And I spent about six weeks in northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, interviewing internally displaced persons and refugees. I talked to about 250 people when I was there. It’s the fourth time in the last four years that I’ve been covering the civil war there, and it was by far the worst I’d seen it. There’s a government ethnic cleansing campaign that’s going on through the southlands of the country, known as the Equatoria region. Government troops will roll into villages in trucks or on foot, say almost nothing and just begin opening fire. They’ll generally kill somewhere between four and 10 people and then also set fire to homes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us a little history lesson here? South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, established in 2011. Explain also the U.S. role and what you feel the U.S. responsibility is today. But begin with how it was founded and how it has deteriorated into what it is today.

NICK TURSE: Sure. South Sudan, or southern Sudan, I should say, has been more or less at war since the 1950s, with very few respites in between. The last civil war between the Khartoum government in the north of Sudan and the southerners raged from the early 1980s, 1983, to 2005. And from this, South Sudan was born in, as you said, 2011. You know, the last two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, put it indelicately, but there’s some truth in it, that the United States midwifed South Sudan into existence. The United States provided a tremendous amount of support, financial assistance, training to the government and to the military that’s now carrying out these crimes. In many ways, the United States was the guarantor of South Sudan’s independence. But after the nation plunged into civil war in December of 2013, the U.S. has walked away, in many cases. It didn’t push for an arms embargo until very late in the Obama administration, until the administration was out of political capital. It never even imposed a unilateral arms embargo. Under the new Trump—

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

NICK TURSE: Well, you know, there was a lot of support for these leaders in South Sudan, including Salva Kiir, the president, who the United States had fostered. You know, there was a lot of lingering support from the prior civil war. I think there was always the idea that somehow tough talk would convince the government there to change its ways. And over and over again, it’s proved not to be the case. This government doesn’t—doesn’t respond to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the rift between the president and the vice president in South Sudan.

NICK TURSE: Sure. This was the beginnings of the civil war. President Salva Kiir, who’s still in power, dismissed his vice president, Riek Machar. Kiir hails from the Dinka people, the largest of South Sudan’s ethnic groups. Machar was from the—is from the Nuer. And the civil war really began as an ethnic cleansing campaign in the capital after Machar said that he would challenge Kiir for the presidency in upcoming elections—elections that never were held. Kiir’s troops went throughout Juba, the capital, slaughtering civilians and soldiers of the Nuer ethnic group. Since then, the civil war has fractured in many ways, and now its targets are not only the Nuer, but also ethnic minorities in the south of the country—the Acholi people, Madi, Kuku, Kakwa, Azande—all these other smaller ethnic groups that are being chased from the country.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece, “Ghost Nation,” in Harper’s by writing, “In his heart, Simon Yakida knew he was digging his own grave.” Tell us who Simon is, what his story is.

NICK TURSE: Sure. I found Simon Yakida, who’s a father of nine, a resident of a village called Bamurye in the far south of South Sudan, living under a tree, a large mango tree, in Uganda. Most of his village was chased out after a series of killings by the South Sudanese government troops, and they caught Simon on his way out of town. They forced him to dig a grave, which Simon believed would be his own grave. And they took steps to execute him. It was only through happenstance, poor aim and a gun jam, that saved his life. After an argument among soldiers, they allowed him to leave. But, you know, Simon Yakida left something in that village, the site of his supposed execution. The man I found was completely shattered, traumatized. I don’t think he knew what to do next or where he would go. And it’s like this for so many South Sudanese. It’s a country whose population has been traumatized.

AMY GOODMAN: In South Sudan, refugees fleeing civil war say government soldiers have indiscriminately killed civilians, slitting the throats of adults, running down children with a vehicle, shooting those who tried to flee. Hundreds of survivors recount the violent scenes as they flee toward safety in Uganda. This is one civilian, Password Okot.

PASSWORD OKOT: [translated] I had two brothers. One of them was arrested by the soldiers and slaughtered for no reason. The other one was trying to flee but was shot dead. I don’t even know what to do with their widows and children.

AMY GOODMAN: Just one voice. Talk about why you went there. And also, this is becoming the biggest refugee crisis in all of Africa now, with 1.7 million refugees, people trying to leave.

NICK TURSE: Yes. And, in fact—and the number of internally displaced persons is even higher. We’re talking about around 4 million people who have now fled their homes. And on top of this, there’s a great deal of hunger, you know, and all of it completely man-made or war-made—6 million people who are severely food-insecure, 1.7 million who are on the brink of famine. But this story doesn’t get covered very much in the United States. And the United States has, I believe, a special responsibility to South Sudan. So I’ve felt an imperative to keep going back. It’s really the people that bring me back. The South Sudanese deserve so much better. And I think it’s important that Americans know exactly what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: What do people tell you needs to happen there?

NICK TURSE: Well, people in South Sudan are looking for the international community to step up, to put real pressure on the government there. You know, it’s always difficult to tell exactly what they want, but, generally, they’ll say, “The United States is our benefactor. They’re a superpower. We’re a very small country. Why isn’t the United States doing more?” At the very least, I think the United States could, you know, appoint a special envoy. This is something that a bipartisan group in Congress has begged the Trump administration to do. They haven’t, so there’s no point person even coordinating this for the U.S. government.

AMY GOODMAN: And is there any arms embargo in place right now?

NICK TURSE: Not at the present.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, how would you assess U.S. military action in Africa? You’ve been reporting on it for years. Has it changed under President Trump?

NICK TURSE: Well, you know, as we’ve seen in other contexts around the world, the military, in some ways, has been given carte blanche by the Trump administration. We’ve seen a loosening of restrictions in Somalia. And I think we’re seeing a ramp-up of the American-backed war there, more U.S. boots on the ground. There was an American special operations forces soldier killed there recently, two others injured. I think we’re going to see more of that. Of course, there are U.S. forces still on the ground in Libya, troops that are in western Africa aiding the fight against Boko Haram. So, it’s early to see exactly what the Trump administration is doing. I think there isn’t a real heavily coordinated policy with Africa. But I think we’re going to see a ramp-up, more troops on the ground, more bases. And this has been the way that things have been going for years now.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 15 seconds, but the danger journalists face going to South Sudan? I mean, the people in South Sudan, obviously, clearly face massive danger.

NICK TURSE: Definitely. Local journalists face the most difficulties. They’re threatened, detained, tortured, even killed, and no one’s ever been held responsible. But the crackdowns against foreign journalists have become greater. More and more people are being accused of being spies. I was myself, threatened with jail. NPR’s Eyder Peralta was accused of the same and actually jailed there. They banned about 20 foreign reporters, people who know the country best. So, it’s become a difficult environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nick, we’re going to link to your article, “Ghost Nation.”

And that does it for our broadcast. A very happy birthday to Karen Ranucci!

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