On Monday, Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press reported that a South Sudanese journalist was shot dead last month and numerous American and Western aid workers were attacked, gang-raped and robbed by as many as 100 rampaging South Sudanese troops while a nearby United Nations peacekeeping force, as well as the United States and other foreign embassies, stood by unable or unwilling to intervene.
The revelation came more than a month after the horrific attack occurred at The Terrain, an elite hotel complex in the South Sudanese capital Juba frequented by foreign aid workers, on July 11. The United States Embassy, and therefore the Obama administration, knew of the atrocity as it was happening, yet neither President Barack Obama nor any administration official publicly addressed the heinous crime until the story broke on Monday.
“The United States is outraged by reports of assaults and rapes of civilians, including humanitarian aid workers and journalists, by South Sudanese soldiers,” Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said in a statement released on Monday. “Attacks against brave individuals attempting to help the people of South Sudan are attacks against humanity itself.”
“During the fighting throughout the city, the US Embassy… responded to distress calls from the compound and urgently contacted South Sudanese government officials, who sent a response force to the site to stop the attack,” Power’s statement continued. “We are deeply concerned that United Nations peacekeepers were apparently either incapable of or unwilling to respond to calls for help. We have requested and are awaiting the outcome of an investigation by the United Nations and demand swift corrective action in the event that these allegations are substantiated.”
One Western victim said a South Sudanese soldier pointed an AK-47 rifle at her and demanded she have sex with him or he would “make every man here rape you and then we shoot you in the head.” By the time it was all over, she’d been raped by 15 soldiers. Witnesses said soldiers cheered as they took turns sexually assaulting their victims. Eight survivors, both male and female, told the AP they were shot, beaten or, in three cases, raped. A report prepared for South Sudanese army spokesman Lul Ruai alleges at least five women were raped and that other victims were subjected to torture, mock executions, beatings and looting. An unknown number of South Sudanese women were also allegedly assaulted.
“They were very excited, very drunk, under the influence of something, almost a mad state, walking around shooting off rounds inside the rooms,” one American witness told the AP, describing the soldiers’ behavior. Another American who was accused of hiding rebels was beaten with belts and rifle butts for an hour and shots were fired near his feet and head. Eventually he was released. “You tell your embassy how we treated you,” he was told as he fled to a nearby UN compound to plea for help that never arrived.
Some of the attackers appeared to be as young as 15. The woman who said she was raped by 15 men said the teens appeared frightened and forced into the attack. “One in particular, he was calling you, ‘Sweetie, we should run away and get married.’ It was like he was on a first date,” the woman told the AP. “He didn’t see that what he was doing was a bad thing.”
Americans were singled out for abuse. “He definitely had pronounced hatred against America,” Filipino witness Gian Libot told the AP, referring to one of the attackers. “[He said you messed up this country. You’re helping the rebels. The people in the UN, they’re helping the rebels.”
Later in the attack, the soldiers dragged John Gatluak, a local journalist who worked for Internews, a media development organization funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in front of the hostages. It was easy to identify Gatluak as Nuer — the same ethnic group as opposition leader Riek Machar — by the tribal scars on his forehead. One soldier shouted “Nuer” and another shot him twice in the head, and then four more times as he lay dying.
The victims desperately pleaded for help via text messages and social media. “All of us were contacting whoever we could contact. The UN, the US Embassy, contacting the specific battalions in the UN, contacting specific departments,” said one of the rape victims. The UN first received word of the attack at 3:37 p.m. UN peacekeeping forces, comprised of units from Ethiopia, China and Nepal, all refused to intervene. A private security company rescued the aid workers the next morning.
Under fire, the UN said it is investigating the incident. “Obviously, we regret the loss of life and the violence that the people who were in Hotel Terrain endured, and we take this incident very seriously,” Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told reporters Monday. “As you’re aware, we have called on the national authorities to investigate this incident thoroughly and to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The US Embassy “was not in a position to intervene,” according to State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau. “We didn’t have the personnel with the mission or the capacity to respond to such a wide-scale event,” an Obama administration official told Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. “Our response was to engage the government that had the capability to do so. There’s no Delta Force residing at the embassy.”
President Obama, while remaining silent in public about the vicious attack on Americans abroad, ordered 47 US troops to South Sudan on July 13 to protect the US Embassy in Juba in the wake of what the State Department called a “sudden and serious deterioration in the security situation in the capital.” The State Department also made no mention of the events of July 11.
The UN estimates that at least 50,000 people have been killed and another 2.2 million displaced since the current armed conflict erupted in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of plotting a coup. The fighting, which has mostly been waged along ethnic lines, pushed swathes of the country of 11.3 million inhabitants to the brink of famine last year and devastated the oil-rich nation’s already weak economy.
Both sides have committed war crimes during the conflict. A 2015 African Union investigation revealed mass graves and evidence of heinous atrocities committed by South Sudanese troops, including summary executions, brutal gang rape of women and girls of all ages, torture and forced cannibalism. A March 2016 UN report on the conflict contained “harrowing accounts of civilians suspected of supporting the opposition, including children and the disabled, killed by being burned alive, suffocated in containers, shot, hanged from trees or cut to pieces,” according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
The United States backed predominantly Christian South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, which is almost entirely Muslim, in 2011, providing billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to the government of President Salva Kiir despite widespread reports of human rights violations, including the use of child soldiers.
However, in three of the past four years — there was a suspension of military aid and training in 2014 — the Obama administration has granted “national interest” waivers from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), which bans military aid to countries whose armed forces conscript, employ or enslave children, so that the US could continue training and equipping its ally’s forces. South Sudan and four other nations granted CSPA “national interest” waivers are slated to receive more than $161 million in US military aid this year.
In addition to being a strategic ally in the US-led war against terrorism and effort to expand America’s military presence in Africa, South Sudan is rich in oil and natural gas. According to the World Bank, it is the most oil-dependent country in the world, with oil accounting for almost the totality of exports, and around 60 percent of its gross domestic product. Despite its abundance of natural resources, South Sudan is one of the poorest nations on Earth, with a per capita GDP of just over $1,100 in 2014.