Lessons From South Sudan

The Security Situation In South Sudan

In December of 2014 I received an email from a client asking for advice for an upcoming medical aid trip his church was planning to South Sudan the following month.  He was concerned because fighting had just broken out a few days earlier and the US embassy had closed.  My quick and blunt (and unbilled) advice was don’t go. He agreed with my analysis and postponed the trip indefinitely. Some organizations have the luxury of postponing or cancelling trips altogether, others are forced out of necessity to travel and work in dangerous locations.  To recap the situation, the newly independent South Sudan had been thrown into violence when factions backing the president of South Sudan and the recently ousted vice president began fighting.  Since then there has been a series of clashes and ceasefires.

Not Even A Semblance of Security In South Sudan

On Monday, the Human Rights Watch released a report detailing killings, rapes, and looting in Juba during one such clash in July of 2016.  The Associated Press has also interviewed a number of the survivors and their accounts are horrific.  Fighting broke out in the city of Juba on 08 JUL 2016 between government forces and the opposition.  The forces clashed at various locations around the city for the next three days.  On 11 July, the government forces were winning and were driving opposition forces from the city.  Residents of a hotel  complex in the southern part of the city and approximately one kilometer from a large UN base were starting to relax after a weekend of bullets whizzing overhead and mortars landing in the distance.  The hotel complex, which is walled, is popular with foreigners, aid workers, and expats working in that area of South Sudan.

The reports released tell of a four hour rampage of governmental forces looting, killing, and raping their way  through the compound.  Despite having guards armed with shotguns, the compound was overrun by 80-100 men who went door to door demanding money and electronics.  They were described as “very excited, very drunk, under the influence of something, almost a mad state, walking around shooting off rounds inside the rooms.”

South Sudan Is Unsafe for Foreigners, Aid Workers, and Anyone Else

South Sudan government forces beat an American with belts and rifle butts and fired bullets at his feet and head.  They asked others if  they were American and when one responded yes, they beat him with rifle butts.  The survivors tell of being ranted at by the forces, who blamed America for the troubles, for aiding the rebels.

Dozens tried to hide, including 20 in a “safe room” so named because a heavy metal door guarding the entrance.  The forces took about an hour to defeat the door with gunfire and metal bars.  Another 10 squeezed into one bathroom.  Once inside they shot their weapons in the air, beat the residents, threatened to kill them, and gang raped several women.  Also during the rampage a reporter was killed because he was a member of the tribe of the opposition leader.

During the assault, the survivors tell of attempting to contact anyone who could help including the US embassy and the UN forces.  The timeline and notes from the pleas for help is unfathomable.  The UN forces were aware of the attack within minutes of it starting.  Multiple units were notified, some alerted to prepare to intervene, only to be stood down.

Eventually, other South Sudan government forces entered the compound and rescued the residents except for three Western women and 16 hotel staffers.   A UN patrol was scheduled for the next morning, but was cancelled. A private security firm went in  the next morning and rescued the women and staffers.

The South Sudan government implies that opposition forces could have been wearing governmental uniforms. The UN is investigating why its forces didn’t respond.  The US State department has said the US embassy “was not in a position to intervene.”

This is the poignant final paragraph from the AP story: “One of the women gang-raped said security advisers from an aid organization living in the compound told residents repeatedly that they were safe because foreigners would not be targeted. She said: “This sentence, ‘We are not targeted,’ I heard half an hour before they assaulted us.””

PRMG Analysis

International travel brings its own set of risks, and travel in conflict zones brings even more.  I’m sure the aid workers and expats had developed a higher comfort level from working in the environment of South Sudan.  While most people wouldn’t even consider travelling to South Sudan, let alone staying in the city while the fighting was going on all weekend, these aid workers were in that area precisely because of the civil war.

There was unease during the worst of the fighting in South Sudan, but as the ceasefire approached the situation was returning to “normal” levels.  Normal is relative, and with an increased tolerance for hostile situations, people run the risk of becoming complacent.

For example, an instructor at the US Army Airborne school told me once that the most injuries occur on the students’ 4th or 5th jumps.  It seems counter intuitive because you think the first jump for an inexperienced jumper would be the most risky, they’ve never done it before, they’re scared, etc.  However, because of the overwhelming fear on the first jumps, the inexperienced jumpers have nothing on their minds but the training they’ve received the previous three weeks and perform what they were taught out of an intense desire to survive.

By the 4th or 5th jumps, the new jumpers  have done it multiple times, the initial level of fear has receded, in essence,  they have made a new normal for themselves.  At that point  they allow some complacency to seep into their performance, they start enjoying the ride down instead of preparing for a landing.  Yet, because they aren’t really experienced jumpers with dozens or hundreds of jumps behind them, they aren’t as  good as they think they are and injuries occur.

The residents of that hotel complex may have been victims of a similar experience to the jumpers.  Their familiarity with the conflict zone may have dampened some of their natural fear instincts and allowed complacency to set in.

While I would agree with the “security adviser” quoted above that there was no reason to think that the residents would be targeted specifically, I could not discount the inherent risk that accompanies a conflict zone with armed forces that do not operate at the same level of discipline, professionalism, and rule of law that we are accustomed to in the developed world.

Also, if the accounts of the gunmen targeting Americans specifically are to be believed, then there was an intelligence failure in recognizing that at least some of the forces feel that the US is to blame for their situation.

Lastly, we who live in a privileged western country with emergency medical services, professional police forces, and fire departments develop a false sense of security concerning emergencies.  Many take for granted that help is a quick phone call away.  Unfortunately, even in our country with departmental response times in minutes, many people are assaulted, raped, and killed before any help can arrive.  The residents clearly thought (and rightly so) that the embassy or UN forces would react to such a brazen attack, however, that did not happen (and far from the first time the UN has sat on their hands).

Due diligence on the part of any security adviser would have been liaising with outside agencies before an incident to confirm their capabilities or constraints.  The tough questions should have been asked, if the worst happens what can you do?  What will you do?  What communication channel does the request for aid need to be routed through?  Who is (are) the final decision maker(s)?  Tragically, the resident’s called 911 and got stuck in a voicemail tree.

We cannot stress enough the need for someone who is dedicated to addressing the risks posed by operating in that type of environment.  If your organization doesn’t have personnel with the skill set to manage these types of security issues then we strongly recommend contracting an appropriate firm to provide that service.

A trained set of eyes to view your organization’s project from a security perspective and offer objective analysis and potential contingencies so that the atrocities described above don’t happen to your people in South Sudan, or anywhere else.