MALAKAL, South Sudan — Like a ferocious tornado, a black cloud of smoke rose over the United Nations-run Malakal Protection of Civilians site, which had been home to almost 50,000 people. Inside the camp, fires raced high into the dusty sky. Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, roughly half the shelters were in flames or smoldering. Gunfire erupted sporadically. Stray bullets pinged through sheets of metal siding, making a sound like marbles crashing onto a floor. At least 24 people had been killed, scores more injured, and thousands had been driven from their makeshift homes.
That was on Thursday, Feb. 18, when The Daily Beast first broke the story of a massacre here in Malakal.
In the days since, it has been possible to piece together a detailed timeline of the violence that may well justify a war crimes investigation. The evidence so far strongly indicates that soldiers from the government forces of President Salva Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), possibly working with militias, planned, prepared, and carried out the attack.
The incident here comes even though a peace deal has been signed between President Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, the main opposition leader, and seemed to be on the verge of implementation.
On Thursday this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will arrive in South Sudan on a previously planned visit to help broker a permanent peace agreement. But the incident here in Malakal, carried out right in the face of UN peacekeepers, who did little to stop it, raises questions about whether peace is achievable at all and what useful role the UN can play.
Since South Sudan’s civil war started more than two years ago, the conflict has taken on an overwhelmingly ethnic tone. Most of the SPLA are from the Dinka tribe, while members of Machar’s SPLM-IO forces are largely Nuer. Added to the mix here in Malakal are the Skilluk, who claim the city as their historic home.
Interviews were conducted and corroborated over four days with individuals from these three major ethnic groups, Dinka, Nuer, and Skilluk, in addition to interviews with UNMISS troops, security personnel, UN officials, and humanitarian personnel. Names of some witnesses have been changed to protect their identities in this violent environment.
The scene last week was utterly tragic as people with very few possessions saw them lost to the flames.
A group of women in colorful robes frantically rummaged through their burned shelters. Many items were still too hot to touch, and soot filled the air. Almost everything they owned had turned into black and gray ash.
Outside the main gate of the PoC (Protection of Civilians) site, thousands of people had crowded onto a narrow dirt path.
A military official from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) explained to me the apparent last push to get the SPLA out of the camp. He had just come from the PoC. “The general went down and pushed this way with vehicles,” he said, gesturing with his pen.
“There was anything up to a 10-second firefight.” The armed men subsequently fled outside of the PoC—unwilling to engage with lethal force.
It appears that when UNMISS troops decided to engage with the SPLA or allied militia, they were easily able to stop the threat. Why it took UNMISS troops around 16 hours to do this is unknown.
In that period of time, around 15,000 shelters were burned to the ground.
The United Nations Security Council, in response to the actions in Malakal, “stressed that attacks against civilians and United Nations premises may constitute war crimes.”
There are several signs the attack was premeditated.
On any given afternoon, the dust in the Malakal PoC is so thick that when you open your mouth, grains of dirt coat your teeth. It is overcrowded and lacks water. Looped razor wire on top of chain-link fences give it the impression of an open-air jail in the middle of the desert.
Around 48,000 people had taken refuge in the camp, which was supposed to be protected by the blue-helmeted United Nations soldiers. Many of the displaced come from the nearby Malakal town, which sits on the east bank of the White Nile. It was once the second-largest city in South Sudan, but is now a garrison town of destroyed buildings, burned cars, and men with guns slung over their shoulders racing around in trucks. Malakal has changed hands between the government and opposition more times than locals can count, and the fighting here is largely ethnic. People of all ethnicities sought shelter from the violence in the UN camp, including some refugees from nearby Darfur, but most are Nuer, Shilluk, or Dinka.
On the night of Tuesday, Feb. 16, a group of men approached one of the gates of the Malakal PoC and tried to sneak in with several loaded clips for automatic rifles. The men were likely from the Dinka tribe, the tribe of President Salva Kiir, yet most of the people in the PoC are from the Nuer and Shilluk tribe.
The men were not allowed to enter and left for the Malakal town, but appear to have returned with more men who made threatening gestures outside the gate with guns, but did not fire their weapons.
“Tuesday night, we saw people on foot, they had no vehicle. They were hanging around. They didn’t make any shooting, and they disappeared,” said a woman from the camp we’ll call Mary. She said they carried AK-47s and FAL automatic rifles.
Multiple eyewitnesses reported that the men cut the fence of the PoC on Tuesday night, and began to evacuate Dinka women and children as well as some from among the Darfur refugees.
“The youths took stones on the ground and started to throw them,” said a community leader, who The Daily Beast has made anonymous out of concern for their safety. “I came from there, I went the chairman of the Peace and Security Council,” the internal camp leadership. “I said to him, please, there is another problem, can we solve it, because I saw the SPLA soldiers moving around.”
According to two members of the Peace and Security Council, they met with the acting head of UNMISS in Malakal and were informed of the exodus of women and children in addition to the increased clashes. They requested razor wire so they could repair the fence themselves, but did not receive it until Wednesday afternoon, when it was too late in the day to work on it.
“For the whole clan of Dinka, they took the children and the women,” said another woman, whom we’ll call Elizabeth. “The men remained.”
By Wednesday afternoon, fights between the Dinka and the two other ethnic groups, the Nuer and Shilluk, had reached a boiling point. It appears likely the exodus of Dinka and Darfurian women and children continued.
As night fell on Wednesday, the PoC erupted in intense gun fighting that would not stop for around another 16 hours.
Eyewitness accounts that have been corroborated say that around 80 men, among them uniformed SPLA troops, individuals wearing civilian clothing who appeared to have advanced weapons training, and young men who lacked military sophistication—engaged in urban warfare in the overcrowded PoC.
It appears the Shilluk fought back, but The Daily Beast has not been able to confirm that the Nuer joined the melee.
The military official from the UN reported seeing multiple small clusters of men in SPLA uniforms working in unison, and spotted transport trucks. A witness supplied the names of two SPLA commanders whom he recognized from his previous job while working in government, but The Daily Beast has chosen not to publish their identities at this time because they cannot be independently corroborated.
Credible eyewitnesses described to me SPLA soldiers and allied militia using grenades, Molotov cocktails, as well as red tracer bullets visible in the dark, which suggests SPLA soldiers came prepared for night fighting. Many witnesses said they saw soldiers in uniform wearing red hats, a sign of specialized troops or military police in the SPLA, and identified the insignia of specific divisions in the South Sudanese army.
There is overwhelming evidence and credible accounts that suggest that SPLA soldiers began to deliberately burn Nuer and Shilluk homes. Satellite imagery supplied to The Daily Beast shows the pattern of destruction clearly, with the homes of the Nuer and the Shilluk community obliterated while, just a few feet away, the section where the Darfurian community lives remained untouched by flame, and the Dinka population’s homes also, for the most part, remained standing.
In the dark early hours of Thursday, the PoC was in panic. Amid the hail of bullets and the chaos cased by men burning down their homes, thousands of Nuer and Shilluk sprinted to the main gate of the PoC to escape, but ran up against a thick steel door roughly three meters high.
Pleading for their lives, they appealed to the UNMISS personnel to open the gate. The guards refused, according to PoC residents, who became trapped inside.
In their desperation, people began to climb over the razor wire and break down the fence, and several women showed me fresh cuts on their legs that they said came from their attempt to escape.
One woman, furious at the UNMISS performance, demanded, “If I came running because someone is beating me, would you lock the door, or would you open the door to see what was happening?”
Four days later, the fence around the main gate still had major holes.
UNMISS sent a fire truck into the PoC with a small contingent of troops to protect it, but they encountered gunmen, affiliation unknown. After a brief exchange of fire, the truck and accompanying troops exited the PoC.
This is not the first time that UNMISS troops have backed down in the face of such threats. In April 2014 armed men, also allegedly from the SPLA, carried out an attack on the UNMISS site at the town of Bor, and the UN would not fight.
“It’s the most open piece of knowledge out there that UNMISS doesn’t fight,” said one UN official, even though it has a mandate to use force under Chapter 7 under the UN Charter. “It’s essentially meaningless.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to find the warning signs. Local political leaders, security experts, and UN officials agree that the attack appears to be a deliberate attempt to provoke the Shilluk and Nuer.
High ranking SPLA officials have been bragging that they can attack these groups with impunity, according to UN sources.
The governor of Malakal, General Chol Thon, was a former high ranking SPLA officer. Without directly blaming Thon, a UN official notes that “there was an order given to cut off the PoC from the west bank.” So tensions had been building.
After the night of violence on Wednesday, around 10 o’clock on Thursday morning the thousands of Nuer and Skilluk crowded against the main gate in the PoC finally breached the steel doors and spilled out, according to a humanitarian worker.
According to the UN military official’s account, UNMISS troops began to prepare to engage the SPLA troops, who were still lurking inside, firing weapons with impunity. During a meeting to discuss military tactics, some of the UN troops resisted the idea of using lethal force and asked that they be given permission to shoot in writing, even though it is permitted under UN regulations. When they received it, they were still reluctant to fire, until they were coaxed by the UNMISS military leadership.
Around 3 p.m., the soldiers finally piled in at least two white armored vehicles, and drove near where the most serious fires were.
By the time they were inside the PoC, however, the gunfire had more or less stopped, and it’s unclear when UNMISS engaged the SPLA and allied militia. Outside the gate, men in civilian clothing continued to walk around, at least one carrying what appeared to be an AK-47.
Around 24,000 South Sudanese fled from of the main PoC into a narrow strip of land near the UN residential complex. Men and women raced back and forth with their belongings against the backdrop of the towering black cloud from the still-raging fires.
I came across one man lying on the ground and staring at the blue sky, apparently oblivious to the destruction around him. I asked him what happened.
“Everything is bullshit,” he said.