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Dispatches: Is the Truth Off-Limits in Juba, South Sudan?
February 18, 2014

On a recent Sunday morning drive through one of Juba’s now-abandoned suburbs, I was accosted by an angry drunk soldier and nearly arrested by another group of soldiers. We had hoped to gain entry to the now-notorious Gudele police compound to physically examine the site where more than 200 unarmed men of Nuer ethnicity were confined to a single room and reportedly gunned down in cold blood last December. After spotting yet another group of soldiers at the gate, we turned around.

After its descent into violence two months ago, many parts of Juba appear back to normal. But the neighborhoods and sites where scores of Nuer men were rounded up, arrested, or killed are still off-limits. The government keeps a heavy security presence in these areas, hampering reporting and independent investigation, and it hasn’t announced a list of the dead or revealed where they are buried. Much of what happened is still shrouded in mystery.

South Sudan’s government has an opportunity to help heal the alarming ethnic rift between the country’s two largest ethnicities, Dinka and Nuer, which deepened after Dinka security forces targeted Nuer males in Juba, and revenge attacks on Dinka by armed Nuer forces in many other parts of the country.

But there are few signs South Sudan is serious about providing justice. Although the government has arrested dozens and set up a human rights investigation committee, and President Kiir even welcomedthe International Criminal Court into the country, Juba’s top brass has done little to acknowledge the scale of the killings by soldiers and security personnel, as well as the mass arrests, or to hold anyone accountable.

Nor have they done enough to make the neighborhoods that residents fled secure. With so many armed soldiers roaming around in an undisciplined and threatening manner, it is no wonder tens of thousands of people do not feel safe returning home.

Instead, the government is fixating on prosecutingalleged coup plotters for treason. These cases should not take up all of Juba’s airtime. The large number of civilians affected in this conflict to date – in Juba and other cities and towns – need to know that authorities care about their pain and suffering.

South Sudan’s government and opposition leaders alike should rein in their forces and hold abusive ones to account. They should issue clear orders to commanders that any attacks on civilians or looting will be prosecuted. And they should jump-start a justice process, calling on the African Union to launch its promised impartial commission of inquiry while the government continues with its own domestic processes, keeping investigations transparent.

And in Juba and elsewhere, the government should make sure evidence is protected – but not by aggressive, drunk soldiers.