“I cannot go out. If I pass the gate, they will kill me,” Johnson, a 26-year-old student, told me earlier this month in a crowded, muddy corner of the UN compound in the town of Bor, in South Sudan.
The compound was transformed overnight into a camp for displaced persons six months ago, as people sought shelter from the fighting that erupted between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and mostly Nuer opposition fighters loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar.
As a young man and a Nuer, Johnson has good reason to fear leaving the compound.
On April 17, a large group of armed Dinka youths including, evidence suggests, government forces, attacked the UN compound, spraying bullets into the crowded camp, instantly killing dozens of mostly women and children and traumatizing everyone in the compound, including UN staff members.
The horrific attack on a UN compound was one in a series of ethnically-motivated attacks on civilians that has dominated this six-month-old conflict. The government, which must have the known the attack was imminent but did nothing to stop it, has yet to investigate the mass killings or hold anyone to account.
The conflict and targeted attacks on civilians, often solely because of their ethnicity, have forced more than one million people to flee their homes; around 90,000 are now living in squalid conditions in UN compounds where – as the attack on Bor showed – they are still not safe.
During my visit to the UN compound in town of Bentiu earlier this month, armed government soldiers patrolling just outside the UN compound shot dead a young man, and detained his two companions, one of whom was only 11 years old. UN peacekeepers’ attempts to intervene may have saved the two companions from being killed, but their mere presence did not deter the crimes.
These unchecked attacks on displaced people, often under the noses of the UN peacekeepers, have created a climate of fear and forced confinement, even in the only place they can hope for sanctuary. Would-be farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, tailors, drivers, aid workers, and civil servants are now are idle and unhappy, traumatized by the violence, malnourished, and living in awful conditions, made worse by the rainy season mud and flooding, causing deadly disease.
The pressure must be ratcheted up. The UN Human Rights Council in session right now should clearly shine its spotlight on those responsible for this miserable state of affairs, where serious human rights abuses are a daily occurrence and no one is safe anywhere.