In the worst massacre in South Sudan since fighting erupted in the country last December, rebel forces have slaughtered at least 200 men, women, and children in the northern city of Bentiu.
Graphic photos emerging from the scene show piles of corpses strewn outside a mosque, a hospital, and a church where civilians fled for refuge against the assault last week.
The attack registers as the most serious incursion in the civil war unfolding in South Sudan, not only because of its severity, but also because of its genocidal bent: As the massacre in Bentiu unfolded, rebels took over a local radio station to broadcast “hate speech” against other ethnic groups, according to a UN statement, and urged men from one community to “commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.”
Witnesses reported that as rebel forces entered the town, they searched locations where civilians had sheltered, and killed hundreds based on ethnicity. At a local mosque, assailants slaughtered more than 200 people, including children and the elderly. They killed or wounded hundreds more at a Catholic church in town.
The war in South Sudan began in December when fighting erupted between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. Kiir comes from the Dinka tribe. Machar is Nuer.
Those distinctions have split the country in two in some regions, as fighting has spun off between members of the opposing tribes, and as rebel forces loyal to Machar continue to seize towns across the country. Witnesses say members of both tribes have committed atrocities against each other. Peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia have accomplished little.
The massacre in Bentiu was particularly brutal, prompting White House spokesman Jay Carney to call it “an abomination.” Rebel leaders denied orchestrating the attack, but eyewitness accounts reported the soldiers were responsible.
Even some ethnic Nuer weren’t safe from violence by their own tribesman during the Bentiu assault. The UN reported that a number of Nuer men, women, and children had hidden in the hospital as rebel forces entered town, and avoided the Nuer celebrations of the takeover. As the massacre unfolded, rebels killed the Nuer tribe members hiding in the hospital.
The Star—a Kenya-based newspaper—ran graphic photos of the Bentiu massacre today with the headline: “The World Must Act Over South Sudan.” “We feel that the world needs to know the level of atrocities that are being committed against civilian populations in the intertribal conflict,” the editors wrote. “The chorus of ‘never again’ that followed the Rwandan genocide seems to have been mere rhetoric by world leaders.”
Thousands have died since fighting began in South Sudan last year, and as many as a million citizens have fled their homes. Aid groups warn of a spiraling humanitarian disaster in South Sudan and in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Local pastors say many of their church members are living in the woods or hiding near rivers to avoid violence.
Church leaders have pleaded with political leaders to find a way to enforce a ceasefire. They’ve also pleaded with members of different tribes to avoid allowing tribal identity to trump their identity as South Sudanese citizens—or especially their identity as professing Christians.