Sudanese-American activists from across the country gathered on Thursday outside the United Nations in New York City to implore the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to increase protection for civilians caught in the crossfire of a vicious civil war in Southern Sudan, the world's newest country.
The UNSC, which is to meet on Friday August 12 to vote on issues related to Southern Sudan, is slated to decide whether to create a unique force comprised of peacekeepers from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan itself with a special mandate to protect civilians, according to Simon Deng, a New York-based Sudanese-American human rights activist who co-organized Thursday's rally.
"Otherwise, Southern Sudan will be left to fight itself out and winner take all," said Deng, who last summer undertook a 45-day hunger strike to raise awareness about atrocities against civilians in the world's newest country.
By some estimates, as many as 70,000 to 100,000 people have been killed in Southern Sudan since 2013, when a power struggle broke out between the new country's president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and his former deputy, Riek Machar. The violence, which began in the capital after Kiir accused Machar of fomenting a coup, quickly escalated, claiming many civilian lives in a conflict that has become a "Rwanda in slow motion" according to Deng, with a limited international peacekeeping force largely powerless as soldiers have attacked not only each other, but also civilians, along ethnic lines. Efforts even to count the dead have been minimal. Fifty-seven international aid workers have been killed since December 2013.
Sudan's modern history has been extremely violent: in the 1950's and 1960's, by some estimates as many as two million southern Sudanese Christians and animists, or practitioners of native religions, were killed and, in thousands of cases, enslaved in Sudan's Islamist north.
Southern Sudan was born in 2011 as a reaction to that persecution, after Southerners voted almost unanimously to secede from the North.
Activists outside the UN Thursday stressed that the peacekeeping force they are asking the United Nations Security Council to approve would have a mandate to specifically protect civilians - and ability to defend civilians, as well as to defend themselves, if they are fired upon or attacked.
"Their mission [would be] to protect civilians and impose the [Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2015,] to make sure it'll be implemented," said Deng. "It's a specific mandate that you are there to defend civilians and if you are fired on, you may fire back, because you can't keep the peace [while] being fired on."
In July, two Chinese peacekeepers were killed and several Rwandan troops injured near United Nations compounds.
Leaders of both sides signed a peace agreement, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2015, last August in Ethiopia. That agreement, brokered by the United States, came about after US President Barack Obama threatened both sides' leaders with sanctions if they failed to halt the violence. However, violence has continued since then. In addition to tens if not hundreds of thousands of Southern Sudanese killed, eleven Sudanese-Americans visiting South Sudan have recently been killed, according to Deng.
Outside the United Nations Thursday, several dozen Sudanese-American activists who had traveled from across the United States - including from Washington DC; Boston, Massachusetts; Lincoln, Nebraska; Portland, Maine; and Seattle, Washington - at their own expense, or funded by contributions from fellow Sudanese-Americans - peacefully demonstrated and pleaded for help from the United Nations on behalf of their families, friends and countrymen/women in Southern Sudan.
"We are asking for a real peacekeeping force," said Angelo Kassiano, 36, a Sudanese-American civil engineering student at the University of Nebraska, who traveled from Lincoln, NE to Manhattan this week. "I feel ashamed to come and tell the world, 'I want you to come and help my people [with protection] from their own government,' but that is what it has come to."
"What did my eight-year-old niece do to deserve a horrible death?" said Deng, who spoke passionately on behalf of civilians.
Widespread abuse of civilians in South Sudan's civil war, including torture and murder of children by soldiers, has been documented.
"If the soldiers do not respect civilian life - women, children - what kind of a country is it?" said Yahwietuor Mok, a veteran of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the mostly Christian army that fought to secure South Sudan's freedom from Sudan's Islamist North. Mr. Mok walks with a steel crutch and said he lost his leg in South Sudan's War of Independence. "We committed ourselves to fighting the Islamists, we committed our lives, and now this President [Kiir] and these soldiers are fighting only for themselves, for their own group. That is not what it means to be a soldier. If you are not protecting civilians, you are not a soldier, and it's not a country."
"We are here to tell the United Nations Security Council, who will decide tomorrow on a third force, please, to protect civilians, our women and children and men," said Jasinta Elioba, a New York-based Sudanese-American human rights activist who has organized women's groups to protest the violence. Elioba charged that South Sudan's government is using rape as a weapon. "If this was happening in any European or Western country, you would see more international outrage," she said. "But because it's an African country, the world turns a blind eye."
The rally's final speaker was Pagana Amum, former secretary general of the SPLM, at one time a leader in Southern Sudan's new government. "We are calling on the world to rescue South Sudan from collapsing into chaos and disorder," he said. "We call on the United Nations and the African Union to organize a roundtable to discuss the future of South Sudan."