This guest post was written by Eric Reeves, professor at Smith College and Sudan expert.
As of the evening of January 4 (Juba time) there is growing alarm, even panic among civilians who are receiving conflicting reports from a wide range of sources—some open, some confidential, but all having an impact on those living in or near Juba and Bor, and in towns and villages between these capitals. The U.N. Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS, must subordinate the deployment of peacekeepers to the urgent need to better inform civilians of what is actually happening. Those fleeing often confront severe dangers, deprivation, and death; the example of Awerial (Lakes State), some thirty miles west of Bor, offers a terrifying example (reported in the New York Times). Flight should be the last option for civilians, given constraints on humanitarian capacity; and the decision to flee should be as informed as possible.
According to Voice of America, Toby Lanzer, the chief U.N. humanitarian official in South Sudan, has warned that the number of displaced is accelerating and could reach 300,000 to 400,000 "in a matter of days". Extrapolating forward even cautiously suggests just how massive the displaced population will soon become, and how difficult it will be to provide them with humanitarian relief. Flight is inevitable in what increasingly appears to be all-out civil war; but to the extent that people can be informed of what the real dangers and risks are, this is for now the most important humanitarian service that can be rendered. Riek Machar and one of his senior commanders, Brigadier General Khor Chol, have both declared that Juba will fall soon (see excerpts of news reports). What can the U.N. tell us—tell the people of South Sudan—of the validity of this claim?
The Bor-Juba road, some 200 kilometers, is not a great distance by the standards of South Sudan. Patrol by unarmed drone aircraft, higher-flying fixed-wing aircraft, or satellite surveillance might all be continuously conducted in the near term. Their sole responsibility would be to ensure that reporting is as accurate as possible in the interest of civilian security and humanitarian decision-making. All U.N. reporting must be scrupulously neutral; although some limited military advantage may accrue to one side or the other, it is likely to be very small: both sides know what their own and the opposing positions are. It is civilians who have been left in the dark, and decisions made without relevant information threaten to exacerbate what is already a catastrophic situation.
To give a sense of how wildly disparate the accounts are at present, a collection reporting is offered here: a very recent Agence France Press dispatch; an UNMISS statement reported in Gurtong.net; a read-out from the NGO perspective in South Sudan (details blurred for security's sake); and two lengthier dispatches from the Sudan Tribune. Unless these gross disparities are somehow reconciled, civilians may well assume the worst and act accordingly. This could lead not only to flight but to violence, including ethnic violence. Juba has variously described as "calm," "relatively normal, and "operating as usual" over the past few days. But a report from Agence France-Presse this evening ([Juba], January 4, 2014) makes clear how quickly the situation on the ground can change, catching civilians unaware: "Explosions from reported artillery fire as well as the constant rattle of automatic weapons were heard in Juba's key government district, where most ministries, the presidential palace and the parliament are located."
UNMISS has not been inactive on this score, as the Sudan Tribune reported today:
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on Friday also confirmed that the fighting was going on towards Juba. Col. Mike Chadrick of UNMISS in Bor told the BBC he independently verified that two armed groups were fighting about 40 miles away on Juba-Bor road.
But there must be more such briefings, and they must have information that at present is likely to come only from aerial reconnaissance in some form. If civilians are to stay out of the line of fire, which looks to intensify over the next several days according to numerous sources, they need to know more than they do at present.