In May, I traveled to the funeral of Sister Veronika Rackova, who was a Catholic nun in Yei, South Sudan. While delivering women in labor around two in the morning, Rackova encountered three young South Sudanese soldiers, who shot at her ambulance and killed her.
Yei was devastated. In a country that had seen unfathomable crimes during its civil war—people suffocated in shipping containers, executions, the unrestrained use of gang-rape—this leafy town of more than 100,000 had managed to survive unscathed.
Instead, Yei was like a postcard for what South Sudan could have become when it gained independence in 2011. It was religious—almost everyone went to one of the two big churches. It fed the rest of the country—even George Clooney supported a coffee farm nearby. And its people were tolerant—all of South Sudan’s 64 tribes lived peacefully here. As an outsider, it seemed everyone slipped into casual conversation how everyone lived in harmony.
After her Rackova’s funeral, I had tea with a government official, a well-educated man who had the body of a linebacker, and watched a thunderstorm roll across the border of the Congo with him. The military had sent new troops into Yei that could not be controlled, like the three troops who killed Rackova, he told me. Many of the troops could not speak the local language and were from the region where President Salva Kiir is from. The soldiers roamed the streets at night, he said, drinking too much and terrorizing civilians. He started to cry—his community was unraveling beneath him, and he could do little to save it.
Five months later I visited him again, but Yei had tuned into something else entirely. A broken peace deal in July had restarted the country’s war and transplanted it to the once peaceful town of Yei.
In three out of the four directions, the town’s border essentially delineated the front lines of that conflict, and gunshots rung throughout the night. Civilians told stories of babies being hacked with machetes, women being gang-raped by these government soldiers, and men being arrested or executed at will.
According to the United Nations, South Sudan risks devolving into genocide—and Yei has become the epicenter of that crisis. When I met with the government official again, it was clear that he was trapped in Yei and could not leave out of fear for his family. He had tears in his eyes, and so did I as I listened.
Quietly, he, like other local government officials, told me privately that genocide was a possibility in this region, although if it actually happens depends on too many factors. I was shocked at their forwardness. The main culprit, they said, was an uncontrollable army that has a habit of turning their guns on the locals, considered “Equatorians,” which means people from a number of different tribes living in the southern region of the country.
And also like other government officials, he asked said that United Nations peacekeepers come to Yei to protect such an atrocity from happening.
U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan have a checkered history. In my first months in South Sudan, I was at a U.N. displacement camp in Malakal that government soldiers attacked, burning the homes of nearly 20,000 people, and killing at least 20. Some U.N. peacekeepers fled, while others failed to do their jobs. Lost in this story (that I mostly wrote for the Daily Beast and Al-Jazeera) was that many peacekeepers in Malakal did do what they were there to do. Some of them were incredibly brave and risked their lives, and the 12,000 peacekeepers across South Sudan have doubtlessly been effective in preventing a further outbreak of violence.
But they can do more.
Will U.N. blue helmets single handedly prevent genocide in Yei? No. If peacekeepers are sent to Yei, they will likely encounter an undisciplined military, a growing rebel movement who do not have a centralized command, and a government who will try and undercut their effectiveness. Already, the U.N. mission is under-resourced, and Kenya’s recent pullout of its peacekeepers has made it worse.
But at the same time, what is the point of peacekeepers, of the U.N. and international community, if they do not even try to keep the peace?
Peacekeepers would likely be able to directly improve civilians’ lives in two ways. Countless women told me they fear collecting food because government soldiers rape or kill them. Foot patrols could push back against this trend. A temporary operating base that would switch out troops and U.N. staff could also stem the tide of nighttime attacks, eliminating a prominent fear that civilians have.
The blue helmets could also work to alleviate tensions between rebel and government forces, and identify vulnerable groups at risk of attack. And the local government is ready to work with the U.N.
Most importantly, U.N. peacekeepers in Yei it would provide a semblance of security to civilians living in the region, or at least cause both government and rebel forces to think twice.
At the U.N. Security Council, the United States needs to do its part too. The U.S. will not send peacekeepers into Yei due to its domestic political situation, but it has a track record of galvanizing other nations to contribute their troops. That ability is needed now more than ever in South Sudan, and specifically with nations whose peacekeepers have a track record of performing well. Mongolian and Ghanaian troops, who have a history of carrying out their mandate to protect civilians, come to mind.
Inside the U.N. and other security organs, there are valid concerns about sending peacekeepers to Yei. If deployed, the blue helmets and their freedom of movement would almost certainly be curtailed by the government, their effectiveness limited, and possibly even attacked. These concerns should be addressed.
But there are also some inside the U.N. and other bodies making bad arguments: that sending peacekeepers would be a logistical nightmare, or that South Sudan’s government wouldn’t like it. Through the lens of history, these people will be remembered as a failure at best, and complicit in a genocide at worst.
At best, the peacekeepers would fix a small percentage of the issues in Yei. But in the face on an unthinkable massacre, isn’t that worth it?