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The UN in South Sudan: impartial, unwavering and committed

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As the fighting broke out in Juba on the fateful night of 15 December, thousands of civilians flocked to the gates of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in search of protection. Old men carrying nothing but their walking sticks, wide-eyed children clutching their mothers, and pregnant women seeking shelter from the violent storm that raged the country. The United Nations decided to open its gates. Thousands streamed in.

It was not the first time. When inter-communal violence erupted in the Western Bahr El-Ghazal state capital of Wau one year before, large numbers of civilians sought shelter in the Mission's compound. Five thousand people were protected over the course of three days until the unrest had subsided. The same happened on several occasions in our basis in Pibor County in 2012 and
2013.

UNMISS Opened its Gates

But this time, the crisis was unprecedented. As the fighting spread like wildfire from Juba to the states of Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity, the numbers of internally displaced persons seeking refuge in the Mission's bases swelled. As head of the peacekeeping mission in this country, there was no doubt in my mind; we had to give protection to the civilians caught up in the crisis. While more than 85,000 people were given shelter in nine of our compounds, the numbers are now down to 75 000.

In doing so, UNMISS was fulfilling its mandate from the UN Security Council to protect civilians under imminent threat and acted in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. UNMISS is the first peacekeeping mission in the history of the UN to provide shelter to civilians in need in such large numbers.

It is a major burden of responsibility. Our facilities were never designed to be humanitarian camps or to accommodate such concentrations of people. That is also why conditions are very difficult. The areas where people are taking shelter are overcrowded and way below any international standards for a camp for displaced persons. Nevertheless, the Mission is doing its utmost to accommodate everyone, and we are now working around the clock to find alternative solutions ahead of the rainy season.

Improving Security

Another major concern with regard to the Protection of Civilian sites is security. Important steps have been taken to improve the safety and security within and around the compounds. This includes screening of every person that enters the camp to make sure no weapons are getting in. We are conducting regular weapons searches in all the camps, including with the use of metal detectors and specially trained dogs. In addition, frequent patrols by UN police and peacekeepers are contributing to a more secure environment. We have also strengthened perimeter security to prevent insecurity within - and in the immediate vicinity of the Protection of Civilians sites of the UNMISS compounds. UNMISS has supported long-awaited operations by South Sudanese police to clear the areas in the vicinity of the UNMISS camps in Juba, to make sure no acts of violence take place and no criminal activity happens.

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A UN Peacekeeper patrols and protects civilians in the UN base in Malakal, South Sudan | UNMISS Photo

The gates of the UNMISS compounds were opened to all unarmed civilians facing an imminent threat of physical violence -- regardless of their ethnicity, gender, creed or political affiliation. Many stories have been told about the 'harbouring of rebels' in UNMISS compounds. According to the Geneva Conventions, which South Sudan has ratified, shelter must be provided to anyone seeking protection, whatever their background, including ex-combatants - provided they leave uniforms and weapons behind and respect the civilian character of the camps. The number of ex-combatants is few, however. Around 80 percent of the displaced persons in the Protection of Civilians' sites are women and children, and that includes the Tomping base in Juba.

Delivery for the People

And UNMISS has not only provided protection. As of 22 February, UNMISS had treated 14,745 people in 13 medical clinics, including 1,849 for gunshot wounds. We had evacuated hundreds of casualties from areas of heavy fighting. Wounded combatants from both sides have also received medical treatment in UNMISS bases. Since the onset of the crisis, as of 10 February, 173 babies have entered this world with the support of UNMISS medical staff in our UNMISS bases.

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UN provides medical assistance to IDPs at one of the UN bases, South Sudan | UNMISS Photo

A unique partnership has been established with humanitarian organizations, which have provided basic services to the displaced. UN agencies and humanitarian partners are doing all they can to improve nutritional standards and access to health care to the civilians within our bases all over the country.

Dr. Monday Kato, a national UN Volunteer working for UNICEF established a makeshift health clinic with the support of UNMISS staff at the protection-of-civilian in Bentiu on 21 December. During a seven-day period ending on 30 December, Dr. Kato's field clinic registered 1,338 patients. His example inspired dozens of internally displaced persons living inside our bases. They also volunteered their services in support of a measles and polio immunization campaign that Dr. Kato launched. By the end of that campaign, over 3,200 children under the age of 15 had been vaccinated.

Working with government authorities, UNICEF and several NGOs, UNMISS helped facilitate that more than 400 displaced children living in our Juba compounds could join thousands of their peers in taking their primary school exams. The children have endured enough throughout the weeks of crisis, and should not face a double burden of having also their education interrupted.

But we have not only helped displaced civilians seeking shelter in our compound. Also in states less affected by the crisis, the UN continues to assist the people and the country in its development. Piped water systems have been completed in Yirol and Turalei, and similar water projects facilitated by UNMISS are underway in Gok Machar, Ezo and Kapoeta. In Maridi county, and through UNMISS' assistance and the efforts of the local community, a new bridge has also been recently constructed, linking Madubai Boma with Maridi town. This has improved the lives for 28.000 people who had suffered after the old bridge had been washed away.

While Mission staff has worked around the clock to help the people of South Sudan during these difficult times, we have also been confronted with unfounded rumors or for that matter fabrication about meetings and phone calls by Mission leadership that have never taken place; these are baseless accusations and misrepresentations of our role. There have been suggestions that UNMISS is supporting opposition forces, handing over weapons and even transporting its leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth. The UN has not and will not take sides in any conflict of this nature. In the context of this crisis, the Security Council has instructed the Mission to observe complete impartiality towards all of the country's parties and communities.

This also relates to the implementation of our human rights mandate. Investigations into the grave violations and atrocities committed during the recent crisis are ongoing. I condemn in the strongest possible terms the atrocities committed against innocent civilians of different communities by elements from both sides during the crisis. These people need to be brought to justice. Such accountability is also critical for reconciliation to take root.

An interim report has been released which includes reports on serious violations and abuse in Juba, Bor, Bentiu and Malakal, by both sides. The investigations will be completed in time for a comprehensive human rights report to be made public at the end of April.

The Road Ahead

The road towards reconciliation and a better future for South Sudan will be long and arduous. The UN has been supporting the youngest country in the world since its first day of independence, and we will be there every step of the way, impartial, unwavering and committed to the future of this sovereign nation.

UNMISS believes in the future of South Sudan. I call on all leaders to put the country's interest before their own. I call on all South Sudanese citizens to put the country's interest before that of their own community's. Lately, I have seen wise young people spotting T-shirts with a very appropriate slogan: "My tribe is South Sudan". Now these words have become a campaign for unity and peace, spreading among thousands of young South Sudanese. With the crisis the country is now enduring, this slogan should be adopted by all leaders and citizens of South Sudan..

If this could happen, and reconciliation can take root, with fundamental reforms being implemented in critical areas, there will be brighter days ahead for this country and its resilient people.

Then, and only then, will we be able to witness a new dawn for South Sudan. Only then will the babies born in our compounds during the crisis have a chance for a peaceful and better tomorrow.

Hilde F. Johnson is the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in South Sudan and Head of UNMISS.

Find out more at www.unmiss.unmissions.org and www.un.org/peacekeeping