The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations says the South Sudanese government is engaged in a brutal, protracted military campaign against a fragmented opposition and says, while both sides are responsible for atrocities against civilians, the government is primarily responsible for ethnically based killings.
Nikki Haley, who made those remarks Wednesday at Washington's Holocaust Museum, says nothing prepared her for the level of suffering she saw when she recently visited South Sudanese refugee camps.
"Entire families are living with nothing but a tarp over their heads. Women are giving birth on dirt floors, floors that have now turned to mud by the fact that it is the rainy season," Haley said. "There is nothing that prepares you for the sobs of the South Sudanese women, nearly all of whom have been raped, sometimes repeatedly."
She spoke of one story in particular: "One woman told me about being gang raped. She told me about how soldiers ripped the baby out of her arms and threw him in the fire."
High hopes for Kiir
Haley traveled to South Sudan last month, becoming the first senior member of the Trump administration to do so. She said the United States at one point had high hopes for the country's leader, Salva Kiir, but there is now revulsion with what he has allowed to happen the past few years.
She said there are limits to U.S. patience and generosity regarding the conflict.
"His government and his soldiers have caused the suffering of millions of South Sudanese people," Haley said. "To his credit, he did not try to deny it, but acknowledgment of evil is not enough. We have to take a side."
She welcomed Kiir's order this week requiring free and unhindered access for humanitarian groups in South Sudan.
Haley's remarks were followed by a panel discussion with journalists and activists, some who have recently visited the country.
Telling South Sudan's story
"We are now blaming most of the atrocities on the government, which is what is happening in the latter part of this conflict," said Simona Foltyn, a South Sudan-focused journalist and videographer. "The rebels also committed real bad atrocities in the beginning, and just because these are the dynamics right now that does not mean the rebels are really better."
Foltyn added, "If they were put in a different environment where the civilians are Dinka, I would suspect there would be a lot of atrocities being committed by the rebels as well."
Nyagoah Tut Pur, a lawyer, human rights activist and member of the South Sudan Young Leaders Forum, argued in favor of establishing an evidence collection mechanism.
"Memories fade, and in such a topography like South Sudan, evidence gets lost. It can be destroyed when people realize that one day they'll be held into account," Pur said. "So it's very critical that today we collect that evidence. Because, at the end of the day, it is not how the war was fought, but it is the narrative that is told after the war is over."
For South Sudan freelance journalist Jason Patinkin, who has also worked for VOA, the question that needs to be asked of Ambassador Haley and others should be: "OK, you have talked tough. What would you do? What would you do to actually end this war and bring accountability?"
Focus on the conflict
As part of a focus on the conflict, and in collaboration with FotoWeekDC, a citywide festival focused on photography, the journalists' work — large-sized stills photos and videos — are being projected on the exterior walls of the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Joshua Bolten, vice chairman emeritus and a member of the Holocaust Memorial Council, told the audience the threat of genocide is very much alive today, in places such as Myanmar, the plains of Iraq, and perhaps nowhere as acute as in South Sudan.
"At this moment, we know it's not enough for people to learn about the history and ask what would I have done? We all have the responsibility to ask what will we do now," Bolten said.