Abraham Lubang’s tiny body is buried in a mound of dirt, more than 150 miles from his home in South Sudan. Surrounded by a pile of mismatched bricks, his grave is a few steps from the tent where he died on February 6, in a refugee settlement in northern Uganda. He was seven months old.

Less than a month earlier, Lubang’s parents, Abraham Wani and Mary Jande, woke up to the sound of gunshots in their village in South Sudan’s Lainya County. The family ran to a hiding place in the bush and began to walk toward the Ugandan border. Jande strapped Lubang to her back. The couple’s three other children, as young as two and three, traveled most of the way on foot. On January 15, six days after they left their village, the family crossed into Uganda and registered as refugees, Wani said. Lubang died less than three weeks later, weak from diarrhea and malnutrition.

Like most of their neighbors in this refugee settlement in Palorinya, Uganda, Lubang’s family fled attacks carried out by troops loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. A power struggle between Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, divided the national army along ethnic lines in December 2013, prompting soldiers from each faction to turn against each other in the capital of Juba. The fighting soon spread across the country, instigating a two-sided campaign of mass murder and rape. Estimates for the number of dead from the conflict range between 50,000 and 100,000, and some observers have speculated that the count could now be many tens of thousands higher. More than 1.5 million others have fled the country as refugees, and around 800,000 South Sudanese now live in northern Uganda. More than 570,000 of them have arrived since July.

Abraham Wani and Mary Jande at the grave of their son, Abraham Lubang, in Palorinya, Uganda, February 2017.
Abraham Wani and Mary Jande at the grave of their son, Abraham Lubang, in Palorinya, Uganda, February 2017.

An August 2015 peace deal between Kiir and Machar, brokered under the threat of UN sanctions, was supposed to prevent this kind of escalation. But before signing the deal, Kiir publicly acknowledged that he did not agree with its terms, signaling that the resolution—which required Machar to leave his base in Ethiopia and return to Juba to serve as Kiir’s first vice president—was doomed from the start. Machar did not arrive in Juba until April 2016 and stayed only until July, when fighting between troops in the capital left more than 300 people dead. He fled to Congo soon after and is now living in South Africa. Kiir’s government bombed his camp in Juba and replaced him in his role as vice president. South Sudan spiraled back into war. 

Adama Dieng, the UN’s special adviser for genocide prevention, visited South Sudan a few months later, in November. Upon his return to New York, he warned the UN Security Council that large-scale ethnic violence was under way and that he feared it could escalate to genocide. Dieng pointed to hate speech broadcast in traditional and social media, to escalating ethnic tensions, and to an abundance of weaponry as some of the factors that most worried him; he also suggested that the stagnant peace process and South Sudan’s dire need for humanitarian aid could make the situation worse. In a recent phone call, Dieng said that his experience working for the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda prepared him to recognize the signs of impending genocide. “We saw the ingredients in Rwanda,” he said. “Most of those ingredients are now in South Sudan.”

In February, the UN declared that a famine had arrived in certain parts of South Sudan’s north. Some people have already died of hunger, another 100,000 are at risk of starvation, and 40 percent of the country’s total population is in desperate need of food assistance. The disaster is entirely man-made: Farmers have lost their harvests to fighting that has destroyed their crops, and soldiers from both sides have regularly burned down entire fields. In other cases, they have killed or displaced the people who would have farmed them. Conflict has blocked important trade routes, making travel between certain towns impossible. The government has also blocked aid to some areas. U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the UN Michelle Sison said last week that those efforts could “amount to deliberate starvation tactics.” If the government continues to block humanitarian aid from reaching hunger-stricken places, such as some Nuer areas in Unity State, civilians perceived to be loyal to Machar will not receive the food they need to survive.


In recent months, as famine descended on the country’s north, Kiir’s forces ramped up their attacks on civilians in the southern region that borders Uganda, which had remained largely peaceful earlier in the war. South Sudanese officials claim that national army soldiers and members of allied Dinka militias have been weeding out rebels hiding in the area. In reality, Kiir’s forces have been attacking non-Dinka civilians whom they have accused of collaborating with Machar’s allies, often in revenge for small rebel assaults on government troops. Civilians who recently fled the region say that Kiir’s loyalists only shoot people who run. Those who stay behind face a worse fate. Soldiers gang rape the women and girls and then slit their throats. They often force men and boys to watch, and then they slaughter them as well.

Even in Juba, non-Dinkas live in fear of attacks by soldiers ostensibly under Kiir’s control. Since the beginning of the war, tens of thousands of civilians have taken shelter at a UN base in the city. Others in the capital have been packing up and leaving for Uganda and other neighboring countries.    

Jackson Dago, a member of the Baka ethnic group, left Juba, where he had been stationed as a police officer, in January. After chaos erupted in the capital in July, Dago’s Dinka supervisors refused to pay his salary and threatened to imprison him if he stopped showing up to work. In August, Dago was working on an overnight shift when his phone rang. It was a neighbor. Dinka soldiers had broken down his front door and shot his wife, 20-year-old Esther Ayujo, in front of their infant daughter. Ayujo was alive, but she had a bullet in her stomach and another in her thigh. Dago could only afford to have one of the bullets removed.

The young family moved in with relatives while Ayujo recovered, and Dago continued to serve as a police officer without pay. “When I worked, only two things would come to my mind,” Dago said. “One was my growing debt, and the other was that I was a slave.” The couple eventually borrowed money from Ayujo’s parents to pay for bus tickets to Uganda. Now a refugee, Ayujo still has a bullet lodged in her leg—a painful reminder of why she left South Sudan.

Esther Ayujo shows a scar from a bullet wound in Palorinya, Uganda, February 2017.
Esther Ayujo shows a scar from a bullet wound in Palorinya, Uganda, February 2017.


Attacks like these are common in Juba. At the beginning of the conflict, Dinka troops lined up Nuer civilians and executed them in the streets. In July, civilians claimed that soldiers went on a mass-raping spree, and that, in at least one case, peacekeepers looked the other way while government troops raped a woman publicly. Foreigners have also been drawn into the violence. On July 7, government soldiers manning a checkpoint near Kiir’s presidential palace fired dozens of rounds at two U.S. diplomatic vehicles. (South Sudanese officials later brushed off the incident as a misunderstanding.) Four days later, government soldiers broke into a compound housing foreign aid workers, raped at least three of them, and killed a Nuer journalist. “[Kiir] doesn’t control five blocks beyond his compound, let alone the furthest reaches of the country,” said Cameron Hudson, a former State Department and White House staffer who now directs the genocide prevention center at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. “Once you unleash these very powerful forces, which he’s doing and has done, it’s going to be almost impossible for him to rein them in.”

So far, the United States’ attempts to intervene in the conflict have failed. In December, a few weeks after Dieng warned the UN Security Council about the risk of genocide, the 15-member body shot down a U.S.-drafted arms embargo against Kiir’s government. South Sudan has also resisted the United Nations’ efforts to deploy a 4,000-member regional protection force to supplement the around 12,000 peacekeepers already in the country. The Security Council approved that deployment last August; thanks to the government's opposition, the arrival of the troops has been perpetually delayed.

“God gives and god takes away,” Wani said. “But where is the UN?”

Both of those attempts to stem the violence began during the presidency of Barack Obama. The new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump does not seem ready to take further action anytime soon. According to Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson turned down a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in February, passing the meeting to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, instead. Trump, for his part, rarely mentions events in Africa and has yet to name a new assistant secretary of state for African affairs or fill a number of lower-ranking but crucial positions at the State Department. “If there were to be a widespread outbreak of genocide in the country,” Hudson said, the United States would not be “as equipped from a staffing perspective in Washington to be able to respond as [it] should be.” As for the famine, aid organizations reported worsening conditions in South Sudan just as Trump’s administration announced that it planned to slash the United States’ foreign aid commitments, which have helped to keep civilians there alive. Last year, the United States paid for almost 40 percent of the costs for both the World Food Program and the UN refugee office. Cuts to those commitments could have dangerous effects for people like those running for their lives from South Sudan.

South Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda have not forgotten how the United States’ previous two presidents, Obama and George W. Bush, pushed their country toward independence from its northern neighbor in 2011, helping to end a decades-long war. Now civilians like Abraham Wani are deep in another one, wondering why the world no longer seems to care. “God gives and god takes away,” Wani said. “But where is the UN?” 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now