Just over a month ago, I sat with a woman named Mary in a small, dust-filled compound in Jonglei State, South Sudan. We talked about her family and her future, but mostly about the violence that caused her to flee her home. A few days before my colleagues from Refugees International and I met Mary, she had escaped from Pibor town in southern Jonglei, where attacks on civilians had forced tens of thousands of people to flee into the bush.
Mary was among the lucky few who found shelter in the local United Nations compound as violence raged outside. She later made her way to a nearby town, away from the violence unfolding in Pibor. But most of Mary’s relatives were not so lucky. They remained stuck in the bush, cut off from any assistance and fearful for their lives.
It took weeks before this displacement crisis began to make international news, and once it did, journalists and commentators jumped into action, attempting to disentangle the violence and explain how things got so bad. Many followed the lead of the South Sudan government, which blamed tribal gangs and rebel groups for the atrocities. Some pointed out that Pibor has long been a hotbed of inter-communal violence, with roughly 50,000 people displaced in early 2012 by clashes between Murle and Lou Nuer fighters.
But this time, the situation in Pibor is very different. As Mary told me, it was not inter-communal violence which who forced her to flee — it was the South Sudanese army. South Sudanese soldiers went door-to-door in Pibor town, attacking civilians, burning down hundreds of homes and shops, and ransacking the offices of aid organizations like Médicines Sans Frontières. The army cut off access to tens of thousands of people and prevented them from receiving food and other lifesaving aid. And now, they need to be held to account — both by the international community and in the court of public opinion.
The conflict in Jonglei is undoubtedly among the most complex in the world. Grasping the many layers and relationships is difficult, but the media has a responsibility to accurately explain what is happening so policymakers and the public can respond. Treating this crisis as just another bout of tribal conflict, when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise, insulates South Sudanese authorities from the kind of political pressure that might bring a stop to their abuses.
It is important to correct the record by highlighting a few vital points about the crisis in Pibor. First, it is untrue to say that the 150,000 displaced fled as a result of attacks by rebel leader David Yau Yau, or because of fighting between his forces and the South Sudanese army. When my Refugees International colleagues and I met displaced persons who escaped from Pibor town, they told us that they had fled attacks by the army before David Yau Yau’s forces were even in the area. While the threat of clashes between the two groups undoubtedly created further displacement, active fighting was not the main driver of displacement.
Second, while there has been inter-communal violence in recent weeks between the Lou Nuer and Murle, it is distinct from the abuses perpetrated by the South Sudanese army. Indeed, the 150,000 people now displaced in Pibor had fled well before the recent tribal clashes began.
Third, most humanitarian agencies have been unable to reach people in need because the South Sudanese government has prevented them from moving — not because of insecurity or poor weather conditions. After South Sudanese troops shot down a United Nations helicopter in December, the UN and aid agencies now ask for permission before traveling —permission which is routinely denied by the government. Some aid organizations chose to withdraw from parts of Jonglei because of the security situation, but many others begged for access to the wounded only to be blocked by government authorities.
The ongoing crisis in Jonglei desperately needs the media’s attention, but we must tell the whole story. Failing to identify the army’s role in the violence perpetuates a false narrative and allows soldiers to attack and abuse civilians with impunity. We cannot continue to let South Sudan’s government and military off the hook, and the international community must start holding them accountable.
Refugees International is a DC-based non-profit organization that works to end displacement crises worldwide and accepts no government or UN funding.
This post originally appeared at MEDIUM.