April 28, 2014

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN/NEW YORK APRIL 28, 2014 – The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today condemned unspeakable acts of violence in Bentiu, South Sudan, after it received information detailing targeted killings in the city’s main hospital.

Information provided to MSF describe gruesome targeted killings, some of which occurred in Bentiu State Hospital during and following a battle in the town on April 15, and indicate a disturbing trend of escalating violence and brutality in the country. Tens of thousands of people fled to United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) bases for safety, where they now face life-threatening living conditions.

“What I saw in Bentiu—bodies of civilians strewn through the streets in grisly states of damage and decay, being eaten by dogs and birds—was an affront to humanity,” said Raphael Gorgeu, MSF head of mission. “The violence in South Sudan has taken a particularly ugly turn, stripping people of their most basic human dignity. It is a terrible thing to witness.”

MSF calls on all armed actors to cease targeted killings, to ensure the behavior and accountability of fighters under their command, and to assume responsibility for populations in areas under their control.

Based on accounts from eyewitnesses, MSF received credible information that as many as 33 people were killed in Bentiu State Hospital, including one Ministry of Health employee.  An MSF team visited Bentiu last week to conduct an independent assessment and gather first-hand testimonies from eyewitnesses.

“MSF staff heard tales of horrific brutality taking place on the hospital grounds from those who were present at the time of the attack,” said Christopher Lockyear, MSF operations manager for South Sudan. “While patients were not specifically targeted, people who fled to the hospital in search of safety were selectively targeted based on their identities and loyalties. Once again, we see that hospitals in South Sudan, places that should be protected safe havens, are increasingly places of attack and cruelty.”

Two witnesses recounted how a group of 21 people from the Darfur region of Sudan were taken from the hospital and killed behind the facility’s compound.  An additional group of five ethnic Nuer civilians, including one female, were shot and killed inside the compound. Other victims include additional Darfuris and one member of the Dinka ethnic group.

Following the heavy fighting, MSF dispatched an additional surgical team and medical supplies by air to reinforce the existing team in Bentiu. More than 230 war-wounded people are being treated for gunshot wounds.

One medical staff member present during the incident at the hospital provided the following account:

Fighting started around 6:30 in the morning. Civilians and defectors fled to the hospital compound when the fighting began. Opposition forces entered the compound around 9:30, searching for defectors. The soldiers were accusing us of being on the side of the Government, saying anyone that stayed in Bentiu under government control were traitors. We told them we were medical staff. 

I was hiding under one of the buildings with other hospital staff. We saw a group of people killed. In the group was a Ministry of Health staff, a Darfuri man, one Nuer woman and two Nuer men. The Darfuri resisted being taken away and the entire group was killed. Twenty-two Darfuris were taken behind the compound and 21 of them were killed. One was a child, so he wasn’t killed.

Later I saw the bodies of three Darfuris that had been killed in front of the hospital and another three Darfuris that were killed inside the hospital grounds. I was here when they brought the wounded Darfuris from the mosque. They were beaten and robbed by other patients in uniform, who didn’t want them in the hospital. After the soldiers left, I went to the UNMISS compound – I don’t feel safe at the hospital anymore. Many people have relations in both armies. I’m afraid to leave the UN base.

Thousands of people fled for their lives to the nearby UNMISS base, which swelled from 6,000 people to more than 22,000 within a matter of days. Aid organizations were not equipped to care for them. There is only one toilet for every 130 people in the camp, and people are resorting to open defecation. People receive fewer than 6 liters of water per person per day, far less than the emergency minimum standard of 15 liters.

If not urgently addressed, the crowded living conditions and lack of water and sanitation could lead to people dying from preventable diseases. The displaced face a desperate choice between grave health conditions inside the UNMISS base and life-threatening security conditions outside. Some of the displaced told MSF staff they decided to take their chances by returning to live in Bentiu town.

“While organizations like MSF remain committed to caring for those caught up in the conflict as best we can, we are very alarmed that the situation is spiraling out of control,” said Gorgeu. “The capacity of aid organizations is not limitless. It remains the moral and legal responsibility of all armed actors to limit civilian casualties, facilitate humanitarian assistance, and respect medical facilities. It’s time for the opposition and government to step up.”

Before the start of the conflict in South Sudan, MSF managed an HIV/TB project in Bentiu State Hospital and ran 11 other projects in 8 of South Sudan’s 10 states, providing a range of health care services. Since December 15, 2013, MSF increased its capacity to respond to emergency medical needs in the country and now works in 21 projects in 9 states, providing basic health care, nutritional support, surgery, vaccinations, and water and sanitation support. In the first four months of the crisis, MSF teams carried out more than 200,000 outpatient consultations, of which almost 85,000 were of children under the age of five.