This post was updated on November 2 at 2:45 p.m.
On July 11, South Sudanese soldiers invaded the Terrain hotel in the capital city of Juba and gang-raped foreign aid workers.
"The soldiers just came to the bathroom where all the girls were hiding and they just picked us out of the bathroom one by one," says one of the women who was in the hotel. She asked that her name not be used.
Despite calls for help to the U.N. compound a mile down the road, no one came.
And now the U.N. has issued a report that addresses the attack — and takes action. On November 2, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that he has fired the head of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan over the failure of U.N. troops to protect civilians and U.N. staff during violence in Juba in July.
A new report from a special investigator set up by Ban's office found serious shortcomings with the response of the peacekeeping mission when fighting broke out in the South Sudanese capital between government troops and soldiers loyal to opposition leader Riek Machar.
The report states that despite calls for assistance at the hotel, the U.N. peacekeeping troops didn't intervene as South Sudanese government troops raped, killed and tortured civilians, including U.N. staffers.
The special investigator also notes that peacekeepers failed to protect South Sudanese civilians who'd taken shelter at a so-called "protection of civilian" [POC] site on the U.N.'s main base. At least 20 residents of the POC were killed and 185 buildings on the U.N. base were hit with rocket and gunfire. The peacekeepers also failed to protect U.N. assets including a World Food Program warehouse from looting.
Ban's office today announced that Kenyan General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki is being relieved of duty as the top military officer for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Ondieki had been appointed to the position in May.
According to the Associated Press, Kenya has announced that it will pull its troops out of South Sudan in protest of Ondieki's firing.
The violence in July — and the hotel attack — sent shock waves through the aid community — even in a country where violence is commonplace and a simmering civil war has been reignited.
"Certainly something changed and things happened that we were not used to seeing happen," says Steve McCann, a security and risk assessment specialist. Afterward, some relief agencies have evacuated staff, and others have scaled back their operations.
The incident happened amid a whirlwind of fighting that erupted in Juba last month between government troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and soldiers aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar. Machar and his soldiers had recently come back from exile as part of a peace process to end a conflict that began in 2013.
But Machar's return quickly sparked open combat between armies split predominantly along ethnic lines.
When the fighting began on July 8 in the dusty dirt streets of Juba, foreign aid workers hunkered down in their compounds. The violence raged for four days and left more than 300 people dead, including refugees inside a United Nations compound and two Chinese peacekeepers. Thousands of people fled their homes.
On the southwestern edge of the capital, more than two dozen aid workers took shelter inside the grounds of the Terrain Hotel. The hotel, less than a mile from a large United Nations peacekeeping base, is popular with foreigners. During the fighting most of the foreign aid workers who sought shelter there were from the United States, Australia and the Philippines.
"There were intermittent highs and lows in the fighting," says the American woman who spoke to NPR. "There was a lot of military activity on the road outside of our compound. We were told [by our head office] that they were trying to evacuate us but there were too many checkpoints along the road. That it wasn't safe and that we just need to just sit there and wait."
Pillage And Rape
On the fourth day of the fighting dozens of South Sudanese troops broke through the gate into the hotel grounds.
A group of about 30 foreign aid workers and a South Sudanese editor who was working for a USAID-funded project barricaded themselves in the second story of a block of apartments at the hotel. The block had been built as a "safe house" with metal gates on the balconies and steel reinforced doors.
For several hours the soldiers pillaged the hotel, ripping out appliances, ransacking rooms and even carting off the generator. The holed-up humanitarians frantically called the U.N., the U.S. Embassy and private security firms to send help.
But help did not arrive. At a U.N. base just up the road, armed peacekeepers with armored vehicles couldn't get authorization to leave their base and go to the hotel. The U.S. Embassy didn't have the resources to dispatch a rescue team. Private security companies also said the streets were too dangerous to reach the Terrain Hotel.
"The soldiers were trying to break down the door and then they started shooting through the door," says the American woman. One bullet hit a Vermont-based contractor in the leg.
Finally the door gave way.
Once they got in, the predominantly Dinka government soldiers shot and killed John Gatluak, a South Sudanese journalist. Gatluak, who was from the Nuer ethnic group, was working for Internews, a USAID-funded project to teach media skills to local journalists.
Then the soldiers grabbed the women who were hiding in the bathroom.
"The soldier that picked me, he walked me into another room," says the American. "The room that he walked me into, there was blood on the floor and there were panties on the floor. So I knew what he was going to do."
She collapsed on the floor in a fetal position, clutching her knees to her chest and refusing to move.
"He kept hitting me with an AK-47, yelling at me to open my legs," the American woman says. She says the soldier kept screaming at her, "'Open your legs. I'm going to kill you if you don't open your legs.'"
Eventually, she says, another soldier who appeared to be a commander ordered the soldier to stop. She says she was not raped. But at least five women were. One told the Associated Press that 15 men assaulted her for hours.
Hours after the attack on the hotel began, most of the aid workers were finally taken out of there by security forces aligned with the same government troops that had attacked them. Three of the Western women weren't rescued until the next morning.
Insecurity For Aid Groups
McCann, the security specialist, says South Sudan has been a dangerous place for years. His company, Safer Edge, trains international relief groups in conflict zones around the world.
In the past McCann didn't expect that foreign aid workers in South Sudan would be directly and personally attacked.
"No," he says. "We didn't feel that international staff were the targets. No."
There are places in the world where international aid workers simply can't operate — parts of Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, for instance. Before the Terrain Hotel attack, South Sudan wasn't one of those no-go zones. And McCann cautions that this incident won't cause all aid agencies to pull their foreigners out of the country. But the growing insecurity will force groups to reassess their operations and be far more cautious in South Sudan.
Julien Schopp with Interaction, an umbrella group for development and relief agencies based in Washington, says this incident was the culmination of two years of growing insecurity for aid workers in South Sudan.
"If you look at the latest aid worker security report, for the first time South Sudan is the most insecure location in the world, overtaking Afghanistan and Somalia, where we expect more violence," Schopp says.
The insecurity for aid agencies in South Sudan comes at the same time the need for international relief is growing rapidly. There's a cholera outbreak, malaria is on the rise, 2 1/2 million people have been driven from their homes and millions more are dependent on international food rations. During the eruption of violence in July, even those food rations weren't safe. An entire warehouse for the U.N. World Food Programme in Juba was ransacked.
NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Of the major conflicts in the world right now, perhaps the most forgotten after Yemen is South Sudan. It became the newest country in the world just five years ago, but then it fell into civil war. We'll hear about how in a few minutes.
But first a report on a vicious attack on aid workers last month at a hotel in South Sudan's capital, Juba. Because of that attack, some aid agencies have evacuated staff, and others have scaled back their operations. A warning here - this story includes graphic descriptions of violence. Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: As fighting erupted last month in the dusty dirt streets of Juba, foreign aid workers hunkered down in their compounds across the city. The violence raged for four days and left more than 300 people dead. On the southwestern edge of the capital, more than two dozen aid workers took shelter inside the grounds of the Terrain Hotel. Most of them were foreigners from the United States, Australia, the Philippines. On the fourth day of the fighting, South Sudanese troops broke through the hotel gate.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We kind of heard them going through, ransacking all of the cabins on the compound.
BEAUBIEN: This woman, who's asked that we don't use her name, retreated along with about 30 other people into a second-story apartment block at the hotel.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The soldiers were trying to break down the door, and then they started shooting through the door.
BEAUBIEN: For several hours as the soldiers pillaged the Terrain Hotel, humanitarians frantically called to the U.N., the U.S. embassy and private security firms to send help. At the U.N. base just a mile up the road, armed peacekeepers with armored vehicles stayed sheltered inside their base. The U.S. Embassy said it didn't have the resources to dispatch a rescue team. And private security companies also said the streets were too dangerous to reach them.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When they finally broke down the door, the soldiers just came to the bathroom where all of the girls were hiding, and they just picked us out of the bathroom one by one.
BEAUBIEN: The government soldiers also took out a local South Sudanese journalist who was working for Internews, a USAID-funded media development project, and they shot him to death in the yard. Then the soldiers turned back to the women.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He kept hitting me with an AK-47 over and over again and screaming at me to open my legs, open my legs. You know, I'm going to kill you if you don't open your legs.
BEAUBIEN: Eventually she says a commander ordered the soldier to stop before she was raped. Others weren't so fortunate. At least five women were raped. One told the Associated Press she was sexually assaulted for hours by 15 men.
Steve McCann, a security and risk assessment specialist based in the U.K., says the Terrain Hotel incident signals a shift in this conflict.
STEVE MCCANN: Certainly something changed and things happened that we're not used to seeing happen.
BEAUBIEN: McCann's company, Safer Edge, works training international relief groups in war zones around the world, including South Sudan. He said South Sudan has been a dangerous place for years, but in the past, he didn't expect foreign aid workers would be directly and personally attacked.
MCCANN: No, we didn't feel as though international staff were the targets, no.
BEAUBIEN: There are places in the world where international aid workers are the targets - parts of Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, for instance. Before the Terrain Hotel attack, South Sudan was considered dangerous, but it wasn't one of those no-go countries. Julien Schopp with Interaction, an umbrella group for development and relief agencies based in Washington, says this incident was the culmination of growing insecurity for aid workers in South Sudan.
JULIEN SCHOPP: If you look at the latest aid worker security report, for the first time, South Sudan is the most insecure location in the world, overtaking Afghanistan, Somalia, where we expect more violence.
BEAUBIEN: Aid agencies in South Sudan are having to reassess their operations at the same time that there's a cholera outbreak. Malaria's on the rise. Two and a half million people have been driven from their homes, and millions more are in need of international food aid. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.