YEI, South Sudan (AP) — When South Sudan's Yei region turned violent in the midst of the country's civil war last year, a handful of U.N. and U.S. officials begged their leaders for help. Government soldiers were burning villages and slaughtering men, women and children, they warned.
Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The U.N. did not send peacekeeping troops to stay in Yei, and the U.S. continued to support South Sudan's military, possibly in violation of U.S. law, according to an AP investigation based on dozens of internal documents and interviews.
Yei became the center of a nationwide campaign of what the U.N. calls "ethnic cleansing," which has created the largest exodus of civilians in Africa since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. More than 1 million people have now fled to Uganda, mostly from the Yei region. And tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan have died.
Kate Almquist Knopf, director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the U.S. Defense Department, compared the situation in South Sudan to Rwanda.
"The reality is that Rwanda happened while the U.N. was there, while the international community was there, and they didn't do anything. The same thing is happening now in South Sudan," said Knopf. "It's happening on Africa's watch. It's happening on America's watch. It's happening on the United Nations watch. It's happening on everyone's watch."
The U.N. says it is still considering sending a permanent peacekeeping force to Yei if it gets more troops. The U.N. now has about 12,000 peacekeepers throughout South Sudan, but U.S. officials say it would take roughly 40,000 to secure the country.
"It's all about what resources the mission has available," said spokesman Daniel Dickinson.
The U.S. budgeted $30 million in aid to South Sudan's military for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years and gave further $2 million in July for a military and security operations center. The assistance appears to violate a U.S. law prohibiting support to any unit that has committed a gross violation of human rights. South Sudanese soldiers are accused of gang-raping women and killing people, including civilians and a journalist. The government has denied "ethnic cleansing."
A spokesperson for the State Department said military officials who received assistance "were vetted and not credibly implicated in the gross violation of human rights."
However, the U.S. aid is a "red flag," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the law. "The South Sudanese security forces, like their rebel counterparts, are notorious for violating human rights without fear of being punished. We do not want the United States to be associated with such misconduct."
South Sudan, the world's youngest country, has received more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid every year from the U.S. and the U.N. In 2013, civil war broke out. A peace deal brokered by the U.S. and the international community collapsed in July 2016.
That month, government troops rampaged through the town of Nyori in the Yei region, according to a former local official. Like others, he spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.
He ran into the bush to hide, and returned three days later to carnage.
"I witnessed with my own eyes, young children, they were slaughtered," he said.
Rose Kiden fled when the soldiers swarmed her house. She said she came back to find her sister on the floor, after being raped by eight soldiers. Her husband was killed by government troops when he went to collect food.
But even as the violence near Yei spread, Kiden said, U.N. vehicles drove by without stopping.
"They didn't do anything," she said. "They just passed."
When U.N. officials visited Yei in September 2016, they were horrified by stories of women gang-raped and a baby hacked with a machete.
"If the security situation is not rapidly stabilized, the protection crisis in Yei will swiftly become a multi-faceted humanitarian crisis," said a U.N. report from Sept. 15 obtained by AP to the top U.N. leader in South Sudan at the time, Ellen Loj.
After nearly two months, the U.N. started sending small, temporary patrols to the Yei region, but the violence merely continued after they left. On Nov. 11, special advisor Adama Dieng warned about "the potential for genocide."
That month, the U.N. decided not to send a permanent force to Yei. When asked why at her farewell press conference on Nov. 28, Loj said the U.N. did not as yet have enough troops.
"South Sudan is a big country and we cannot have a soldier behind each and every South Sudanese," she said.
During another U.N. visit in February this year, a community leader from the Yei area said he had begged for peacekeepers three times in the past few weeks.
"We need imminent protection before it's too late," he said, according to an internal report. "If we get killed because we told you the truth today so be it."
Hours later the U.N. left.
The U.S. also struggled to respond to the crisis in South Sudan, according to documents and interviews. In July 2016, the South Sudanese military fired dozens of bullets into two U.S. embassy vehicles.
Still, the U.S. continued to believe it could fix South Sudan's military. In September, President Barack Obama sought a "long-term military to military relationship" with South Sudan and allowed military training and education, according to a letter to Congress obtained by AP.
"Once again in South Sudan, we have shown a pattern of having bad analysis, either ignoring the symptoms of the problem entirely, not seeing them, or analyzing them in the wrong way," said Cameron Hudson, the director of African affairs at the National Security Council in the Bush administration.
The U.S. also got approval from the U.N. Security Council for 4,000 extra U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan, but failed to get the South Sudan government to accept them.
In the fall, a dissent cable drafted within the State Department argued that U.S. support for the peace deal and failure to act was fueling violence.
"The risks of famine, continued mass atrocities, and genocide are among the highest in the world," the draft cable said. The risks of not changing U.S. policy, it continued, "are immediate and unacceptably high." The draft was never finalized because it did not gain enough support, and senior officials said pulling out of the peace deal would have created even more violence.
Today, more than 18,000 homes have been destroyed in the Yei region. Hundreds of people have died, and many more have fled.
A pastor from the Yei area at a refugee camp in Uganda said he felt abandoned by the U.N. and the world.
"They could have protected people's lives," he said. "They could have saved us from coming to this camp."