Photo/IllutrationThe Ground Self-Defense Force base in South Sudan (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Ground Self-Defense Force members on deployment to South Sudan in 2016 were exposed to stray gunfire on their base and evacuated to a safe shelter as heavy fighting broke out between the African nation's military and rebel forces.

The internal document obtained by The Asahi Shimbun contains a much more tense and dangerous situation posed to GSDF forces than what was being reported to the public at the time.

Gunfire between the South Sudan military and rebel forces was exchanged on July 10 and 11, 2016, in an area sandwiching the base set up by the GSDF engineering unit deployed to the African nation as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation.

The document said that 25 stray bullets were found in the premises and damage was confirmed to nine facilities at the base during a search conducted after the fighting ended.

While the Defense Ministry in 2017 released daily logs from South Sudan GSDF units, there was no mention of any damage to the base or how members dealt with the situation.

The gunfire exchange occurred when the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was considering an expansion of the duties of SDF members dispatched abroad. Experts said there may have been an effort to conceal the true extent of the danger to SDF members in South Sudan to avoid heavy criticism from opposition parties as well as to placate concerns SDF family members may have had if told the true nature of the situation.

The internal document was an 86-page report compiled by the 10th contingent of engineering corps members dispatched to South Sudan from their base in Hokkaido. The report covers the six months of activities in South Sudan and provides details of the damage incurred during the internecine fighting and what was done after the incident.

The report said the fighting extended to an area around the GSDF base from July 10, 2016, until the following day. The 350 or so members at the base evacuated to a bullet-resistant shelter and no one was hurt.

However, the report added that it was not possible to remain in the shelter for long because it was not designed with daily living in mind.

A few days after the fighting ended, GSDF members conducted an investigation of damage to the base and confirmed that nine facilities had been hit and 25 bullets were collected in the base. One bullet pierced a handrail on a stairway leading up to a surveillance post.

Three shells landed on the nearby base of a unit from Rwanda that injured five members.

On July 12, 2016, then Defense Minister Gen Nakatani only said that scattered gunfire had been observed.

On July 21, 2016, Toshiya Okabe, the GSDF chief of staff, held a news conference in which he admitted that some of the bullets had landed within the GSDF base. However, the Defense Ministry did not provide further details.

In fact, in November 2016, a new contingent of GSDF members was dispatched to South Sudan with new authorization to engage in "kaketsuke-keigo" activities, which literally means "rushing (to distant places) to protect and rescue (people)," when members of peacekeeping operations or other nongovernmental organizations come under attack.

Military analyst Shoji Fukuyoshi said the government deliberately failed to disclose all information regarding the military conflict in South Sudan.

"If the information had been disclosed, family members of the GSDF members would have become more concerned, and the government might not have been able to authorize the new protect-and-rescue activities," Fukuyoshi said.

Meanwhile, the GSDF officer who headed the 10th contingent said evacuation drills had been conducted ever since the unit arrived in South Sudan from about June 2016.

Col. Osamu Churiki said about the July fighting, "We were not surprised because we conducted even more strenuous training."

He added that members were convinced they were not the target of the gunfire because the bullets were observed passing well over their heads.

Churiki, who now serves as chief of staff of the GSDF Northern Army's 11th Brigade based in Hokkaido, said that the incident did not lead to having any member return early to Japan or interfere with the unit's work in the area.