Story highlights

Haley visited a refugee camp in Ethiopia's western region of Gambella on the border with South Sudan

South Sudan is a major focus of her diplomatic mission, the conflict in the country has been marked by brutal attacks on civilians

(CNN) —  

After getting a first-hand glimpse of the impact of South Sudan’s brutal civil war, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the US bears an important responsibility to push for an end to the conflict.

Haley, the first Cabinet-level official in the Trump administration to go to sub-Saharan Africa, visited a refugee camp in Ethiopia’s western region of Gambella on the border with South Sudan. Nearly 400,000 refugees have fled to Gambella, outnumbering even the local population.

“No human being should live the way these people have lived, should have the memories that these people have and should feel the pain that they have felt,” she said after a day visiting with refugees and meeting with aid officials. “It’s just inconceivable.”

Haley is in Ethiopia on the first stop of a three-nation tour that will also take her to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Next to Uganda, Ethiopia hosts the second largest number of South Sudanese fleeing the conflict.

South Sudan is a major focus of her diplomatic mission, the conflict in the country has been marked by brutal attacks on civilians, including sexual violence against women. Some parts of the country have experienced famine, and the swelling refugee crisis is now reminiscent of what happened after the Rwandan genocide, with 4 million people, one third of the population displaced from their homes.

Aid groups say that South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, has impeded the access of humanitarian aid workers, which has further exacerbated the misery.

Haley visited the Nguenyyiel refugee camp in Ethiopia, where South Sudanese women told her horrific stories of watching their children being killed by enemy forces during the conflict.

“You felt the pain in that room,” Haley said. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s terrible. And to see one tell their story and the rest of the women start to cry, as a woman I feel for them, because they saw their husbands killed, they saw their children killed. They have been forced to survive, and they still miss home. They still want to go home. They are tough, and they manage to keep a smile on their face. It’s really such an amazing sense of inspiration to see the survival to see what these people have gone through.”

It was her first visit to Africa, and Haley was visibly moved by what she saw.

Though she has visited camps in Turkey and Jordan for refugees displaced by Syria’s civil war, Haley said the conditions for South Sudanese were the worse she had ever seen. She noted that the camp had only one health clinic for the entire population of 86,000.

“You can never prepare yourself for this, you can never prepare, and you see these little kids, they are malnourished, you can physically see how malnourished they are,” she told reporters traveling with her. “You see the women and how mentally hurt they are and all the trauma they went through, and you just see everybody somewhat in a daze.”

The US helped midwife South Sudan’s independence from Sudan after decades of conflict in 2011 by supporting a peaceful referendum that saw Kiir become president.

The world’s youngest country, South Sudan spiraled into civil war in 2013 when Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer.

A peace deal reached in August 2015 with US help has since collapsed, and subsequent efforts have not been able to bring Kiir and Machar to the table.

“The United States in any country holds great responsibility when you get involved in another country’s life,” Haley said. Though she said the US had the best of intentions, “we also have to keep our ego in check from a standpoint of, if you make a decision, don’t be too prideful to go back, and maybe that wasn’t the right decision.” She added: “We should never lose that flexibility to right wrongs when we see them.”

The US is the biggest contributor to the UN peacekeeping mission to South Sudan, which costs more than $1 billion annually.

The Trump administration has signaled it is reviewing its relationship with Kiir and last month sanctioned three of his associates. Officials have raised the possibility of an arms embargo and suspending aid to Kiir’s government

Haley said it was unclear whether aid could be used as leverage with Kiir. “When you look at South Sudan, you have to really think hard before you pull US aid, because President Kiir doesn’t care if we pull US aid. He doesn’t care if his people suffer, and that’s the concern we have.”

Haley said the US didn’t bear “sole responsibility” and in an op-ed for CNN before her trip, she pointed the finger at the United Nations for failing to bring peace to South Sudan and the Democratic Republican of Congo, which she will visit later this week.

“The UN’s track record of long-term success is not good. Neither South Sudan nor the DRC has shown any real progress toward political solutions that would stop the violence,” she wrote.

The US is the biggest contributor to the peacekeeping missions in both countries, which are the most expensive carried out by the UN at at a cost of $1 billion a year each. Haley has focused on cutting costs of UN peacekeeping since taking office and pledged in her op-ed to take a critical look at the UN operations in both countries.

However, most of Haley’s ire was saved for Kiir, who she said created the crisis, along with Machar, the former vice president.

“If you look at the disaster and you look at the families broken apart and you look at the kids that were killed and you just look at the families that were deprived of so much, it really just is incumbent on the entire international community to look at President Kiir and say this must stop,” she told reporters in Gambella.

While she promised to deliver that message to Kiir when they meet Wednesday, she was unsure of exactly what she would say now that she has seen the disaster firsthand and had what she called a “heavy heart.”

“I’ve got to take all this in because I think that what I was going to say was probably tame now compared to what I want to say,” she said at the end of her visit. “I was mad when I left the camp. How do you not go through listening to those women talk and hearing what their families went through and not just be totally angry at those that are responsible.”