Violence against civilians is a recurring theme in South Sudan’s civil war. Each community has suffered, and yet we rarely acknowledge the suffering of others. The consequences for community relations is devastating.
In early October, we learned that at least 30 civilians were killed and many others injured in an ambush in the Ganji area along the Juba-Yei road. The civilians were mostly from the Dinka community and the convoy in which they were travelling was heading away from the contested town of Yei, close to the border with Uganda.
The incident sparked outrage among the Dinka community. The armed opposition operating in the Yei River area were branded terrorists. Demands for immediate action by the government to protect its citizens were forcefully raised. There was incredulity that members of the Equatoria community, in whose name the armed opposition were ostensibly operating, did not speak out and condemn the killings. Dire threats of retribution against Equatorians living within predominantly Dinka areas soon followed. People begin to relocate in anticipation of further violence.
The Minister of Information, Michael Makuei, took to the airwaves and delivered, in typical fiery fashion, his analysis of the incident. His advice to Equatorians in Yei River was characteristically blunt: Give up the rebels in your area, otherwise government forces will make no distinction between rebels or civilians. The President of the Republic, Salva Kiir, took the opportunity whilst addressing senior members of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to denounce the killings, going as far as threatening to relocate himself to the Yei River area so as to take personal command of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces stationed there. While acknowledging that the SPLA was recruiting heavily from within the Dinka community, he lamented that it was being unfairly labelled a Dinka army. Other communities had simply refused to join.
Consternation is perhaps the best word I’d use for describing the general reaction of many Equatorians, with whom I’ve spoken, to the uproar. Civilian deaths at the hands of armed actors have been a regular occurrence in Equatoria for some time. “Why now is it such a big deal?” they repeatedly ask, “Is it simply because the dead are Dinka?”
In South Sudan today, speaking out against injurious actions committed by the SPLA or its affiliated militias, is considered by some as irresponsible and reprehensible behaviour. “Why stir up anger?” people ask, “Don’t you know that by voicing your frustrations, you’re only enraging others and turning them to violence against the government.” This line of reasoning eventually leads to its logical conclusion. You quickly find yourself branded as “anti-peace” – a moniker only one step removed in the popular consciousness from “rebel supporter”.
For many war weary and traumatised South Sudanese, peace is simply the absence of war. Many others, myself included, define peace as the environment in which conflict can be resolved without recourse to violence. There’s an important qualifier between these two definitions. You can still have violence without being in a state of war. And in the spirit of this understanding of peace, I believe that it’s vitally important that we don’t whitewash contributing factors to the crisis at hand. Some tensions are just too ‘sensitive’ to brush under the carpet. We need to tackle them head on and work through them because they will refuse to fade away. Instead, they fester below the surface, waiting for an opportunity to resurface with devastating consequences. We’ve seen this happen all too recently. South Sudan is in real danger of sleepwalking towards the worst possible abyss. Intercommunal violence on an unthinkable scale lurks just beyond the horizon. And so, I raise the example of Wonduruba.
Wonduruba Payam was an unexceptional Equatorian administrative area. The Pojulu people who live there speak a dialect of the Bari language, which is used widely throughout central Equatoria and binds their small community to a linguistic heritage whose legacy stretches along the Nile valley from the southern border of the Sudan through to the northernmost regions of Tanzania. The Pojulu of Wonduruba are a largely self-sufficient agricultural community. Families carefully negotiate South Sudan’s often unforgiving seasons, farming cereals like maize and sorghum, leafy vegetables like cabbages and collards, oily foods like groundnuts and sesame, as well as vegetables like okra, onions and aubergines. They take care to store enough for the lean times between harvests, and they trade their surplus for cash in the voracious markets in Juba. The three schools in Wonduruba serve the needs of those children fortunate enough to escape the daily grind of chores in the family plot or the household kitchen. Subsistence farming is hard and time consuming work. Not all families can bear the loss of manpower from a child absconding their duties to get an education, let alone afford the school fees that come with such a commitment.
Wonduruba’s peace was shattered twice after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, ending the two decades long civil war that had plunged the then Southern Sudan into bitter internecine conflict whilst regional powers fought a vicious proxy war in the territory. The first, when a roaming remnant of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel movement, raided their villages in search of plunder and recruits – as they headed westwards, never to return. The second, when the community became polarised over whether Wonduruba should join Lainya County to the south or remain part of Juba County to the north. The dispute turned violent. A Pojulu government minister, who had initially proposed the move, ended up being shot. Although he survived the shooting, he died some time later from complications allegedly resulting from his injury. Eventually, a local peace-building initiative helped contain these tensions.
Both these moments of instability occurred towards the early years of the post-CPA period, the six years long interregnum between the end of the Sudanese civil war and the creation of the South Sudanese Republic. Wonduruba has since enjoyed peace and the dividend that it delivers. A Kenya based NGO had even begun laying the tentative foundations for a honey production industry in the payam. As is the norm among rural communities in South Sudan, the people of Wonduruba hardly felt the presence of the state as they went about their daily lives. The vast majority were indifferent to the intrigues of an increasingly toxic national political scene.
Their first taste of it came in December 2013, when a political tug of war among SPLM cadres sparked infighting at the main military base in Juba. After the initial shootouts between opposing elements of the SPLA subsided, Nuer residents of the capital were targeted in a vicious purge, allegedly by a Dinka militia that had been surreptitiously trained and barracked at President Kiir’s ranch just outside the capital. The consequences of these killings are still evident today. Three years on and tens of thousands of Nuer civilians are trapped within a United Nations administered Protection of Civilian camp in Juba, unwilling to venture out for fear of abduction, rape or murder.
Following the bloodletting in Juba, over a thousand households abandoned their homes in the capital for the safety of their ancestral homeland in Wonduruba. The volume of returnees exerted immense material pressure on the friends and families who hosted them, despite the efforts of aid agencies who quickly mobilised to provide support. Displacement also weighed heavily on the returned. The loss of livelihoods and the sense of total dependency were difficult for most of them to bear.
The contagion of conflict
Throughout 2014, the violence intensified, spreading outwards from the capital. During the CPA period, the SPLA had developed into a patchwork quilt of militias, crudely stitched together with the flimsiest of threads. The intention was to deny the Khartoum government the opportunity to delay the independence referendum under the pretext of insecurity. Money was thrown at recalcitrant generals to keep them on side. Many resisted attempts at integration of their troops and their militias survived largely intact within the umbrella of the SPLA. It hardly came as a surprise that, when the civil war began, the SPLA quickly split along its seams. Predominantly Nuer units defected and joined Riek Machar in the bush whilst a rump of mostly Dinka soldiers remained loyal to President Kiir. Both used hastily assembled and poorly disciplined civilian militias to bolster their ranks.
Terrible atrocities were committed by both sides against civilians as the focal point of the conflict shifted from Juba to the Greater Upper Nile region. A large influx of Dinka cattle keepers began streaming into the relative safety of Equatoria. This inflamed pre-existing tensions between itinerant cattle keepers and local farmers who saw the small agricultural plots, on which they were completely dependent, destroyed by the passing herds. The cattle keepers were often armed. Host communities considered them aggressive and unresponsive to their demands. Worryingly, the SPLA, which was increasingly reliant on Dinka recruits, was seen by the hosts as sympathetic and supportive of the cattle keepers. Equatoria was becoming restive. That year, a dark pall was cast over the people of Wonduruba. Juba to the north was febrile and trouble with cattle keepers was brewing in Lainya County to the south and in Greater Mundri to their west.
Amidst the growing tension, disgruntled Equatorian soldiers and policemen, many of whom felt mistreated and marginalised within the SPLA and the South Sudan Police Service, mutinied and took to the bush. Before formally joining Riek Machar’s opposition forces, Wesley Welebi, a Police Captain, began organising in Greater Mundri to protect the local communities from armed itinerant cattle keepers. He extended his activities into Wonduruba. Opportunistic attacks against government facilities and security outposts, ostensibly to seize weapons, resonated with a growing sentiment among government officials that the people of Equatoria were no longer neutral in the civil war.
A unit of SPLA soldiers, little larger than company strength, was dispatched to Wonduruba, reportedly under the command of Brigadier General David Malual. They setup a garrison in the centre of Wonduruba Town, the payam’s largest settlement. According to local accounts, the soldiers were almost entirely Dinka. None spoke Bari. Isolated and unable to communicate effectively, the SPLA soldiers found it difficult to differentiate between local civilians and the armed actors who manoeuvred in their midst. Unsurprisingly, relations between the SPLA garrison and the residents of Wonduruba deteriorated. The garrison accused locals of being uncooperative whilst locals complained of intimidation, arbitrary arrests and torture perpetrated by the garrison.
No place is safe
Around the middle of 2015, whilst peace negotiations were in full swing, the diverse armed groups that were operating within Equatoria began to converge around the banner of Riek Machar’s SPLM in Opposition (IO). The benefit for them was inclusion and representation within the peace process. The benefit for the SPLM-IO was validation that it wasn’t just a local rebellion, successfully contained in the Greater Upper Nile region, but a national movement able to project itself throughout the country.
The government was extremely hostile to this development. The garrison in Wonduruba started to patrol the surrounding villages so as to extend their control over the payam. In early September of 2015, there were significant clashes between the garrison and an armed group in Katigiri and in Mankero bomas. Casualties were sustained. These clashes precipitated a night of terror for the residents of Wonduruba town. The civil war, which had perniciously scorched its way through countless communities up and down the country, with a callous disregard for human life and a penchant for collective punishment, had finally reached this unassuming corner of South Sudan.
Details are sketchy. According to local sources, the SPLA soldiers in Wonduruba were in a foul and unforgiving mood. Pent up frustrations could no longer be contained. Fired up by the passions of recent combat, they began by smashing into properties and looting the shops along Wonduruba town’s main drag. They seized alcohol and started drinking heavily. Once drunk, the soldiers began shooting indiscriminately, picking off any civilians unfortunate enough to find themselves caught in their sights. Homes were set on fire while fearful families grabbed what came quickly to hand and scattered in panic towards the dark embrace of the surrounding bush. That night, nine civilians are reported to have lost their lives at the hands of soldiers whose first duty was supposed to be their protection. With the exception of one soul, their names were recorded: Martin Lomiku Gambu, Paul Jambo, Luka Latio, Elyuda Ladu, Salla Ladu Yesua, Lugrin Laku Lojang, James Kambo Isaac and Oliver Lukudu.
When a state level fact-finding mission, accompanied by members of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) came to Wonduruba a few days later, they found the town entirely deserted, with the exception of just 10 men loitering in the market area. One account mentions piles of looted items being packed into military trucks and bound, supposedly, for the markets in Juba. Around 5,000 residents of Wonduruba town had fled into the bush, half of them children under the age of 14. According to UNMISS, a day after the fact-finding mission left Wonduruba, two plainclothes SPLA soldiers allegedly dragged a man out of his home and shot him dead.
South Sudanese journalists who attempted to report on the violence at Wonduruba found their activities severely curtailed. National Security Service agents contacted media houses and threatened them with closure should they publish articles or editorials on the incident. The then SPLA spokesman, Col. Phillip Aguer, sought to deflect attention onto the rebel forces in the area. In an all too familiar example of ‘a pot calling the kettle black’ he branded the rebels as “terrorists … because they attack innocent civilians”.
Throughout October, parliamentarians and civil society organisations denounced the unrepentant attitude of the SPLA which continued to insist that the civilians of Wonduruba were rebels. A climate of fear had descended over the payam. Arbitrary arrests and killings continued, albeit sporadically, given that the people of Wonduruba had taken to hiding whenever soldiers were spotted. In one incident, a father called Loku Yubi was reported to have been snatched by SPLA soldiers along with three of his young children, and spirited away for interrogation. In another incident, a group of SPLA soldiers were spotted careening down a road in a military vehicle, shooting indiscriminately at the roadside as they went. The son of the paramount chief of Wonduruba was struck and killed.
Despite a much publicised ‘peace deal’ between the SPLA garrison and the Wonduruba community, brokered in December 2015 by Bishop Paul Yugusk of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, people opted to bear the difficulties of life in the bush rather than risk the soldiers roaming their settlements. They continued to fall foul of trigger happy soldiers who preferred to shoot first and ask questions later. In Janurary 2016, Bishop Yugusk himself reported with horror the killing of seven civilians, as they went foraging for food, by SPLA soldiers.
It would take nearly nine months after the initial attack on Wonduruba town for some families to pluck up the courage to leave the hardship of the bush and return to their homes. In that time, malnutrition, dehydration and preventable disease would exact a terrible toll on the most vulnerable members of the community – the young, the elderly, and the infirm. This toll has gone largely undocumented.
We have all suffered
Clearly the tragedy of Wonduruba is not an exception. I bring up this example to labour an important point. Such tragedies have happened elsewhere in Equatoria and continue to happen throughout South Sudan. Whether in roadside ambushes by rebel forces or during heavy-handed counter insurgency operations conducted by the SPLA and its affiliated militias, non-combatants are consistently targeted by armed actors in South Sudan. According to the All Africa Dataset, compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, 128 separate incidents of violence committed against civilians, in Equatoria alone, have been reported by media houses and human rights monitoring organisations in 2016 to date. 46% of these incidents were perpetrated by government forces and their affiliated militias. The casual disregard for civilian life is an all too pervasive reality to which we have all become strangely desensitised … that is until it in reaches out and touches us directly. It is then that we realise that the human suffering is all too real. We realise that each individual tragedy changes forever the lives of not just the injured and traumatised survivors of acts violence. It also touches the lives of the victims’ families, of their friends and acquaintances, and of their wider communities for a lifetime afterwards.
Our society is profoundly broken. On this we must all agree. There is a growing disconnect between our communities that threatens to widen with every passing day. Our political elite don’t have the answers. All they have to offer us is more of the same divisive and exclusionary politics that has shut out members of all communities from the dividends of our country’s independence. Our regional neighbours will always prioritise their citizens’ needs over the aspirations of the South Sudanese people. The wider international community is all too easy distracted by newer crises or their own internal preoccupations. It’s left to us South Sudanese citizens to resolve our own differences. We can begin by appreciating that we have all suffered, and that the suffering of one community can’t be measured and compared against the suffering of another. Each is felt as keenly and each has a devastating effect on those it touches.