By Athiaan Majak Malou
January 17, 2014 - In the words of Joseph Omwenga, a Kenyan who wrote in the Daily Nation of January 16th, 2014, “The ferry tragedy in which 200 people fleeing the South Sudan Conflict drowned was unfortunate. I can imagine what was going on in women and children’s minds when the ferry capsized: Why us? Death stared at them arrogantly before they bade life goodbye. Hard as I try, I failed to capture vividly the grotesque picture of children and women drowning in the Nile. They were escaping death by guns, but died by drowning. It is a deafening call to the world.”
That is how someone from outside South Sudan described what happened to at least 200 people, mostly children and women fleeing the fighting in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, drowned on Tuesday 14th January as their vessel capsized on the White Nile.
Besides this tragedy, the International Crisis Group and other aid agencies estimate that up to10,000 people have been killed in the fighting, which started in Juba, the capital of South Sudan on 15th December, 2014 and spread to three states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile, which are the birthplaces of Nuer community to which Dr Riek Machar belongs. The UN says 65,000 people have taken refuge in UN camps across the country and more than 430,000 have been displaced internally or fled the neighbouring countries as refugees. The above figures do not include those who left to the country side and other safer places. Juba has now lost about 70% of its population. Many have decided to go to their home villages or live as urban refugees in Kenya and Uganda. All most all foreigners have left the country.
Although Mr Joseph Omwenga was right to call it “a deafening call to the world”, it should be first and foremost a deafening call to the belligerents of the conflict. The country is burning; people are being killed and displaced in thousands; the historic towns of Bor, Bentiu and Mayom have been completely razed down; yet these happenings don’t touch the conscience and moral authority of the so-called leaders who are indulged in the execution of this senseless and objectiveless war.
Though wars and conflicts are parts of human nature, they occur and are being engaged in for a noble cause. For example when people of South Sudan engaged themselves in lengthy and destructive wars with northern Sudan for decades, the objective was very clear for the whole world to see. It was a war of liberation-a just war. But what is this war for?!
For those who have been closely following the political events in South Sudan, it is all about power struggle between two individuals. What if these two people, for example, succumb to the laws of nature (God forbids), will South Sudan stay without someone who can lead the system of government?
According to the explanation given by the government side of President Salva Kiir, the conflict resulted from “attempted” coup. Underline the word attempted. For Dr Riek Machar, the fighting erupted accidentally among the members of presidential guards unit, but it took tribal lines between Dinka and Nuer soldiers, and as such it wasn’t a coup. Underline the word accidentally. Why the fight took tribal lines should be left for the investigators to establish. If something was attempted or did happen accidentally, it should have been treated as such and normalcy maintained at all cost, because war is destructive and should have been avoided at all cost.
However, the crisis in Juba did not end with members of presidential guards unit. It spread into residential areas and some members of Nuer community were targeted and killed. This angered Nuer soldiers and civilians alike in the places where they are the majority. In these places Dinka people were targeted and killed. Fortunately, Dinka people didn’t retaliate in the places where they are the majority. Nuer people in Dinka lands were spared except in one case where a Nuer army officer was killed with two body guards by a single soldier whose relative was killed on the other side. Some Dinka people were also spared on Nuer sides through protection from personal friends.
To compound the problem, a division commander called Peter Gadet, a Nuer, rebelled in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. He ransacked the town and declared his allegiance to Dr Machar. Another General by name James Koang, who also hails from Nuer, did the same thing in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state.
General Peter Gadet was later reinforced by 25,000 from the so called Jiesh-mbor (white-army), a group of armed youth, from greater Akobo who were mobilised by a Nuer prophet. This huge force enabled Gadet to reclaim Bor from pro-government forces after he had lost it for few days.
This situation compelled the government to fight back in order to impose it authority all over the country. The pro-government forces have reclaimed Bentiu and Mayom with heavy losses, on the two sides, in both humans and materials. According to pictures shown by a satellite, the two towns have been razed to ground zero.
Similar skirmishes took place in and around the town of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state. Fighting occurred between government forces and their colleagues who changed side to join Dr Machar. However, the last attack on Malakal, which caused the drowning of 200 people, came from armed youth mobilised among Dr Machar’s supporters from greater Nasir in eastern Upper Nile. It defeats the logic of convention war for anyone to order armed civilians to attack convention army holed up in a fortified military garrison. Such a venture can result in heavy losses as it happened in the last attack on Malakal.
Around Juba, there is a collection of soldiers who hail from Nuer community who deserted/escaped from Juba and other army garrisons within greater Equatoria. They are hiding in the bushes south-west of Juba. These are the group believed to have killed a senior army officer called Marach Akoon with his body guards on Juba-Yie Road. They occasionally lay roadblocks, kill passengers from specific tribe(s) and rob others of money and mobile phones.
As anyone can discern, it is war all over. The peace talks in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa under auspices of IGAD have stalled many times because of the demand from Dr Machar’s side that his 9 or so comrades arrested by the government in Juba should be released to join his negotiating team. Frankly speaking, the people under arrest may be innocent. According to Madam Rebecca Nyadeng, Dr John Garang’s widow, they were picked from their houses, following Juba incident. The argument is that they could have not staged a coup and stayed in their houses. They could have hidden themselves or escaped with Dr Machar. In this respect, the ongoing investigation, if impartial, may set them free. South Sudanese should not be kept ransoms to their release that can be normally done through legal processes.
Again, there is nothing the detainees can say in peace talks, which cannot be said by Dr. Machar himself or Governor Taban Deng, the head of delegation. Taban was unconstitutionally removed from governorship of Unity state by President Kiir. President Kiir is partly reaping what he has sown.
If this war erupted as a result of attempted coup; accidental fight among the members of presidential guards unit; the outrage caused by target killing in Juba; or power struggle between Kiir and his former deputy then it should stop with immediate effect. For those who took law into their own hands because of the spirit of revenge, time has lapsed. One month killing has devastating the country. Justice and healing processes should be given a chance.
The crimes already committed against the people of South Sudan are heinous enough to take some of the belligerents to the International Court of Justice (ICC) in The Hague. It will be therefore futile for the leaders involved in this conflict to fight for power when the law will get it in their neck sooner than later. Further, control of the country by forces by either side will not yield fruits because the other side will always fight back, creating a vicious circle of civil strife.
The principal option for people of South Sudan, with the help of international community, is to put in place a neutral care-taking government that can reunite the citizens, heal the wounds and impartially conduct the coming elections. The current leaders are too entangled (in the current crisis) to be disentangled. God save people South Sudan from the senseless war and mediocre leadership!!!
The author has formerly served in the government of Lakes state of South Sudan as the County Commissioner for Yirol East and state Minister for education. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org