South Sudanese in the grip of fear and anger

Behind the gate of the compound of the United Nations in Juba, South Sudan, an odour of decay hangs around thousands of displaced people, birds of prey swarming over their heads. Children relieve themselves next to the tap where women fetch drinking water. At the entrance a man jostles with a suitcase on wheels, a woman with a laundry tub. Aid agencies cars push for space with a military tank of the UN peacekeeping force.

In the UN camp near the capital Juba airport stay around 17,000 people, all members of the Nuer tribe. All speak of killings in Juba by Dinka’s in the government army.  Most sleep in the open air, others under staircases for airplanes and some in small tents. “President Kiir,a Dinka , ordered the murder of all Nuers after he got into a political power struggle on December 15 with his former vice president Riëk Machar, a Nuer ” says Paul . Until recently Paul was an aid worker, now he’s a victim. “I live two miles away from here, but my neighbours are Dinka’s. I cannot go home anymore”.

The displaced are in de grip of fear and anger. And sorrow. Frank is a singer. “I, my brother and my sister lived on a church compound in Juba. The day after the fight in the ruling party SPLM broke out, Dinka soldiers arrived in the parish. They demanded that all Nuers come forward and they started shooting. The pastor tried to intervene and he was slain”.

Frank swallows. “And then it was the turn of my sister. They dragged her to an abandoned building, I could hear her scream. They raped her”. Frank cannot continue anymore. He walks over to the shade of a blanked hung in a tree and starts pampering a young baby.  He cries. “That’s the baby of his murdered sister,” says his friend Patrick.

Patrick worked for the intelligence service. “At the start of the fighting in the army, I immediately started rescuing civilians who were trapped between the warring factions,” he says. “In the beginning my service and the military worked together. I arrested several soldiers who killed civilians. But after two days I started to notice that all the soldiers of Dinka descent who I had arrested were released immediately. ”

After a few days, Patrick went with his unit to a police station in the district of Gudele . “We found a room filled with bloodied corpses. There may have been seventy. All were Nuer. I asked a military commander what had happened. He told me that they were rebels of Riëk Machar who were killed at the frontline. But it was obvious to me that they were slain on the spot. Then I understood that all Nuers had become a target and I fled to the United Nations. ”

Frank, the artist, rejoins the conversation. He ran away from the church where his brother and sister were murdered. On the way to the UN he ran into a group of Dinka soldiers and armed civilians on mopeds. “They stopped me and I had to kneel. They beat me with their guns. I can still see the eyes of the commander.  And hear the click on the safety catch of his gun. But they let me go, because there were too many bystanders”.

The hearts and minds of the South Sudanese are in war mode. Nuer in the UN camp talk about “a fight to the death” with the Dinka, for now they don’t see any other way out. They are afraid to leave the camp. And probably rightly so, because last month government troops did fire shots at the camp. The UN have not only to provide shelter for displaced people, they also need to keep combatants at bay.

Tribal poison

South Sudan is now a country with two truths. In other parts of the country Dinka’s became victims of Nuer soldiers loyal to Riëk Machar.  Nothing was left standing of the office in Bor of lawyer Kon Kelei . Virtually the entire town 200 kilometres north of Juba was reduced to ashes. Kon Kelei now works at the Ministry of Information in Juba. He defends the government. “Yes, massacres took place in Juba, but they were the result of lack of discipline. Dinka soldiers went after Nuer soldiers, and Nuer soldiers after Dinka’s.  But that was not done on behalf of the government. ”

Tribal venom has not left the better educated untouched either. Kon Kelei , who studied in the Netherlands , cannot imagine ever being able to live beside a Nuer again.  “Let me be honest: if a Nuer dares to live in Bor again, I would say, Nuer, leave me alone. Go to your home area, until the wounds are healed”. When will that be? “Maybe when my generation has died out”.


This artice was first published in NRC Handelsblad on 23th of January 2014

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