May 28th 2017

World / East Africa

Escape from Bor: An eyewitness' account of the horrors of South Sudan's raging civil war

In the streets of Juba and across the vast country, the sense of entitlement is palpable amongst the superfluous military, some of whom you will see prancing the streets in well worn out slippers with all kind of military attire, leather strapped guns faithfully by their side.

By Frank Odwessofrank@kenyafixer.comSaturday, 31 Dec 2016 16:26 EAT

Fallen Soldier: Dead man with a ring wastes away along the Juba-Bor Road, fierce battleground between rebel forces and government soldiers. (Photo: Frank Odwesso/Kenya Free Press).

It was promising. The world’s youngest nation, rich in oil and virgin agricultural land, and sparsely populated at an estimated 8 million… An estimated five thousand square km of country, most of it arable land with a permanent river at its very heart. Years ago, South Sudan's liberation hero John Garang’ referred to his country as “untouched since the biblical times.”

Dan Eiffe, a former priest and aid worker domiciled in Sudan Sudan for over two and a half decades, told me the country was generating enough wealth to leap over its neighbours in East Africa. Even without exploiting its vast farmlands and wildlife for tourism, crude oil had kept the country afloat. Oil generates “over 800 million dollars a month, and that’s what people squabble over,” Dan noted.

South Sudan had earned its place at the table of nations after more than two decades of war with Khartoum. But recently independent, and with Khartoum no longer its common enemy, the promising nation could barely hold together its bowels, ruptured by a vicious and brutal tribal war within, the bane of politics in Africa. Power, greed and tribal hate had beset the new nation!

That fault line, like the Nile, runs deep and is well defined. Its message was delivered with swiftness and deadliness one night in December 2013, when marauding tribal gangs and rebelling military outfits butchered civilian populations in the Northern states and parts of the capital Juba. Hundreds of thousands were displaced as civilians sought refuge in camps and across the borders. South Sudan has never been the same again.

New Kid on The Block

When South Sudan achieved independence, it signalled a new life for the new nation. An opportunity to manage their own affairs, build infrastructure and grow the economy.  But as a country ravaged by war for over three decades, and managed from the seat of power in Khartoum, South Sudan lacked a viable civil service to provide the requisite structural foundation, that engine for real social and economic growth. Its military was the closest, but even it was always ragtag.

As many other nations before it, it is a country founded on liberation through the barrel and it stubbornly remains a gun country. Long after liberation from the North, the semblance of a political party nostalgically clings to the vestiges of war and still refers to itself as Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

In the streets of Juba and across the vast country, the sense of entitlement is palpable amongst the superfluous military, some of whom you will see prancing the streets in well worn out slippers with all kind of military attire, leather strapped guns faithfully by their side.

With little or no education at all, these soldiers often took the law into their hands and brawls wee commonplace, sometimes ending in fatalities. The threat of gun power in wrong hands was real and government often moped up guns in civilian hands, many of which would be held by child soldiers addicted to guns as their very sense of security.

Just as well, the very inner sanctum of the party SPLM, comprised of soldiers was been dogged by mistrust and a deep running ethnic schism. Former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer and second in command is largely mistrusted for his previous collaboration with Khartoum against the South. President Salva Kiir is regarded as a tribal chief who’s own Dinka  tribe dominates government and resources.

Against this, foment within was not a question of if, but when. Thus, with building mistrust and accusations of dictatorship labelled on the top echelon, combined with the booting of Vice President Riek, an implosion was sure and fatally so, sending the country on a spiral and bloodletting.

Road to BOR

It was a beautiful warm sunny Wednesday morning when we set off for Bor. At the time, Bor had experienced an atrocious massacre of civilians at a church. Unsteady calm had only returned. To get to there, “it will take two and a half hours, may be three,” we were told.

We loaded bags and supplies onto the white Toyota land-cruiser’s tented back and hit the road, guns on the ready. “The enemy was miles away from Juba,” Azma who was in charge of security told us. But this was a gun country and precaution, a necessity. South Sudan was after all still at war with itself.

Bor, the capital of Jonglei state North of Juba and largely inhabited by the Dinka Bor ethnic group was recently infamous for the brutal killing of civilian populations in their hundreds. Exiting the capital, we arrived at Juba Bridge to find very slow traffic. Ahead, we could see a number of officers animated and engaging in intensive search of vehicles for weapons.

The previous evening, our hotel rooms had been searched by the military. Robert, one of my colleagues was checked again and again. Betrayed by his military demeanour and a well travelled passport that included Mogadishu as one of his destinations, they didn’t believe his story. “You, journalist, no nooo… “ They wouldn’t listen to him despite the evidence of cameras and our press passes. “Tamaam, aii… mafi mushkila” Azma, who was in-charge of our security quickly stepped in. “They are journalists, they are with me,” he added.

During our sojourn, we had quickly learnt not to trigger the gun bearing and fatigue wearing forces of Juba. Here, settling scores through gunfights was as easy as a fistfight. It had been a quiet morning, suddenly disrupted at high noon by the sound of boots and multiple voices down below.

The military men huffed and puffed up the intricate metallic staircase, looking every bit menacing, with tribal markings slicing their pitch black foreheads, sweat and tiny fat spots dotting their nose pores under the menacing Juba sun. You could smell the nauseating sweat on their bodies waft through your nose, their armpits soaking in sweat.

Having heard the strangers speak in Arabic, language barrier was an obvious problem. They looked agitated, and one wrong one word could be disastrous. In South Sudan for example, malaya means bed sheet, but in Kenya it means prostitute. It was safer to be damn and cordial.

I positioned my smart phone to record the search in case we got arrested. This would be our insurance as stories abound about foreigners and journalists getting arrested and disappearing for good. They searched twice, found nothing and grudgingly left.

The queue at the 40 tonne limit bridge had built up. Azma was getting anxious. The Nile waters rushed below the old steel bridge. Built in the 1970’s by the British, it remains the only bridge on the Nile in the Southern Sudan that survived Khartoum’s bombs.

The mid section of the bridge squeaked as we made our way ahead followed by a row of boda boda, bicycle taxis now common place in East Africa. A military noticed Azma in uniform and motioned him to jump the queue. Here, the forces are accorded space, seen as liberators of the nation. Military uniform can open many doors.

He pressed the pedal, and the six cylinder manual gear shift land-cruiser car heaved forward and as we sped through the clear road to the left before turning into a fuel station to stock up on drinking water for our long journey.

Even with its massive River Nile, the nascent nation did not yet have enough tapped water supply for its population in the towns, leave alone the rural areas. Empty water bottles dot the river and road side in a marvellous blue, like flowers, as if they belonged there. It was clear that in a few years, South Sudan especially Juba would chock in pollution.

We drove fairly fast, considering the terrain. There were moments when the car slammed into blind holes and mounds as we came up the brow of hills or suddenly descended. But the beast kept going, hoisting its two tonne weight and human cargo as it latched forward seemingly eager to get us to our destination. With its twin tanks, hopefull fuel would not be a problem. But it would take way longer than we had anticipated, to get to Bor.

Three hours later, at 1pm, we were nowhere near our destination. The treacherous journey was making it quite uncomfortable for my two colleagues Robert and Moses at the back. We stopped at a market. “I have never been thrown up down like that in my life, “ Mosee said as he limped off the back covered in fine dust. His eye lashes and nostril not spared either. But this was how the local population travelled here, as we observed similar land-cruisers whiz by. It was better than nothing.

We bought mangoes, had a chat with soldiers at the checkpoint, joked to decipate the constant tension at road blocks and were soon back on the road, resigned to the possibility of arriving at dask. Even Azma wasn’t sure about the time any more. “It wasn’t this bad the last time,” he muttered, “I drove down in my car the last time. Took three hours”

We kicked up dust as far back as my eyes could see in the mirror. I leaned forward to check every so often as I could, looking extra carefully in the bushes whenever we saw a stalled truck. Gun cocked, I noticed Azma stealthily check his side mirror as he pushed the cruiser with caution at every suspicious object on the road. “Holeee,” I yelled, as he veered off, his eyes fixated on a suspicious looking object on the road. The land-cruiser’s left wheel slummed the side of the hole. He steadily righted the car and shifted gear for speed. It was a near accident.

We were told the enemy territory was at least five hours away. But this was a country at war, and enemies could lurk anywhere. At military checkpoints the soldiers demanded waraga, the government pass from every vehicle carrying military personnel, just in case there were defectors heading up North, the rebel territory. Bor, our destination was north.

A young soldier sized us, taking turns looking us straight in the eyes, before a walk besides the driver’s side. “Kwesin… kwes,” “hello, hello,” they exchanged pleasantries before he walked over to his boss. They had a quick chat and Azma was signalled over.

He took a brown envelope with him, his gun strapped to his side. It was a tense moment, and Kwach, our extra security was out the back, his gun ready. Suspicion rent the air at every point we stopped. Many government soldiers had defected and it was difficult to tell who the enemy was.

The junior officer saluted as Azma was handed back his envelope. The man in-charge was slouched in a wooden chair under a tree, shielded from the sweltering heat and merely glanced at the document before tossing it back. The junior lad made his dash for the rope. Belt strapped, we sped off through the market centre.

Burnt out huts dotted the vast savannah into rich agrarian of the Nile Banks as we drove towards Bor. There was an eerie sense in the air as we drove for miles, past empty villages littered with clothing and household items that victims had unsuccessfully tried to carry as they made their daring escape.

Bodies littered the landscape, decomposing by the Nile and in the nearby roadside thickets. “It was terrible, sitting at the back. It was stinking all the way,” Moses said. Ironically, the rest of the Nile basin was quite scenic. Along the Nile shores, homesteads were well laid out, roofs well patterned, though most of the homesteads were now reduced to ashes.

BOR

The Ghost Town. That was now the infamous name for BOR, the capital of Jong’lei State. A sandy, hot and flat terrain by the Nile with possibly over two hundred thousand inhabitants as we were told, many of whom were recently butchered in the hands of mutinying soldiers and the dreaded white army, teenager soldiers covered in white protective ash, traditionally believed to keep them from harm.

East, at the entrance of the town from the Juba road is UNMISS [United Nations Mission in South Sudan] heavily guarded and barricaded, with trenches dug around it. To the west is the airstrip, strategically juxtaposed to UNMISS. A long semi dirt road leads into the town centre, about a kilometre away, with parallel dirt streets and concrete electric poles running along. Shells of burnt houses, huts and business premises dot the town space.

We arrived in Bor just before 5.00pm. It was only 190 km away from Juba, but it was a long and perilous journey filled with anxious moments about the unknown. Bor had recently been retaken by Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, SPLA. But fear of a possible retaliatory attack was palpable and residents were still escaping Bor, loading up boats with what was left of their life.

The town was largely empty. At the centre of the business district were burnt out shells of tin roofs, motor shelled walls and mangled wrecks of various structures scorched in the heat. A bank, KCB had its ATM machine blown out of the wall and emptied. A blank cheque from UN World Food Programme laid in the dirt pile as many other documents strewn in and outside the bank. Curiously, some buildings were spared the infernos and looting. The killing and destruction of property had taken a tribal angle.

We drove around for about ten minutes before we could find accommodation that survived the attacks. We offloaded our bush meat as we settled for tea and bread, our first meal since breakfast.

Survivors

Margaret Ichol was an elderly woman, with short silver hair popping through her dark shiny skin. She was a congregant at St. Peters Church in Bor and when trouble started in the town, the logical refuge was church. No one could attack them in God’s sanctuary. They were wrong.

In December, after fighting in Juba spilled into the northern regions of Malakal and Bentiu, Bor came under attack by a splinter group of the military SPLA and gangs. The church was a soft spot.

To escape, Margaret breached the fence. “I hid in the reeds along the river, the whole night. The following morning we got a boat, which took us to the middle of the marshes. “After we left, the white army looted the town and raped women. They raped women and put sticks in their private parts. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!” Long pause. Tears rolled down her dark cheeks. She wiped, again and again.

“Bodies were rotten, they couldn’t be identified,” Rev. Thomas Agou told us.  “Twenty bodies are buried here. Eighteen of them women and two are men… two pastors. Ayun Akao and Peter Gai.”

The grave faced East, to the sunset, the cross casting a long shadow on the dead in the mass grave. About fifty meters from the burial site, inside the church compound, he pointed out a gravesite by the old chapel. “Two who were identified by their relatives are here.”

The stench from the chapel trickled out. Several women had huddled together in the chapel where they were attacked, raped and killed. A pregnant mother was one of them. Later we collected videos and images from a source. It was horrific!

Nightfall

He pointed us to our rooms after “lunch.” The facility was spread out along a low-lying concrete perimeter wall. One could see the road even at five-foot six. It offered no comfort for security for a ghost town that still stunk of death. The room was dusty, with fine silt settled on the table at the left corner of the single room. The air conditioning system was new, but broken, yanked off the wall by looting gangs that had raided the town. Immediately, the room felt hot and nauseating. We were the first guests to since the fighting.

I dropped my bag on the bed and peered into the toilet. Azma would be next door, with his two guns, but the reality of a possible attack at nightfall was not lost to any of us, including him. My mind raced. How would I sleep here, safely? The hotel had one un-armed guard, a waiter and a cook. At dinner, they narrated how they had lost two colleagues, shot and killed by the road side as they tried to escape to UNMISS, the only refuge for civilians during the blood letting. Fear was evident in their voices. They spoke anonymously.

“Imagine she had escaped the first time, then she came back to pick her luggage. She was Ugandan. Our colleague who was the driver brought her back. They killed them. Imagine. They shot her in the back. She was on the roadside for days with the bag on her back. Terrible. Silence… We went to bed. Sought of.

Flick. The lights worked. I barricaded my door with the spare bed. But I could not do anything about windows. I checked the bathroom, “could I possibly sleep there.” The window was elevated. It would still be a direct hit if we got attacked. I resigned to fate.

The night got hotter, but quieter. With the sweating and lucking danger, sleep eluded me. Every slight movement outside was cause for concern. A few voices in the night. I listened intently, each time, but it was local dialect and I couldn’t make out much of it. I pulled out my camera and cell phone, turned on its small light to my face and recorded a message and a piece-to-camera for my documentary.

It got late and still, very still… 4am perhaps, when my body gave up and my systems rested for the remainder of the night. 5.30 a.m. Robert was out shooting. A rickety boda boda rattled through town at sun break, passenger and furniture at the back. Another one escaping the ghost town. We had breakfast and left for Minkaman, across the Nile.

Minkaman

“Trust me, you don’t need a jacket. If we get hit, you will be the first to drown,” Azma told us. We were concerned we didn’t bring flack jackets should we come under fire crossing the river.

The evening before, families were loading up. Boats upon boats. Utensils, furniture, a goat. A mother fed her baby on soda as they were pushed into the Nile. It was morning, and the scene was replayed. Many more were escaping to Minkaman, the town across from Bor. Kwach was on the look out at the front, gun ready. The river was home to menacing crocodiles and hippos. In the wake of the massacre in Bor, a group of women and children had made a daring escape, but their overloaded boat capsized.

On the marshes in the River Nile, we came across families, including one school girl, Alek Gai. She survived the killings in Bor, escaping in the night. But it had been weeks, and she didn’t know whether her family was alive. Here, she was selling cigarettes to the adult population. Her only shelter was a shed of sticks and blanket as a roof. She lay on a mattress on an empty stomach. In a few weeks, the long rains would pound. Still, she was hopeful. “I’m selling this so I can go back to school. When the war is over, I will go back home,” she said.

Minkaman was chocking. Chocking under 35 degrees Celsius of sub-saharan heat and an influx of escapees from Bor. The population was now threefold, rising from an estimated ninety thousand to almost three hundred thousand, the youthful commissioner said.

The long rains are about to set in April and they feared for the refugees. Disease outbreak was sure once the Nile would burst its seems and spread into the vast flat terrain, unhindered, spewing its disease carrying waters into the temporary human habitat that with limited sanitation facilities.

Families lived in the open under trees, cooking and bathing their children in the open. Shelter for the majority were rickety structures covered with blankets and bed sheets that would offer no respite under torrents of tropical rain. Still, a bigger fear loomed! The rebels we were told, were at their best in the rainy season. It is almost certainly a given that they would try and overrun the North and consolidate their hold.

They would match through towns, day and night. In Bor, an entire command populated by one ethnic group had defected. The “white soldiers” an amorphous ragtag unit which had decimated lives earlier may return and cause more atrocities. Either way, the families in Minkaman were still doomed! It was time for us to exit Bor. But for one more night.

Road from Hell

They tapped the cruiser on the back. Azma slammed the breaks, grinding the car to a screeching halt. Everyone seemed to pause for a moment, staring at the dead man with a ring. I opened the door. The pungent smell of death hit us; the putrefaction was so strong it wafted through the nose like screws, sticking to our bodies and clothing. It would stay with us the rest of the journey.Tossed in the rough drive, my stomach had painfully knotted. Clutching on my tummy, I hopped out, camera in hand and walked back to the left of the road avoiding direct wind.

Wide shot. medium shot. I worked my way in, and knelt to get the close up shot. Through my lens, a tiny grey butterfly flapped it wings for a bit, then patched on dried and broken skin of the dead mans finger. I clicked, once twice, and then paused to look. The dead man’s body had remained untouched. He had a big gaping hole through the back of his head. “RPG, definitely,“ Azma indicated, pointing to the head. The body lay unmoved and decayed away in a tummy sleeping position.

He still had his grey-black socks on, crumpled by the ankle, but no shoes in sight. His clothes were intact, clinging to his skeleton as the flesh rotted away. His well-manicured fingernails were white on the outer edges but darker on the inside. His skin exfoliated and dried by the fingernails. Azma said the man “must have been a witch” since the vultures did not touch his body.

From the tribal markings now fading, they could tell, “he was a Nuer.” From his uniform, they said he must have been a cop. The dead man still had his ring in the middle left hand finger. A silver ring (captured in the picture above).

No burial rights here, certainly, as the rotting bodies were left to the elements and birds of death, now visibly heavy set from weeks of feeding frenzy on human flesh. Where man had painfully lost, they were the happy lot. The undertakers, where the Juba government lacked capacity to bury the bodies, strewn hundreds of kilometres apart in the vast killing fields.

About twenty meters across the road lay another body, a mangled wreckage of a torso thoroughly devoured by vultures. Its bare ribs hunched and popped through the military fatigue. “This one was a defector,” Azma said. He wore double uniforms, the outer layer trousers pulled to his lower bottom to reveal the inner. His bare skull lay by his side. His dark fingers and toes perhaps the only part that hadn’t been eaten by wild animals or the birds of death that still swirled around. Dark and shrivelled, they decayed and dried in the severe heat.

By this time I was getting worse. The pain wasn’t letting up. I felt faint and dizzied in the heat, almost dropping my camera. “Take it, take the camera,” I said to Moses. I crushed to my knees and emptied my breakfast. “Is he praying,” I heard Azma ask amidst shouts “we need to get going, it’s getting dangerous here.”

We had overstayed. A man walked by swinging an axe. “There are hundreds of bodies inside the thicket,” he offered, “this is nothing” referring to the bodies we had encountered on the road. But Azma read him differently. “It could be a trap,” he said. If we were cornered here, there would be no escape. “We can get slaughtered here.” Several government tankers lay burnt out on the road and beyond testament to the fierce fighting prior. Every land-cruiser that drove through did so at crazy speeds.

A sense of foreboding gripped us. We declined the offer. The man with the axe walked on. As we loaded up to leave, a few feet away we noticed two more bodies. Another dead man oddly clutched a cup in his hand, “Did you see that?” Robert asked.

We tackled the rumble at great speed, myself now in excruciating pain, as the wheels pounded the rough terrain. None of us had a flack jacket on. We needed to be in a safe zone before we could slow down as Azma suspected we had exposed ourselves. Three hours later, after the rough and tumble, we could glimpse Juba town in the distance.  Many civilians unfortunately did not leave Bor alive.

The writer is a Kenyan-born TV producer and photojournalist





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