Counting the dead in South Sudan
Recent massacres in Bor spawn calls to document evidence and hold perpetrators to account.
Bor, South Sudan – Elderly and blind, Debora Agot could only guess at the horrors taking place around her at the church. Her nostrils filled with smoke and her ears with high-pitched screams as gangs stormed the main hall, gunning down the old – including six priests – and dragging out the young women to rape before slitting their throats.
“I couldn’t see anything but I could just hear the wailing and crying and then the thuds,” she says, banging a tiny fist against a cracked palm to emphasise the loud bangs from gunfire that she never thought would end.
“Then the voices just went down,” she says.
Agot is the only survivor of the massacre of at least 14 people at The St Andrews Episcopal Church in Bor, capital of South Sudan’s Jonglei state. It is now more of a home to the dead than the living.
The church has changed hands four times since decades-old civil war scars were ripped open in mid-December. Left to fester, a feud between the country’s President Salva Kiir and his erstwhile enemy and deputy Riek Machar has turned a country – that spent almost 50 years fighting Sudan for independence – on itself, in less than three years of nationhood. And the victims of the latest power struggle are innocents trapped and targeted by ethnicity.
I was just caught up with fear and trembling as I knew it was killing, and I thought how will I escape? Only through God's will I remain.
Powerless and aware that the noise and smells surrounding her were unmistakably of death, Agot waited for the bangs to restart and for death to come to her door.
“I was just caught up with fear and trembling as I knew it was killing, and I thought how will I escape? Only through God’s will I remain,” she says. “Now, when I hear any noise or voice, a bump of the door or anything, I might jump thinking anything might happen and the noise of guns will come.”
Burying the dead
Near a mass grave where 134 people have just been buried, diggers claw through cracked earth and bleached grass to prepare another site for 200 more bodies. A clutched hand points skyward out of one of about 45 body bags. From another emerges a foot, the next a khaki-clad arm.
From the next comes nothing. The small lump barely fills one-third of the space, but it is not an uncommon sight in a conflict where even the smallest lives were not spared.
“During the war, it was never like this. The civilians were never killed like this, and so many,” says Jonglei’s acting Governor Aquilla Melut.
An estimated two million people died during two bush wars pitting southern guerrilla fighters against Khartoum’s army and artillery. But one of the bloodiest incidents was internal and in Bor.
In 1991 forces loyal to Machar massacred an estimated 2,000 people from the country’s main Dinka tribe after a split in the then rebel movement, now government, over which direction their struggle to be free from a northern hardline government should take.
This time around, a scuffle between ethnic Nuer and Dinka soldiers in the presidential guard in South Sudan’s capital Juba spread into gun battles in the barracks, then fighting on the streets. Tanks were sent to bulldoze Machar’s home while uniformed men executed those who couldn’t flee in time.
But the killing along ethnic lines then spread to whole Nuer neighbourhoods that were flattened, ransacked and burnt down as men went house-to-house targeting anyone bearing the gaar-traditional scarification of four lines across the forehead – or the unmarked unable to answer questions in Dinka language.
In a country that raised a flag in 2011 but whose unity was always pulled together by a common enmity of the north, what was a politically motivated crisis has descended into bouts of ethnic cleansing and a litany of human rights abuses by both sides. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch are pressing the United Nations and others to properly and promptly investigate such crimes before it’s too late.
“Documenting evidence of violations is the first step in providing the accountability crucial for South Sudan to move forward and end the violence,” says Skye Wheeler, HRW’s South Sudan researcher.
“This evidence needs to be documented now, for example the dead in Bor need to be photographed and the information properly catalogued to help reconstruct events,” she says.
The White Army
But the bones are being swept away with the bullet casings, the flesh fading into piles of wet clothes and skeletons are being burnt along with the rubbish left by armies of meticulous looters.
In Bor, many people plunged themselves into the Nile waters, regardless of the crocodiles and their inability to swim, as heavily armed rebels poured into villages with thousands of fighters known as The White Army – mainly teenagers wielding spears and machetes.
Michael Mayen gently lines up body bags that release noxious fumes and make bystanders gag. In less than three weeks, this human rights lawyer turned undertaker says he and other young men have collected more than 2,000 bodies. He classified them as “95 percent civilians”, and almost all from the Dinka ethnic group.
Mayen gave himself the gruesome task after realising the bodies littering almost all of Bor’s dirt roads would otherwise be forgotten, left to rot or picked clean by dogs and birds. He spent the first few days wracked by sobs and convulsed by coughing fits from the overpowering sights and smells of the dead. But he says he couldn’t stop.
I decided to come to know exactly the people who were killed. Was it innocent people or soldiers? When I came here I saw most of the vulnerable people were killed. Ladies, kids and disabled people were killed.
“I decided to come to know exactly the people who were killed. Was it innocent people or soldiers? When I came here I saw most of the vulnerable people were killed. Ladies, kids and disabled people were killed,” he says.
Of the catalogue of horrors that includes charred infants and chopped children, the scene at St Andrews still stands out in Mayen’s mind.
“When we went to the church, we found six ladies who were raped, and I’m the one who took their clothes and covered them as they left them as they are,” naked and legs splayed, he says.
Melut says the church deaths take this conflict “beyond the universe”, but admits a lack of vehicles to transport the dead and manpower to check vast areas means no one really knows the details of incidents beyond Bor.
He only dares to venture that “over a thousand” people died in Bor town.
“Maybe 60 percent of Bor has been cleared,” he says. But this is a manual effort by teams going from house-to-house only a few kilometres from the crumpled town centre’s flattened and looted market, while most of the clashes happened on the roads leading to the state capital.
The fear of fresh fighting and memories of massacres have forced thousands to seek shelter at United Nations bases meant to house peacekeeping missions, but now resemble shanty towns, or for Bor residents, to an overcrowded site in nearby Minkamen where food and shelter are scarce.
But with rebels in five of Jonglei’s 11 counties still fighting the government and the Ugandan forces that have helped them retake and hold onto Bor, few are returning. Most are day-trippers trying to search through the rubble of desecrated huts, hoping to find anything they can use to rebuild their lives or trade for increasingly scarce food.
Back at St Andrews, Reverend Thomas Kur is haunted by the ghosts of the massacre that invade his senses. The smell of blood won’t leave him, despite taking out all the wooden doors, washing and bleaching the floors several times, and digging up the sodden earth where three dead women were found outside.
Standing next to a grave that the UN dug for about 20 people – including two priests shot on the Juba-to-Bor road – he chokes when talking about the huge loss of life and the indignity of all the death.
“There’s no funerals. Who’s there? The whole town is deserted,” Kur says, bloodshot eyes bulging. “I’m now used to being in the place of the burials like this morning, where that mass grave of 134 are buried … and the bodies are still being collected. They are in the houses, the small huts.”
Local officials are appealing to international aid agencies to return to help, but at the UN peacekeeping base most staff are still holed up because of insecurity.
Reports from de-mining teams of remnants of cluster munitions discovered around Bor will further deter those mulling moves beyond the town.
Agot is too scared to move beyond her small hut. She tries to cling to her memories of better times, just before her remaining good eye clouded over, when she danced and sang for hours to celebrate the birth of a new country.
“Now, I’m living in fear of death. People have been killed and we are abandoned, without hope even for life.”