Juba, South Sudan – A dead silence hung over the Munuki West neighbourhood of South Sudan’s capital, Juba. Amid the tightly packed shacks, doors hung from their frames and broken furniture lay scattered outside. A lone group of soldiers was still going from house to house. They appeared to be looking for anything of value that may have been left behind, or for people still in hiding.
On the morning of December 16, 2013, Keah, a resident of Munuki West, had been walking home from his work as a nightwatchman at a construction company. He had listened to the sound of gunfire rock the city all night long, after fighting broke out in an army barracks between soldiers divided largely along ethnic lines.
Keah had no way of knowing that soldiers loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir were fighting others loyal to the ousted Vice President Riek Machar. When soldiers hailing from the same Nuer ethnic group as Machar were forced to flee, Kiir’s supporters went on an ethnically motivated killing spree. Troops, many of them believed to come from Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community, began to appear in neighbourhoods inhabited primarily by Nuer.
As Keah turned the corner towards his house, he saw soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the guerrilla force that became the country’s national army upon becoming independent in 2011. They were rounding up Nuer men, women and children, and moving stealthily to avoid alerting residents.
The nightwatchman ducked behind a reed fence and immediately made a phone call to his wife, telling her to quickly take the children to the United Nations base near the airport where they could seek the protection of peacekeepers. He told her not to waste any time packing.
What he saw next through the fence has been giving him nightmares ever since. The soldiers rounded up a group of around 20 people, then bound their hands behind their back. Keah recognised friends among them, one woman and her children from his own neighbourhood. The soldiers shoved the people into a tukul – a traditional clay-and-straw hut – and put others into the back of a pick-up truck that was driven away.
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Then they opened fire on the men, women and children packed inside the tukul and set the hut ablaze. “It felt like it was me who was dying,” Keah said. “People were screaming and I was so afraid. I pushed my hands against my ears.”
Forty-one-year-old Simon was hiding nearby. He saw the same massacre and independently verified Keah’s account. “There were at least 20 people who were killed. I knew three of them by name,” Simon said.
More than a month later, only the ruined walls of the tukul remain standing. The ground is littered with ash. At the entrance lies a closed padlock still attached to the latch of the tukul’s door. There are no charred bodies – the remains have been removed.
What had begun as a political dispute between South Sudan’s two leading politicians – Kiir and Machar – has spiralled into a full-scale civil war. The president accused his sacked understudy of plotting a coup against him. Machar, who fled Juba at the onset of violence, has assumed leadership of an armed opposition. He denies trying to seize power and accuses his rival of trying to eliminate political opponents. Eleven senior politicians were arrested and accused of being co-conspirators. Only seven of them have so far been released on condition they leave the country for neighbouring Kenya.
In the weeks that followed the killings in Juba, war spread across much of the world’s newest country, leading to at least 10,000 deaths and causing more than 700,000 to flee their homes, according to the UN. State capitals such as Bor, Malakal and Bentiu were taken by the rebels, but the government was able to re-capture the cities after fierce fighting.
New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented tit-for-tat atrocities during the fighting, reporting “appalling crimes committed against civilians for no other reason than their ethnicity”.
Much of the violence in Juba consisted of targeted attacks by ethnic Dinka members of South Sudan’s armed forces against Nuer civilians suspected to be Machar supporters. HRW stated that SPLA soldiers and policemen rounded up between 200 and 300 Nuer men and boys inside a police station and then shot them through the windows. The handful of survivors recounted how they had covered themselves with bodies and pretended to be dead in an ordeal that lasted more than two days.
HRW also documented the targeting and killing of Dinka civilians by rebel forces in other parts of the country. These included government officials murdered by a Nuer mob after sheltering at a remote UN base in the east of the country.
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Some 20 metres from the burned-out tukul in Juba, the house of another resident, Phar, is still standing. The rusting frame of a torched car sits in front. Inside, the house is a mess: The metal frames of four beds are all that remain; everything else is ashes. Here and there lie photos of the former residents and a pair of half-melted women’s shoes and melted hair extensions.
“The soldiers took or destroyed everything,” said 43-year-old Phar, who was not at home when the conflict broke out. Like Keah and Simon, he was able to escape with his wife and children to the UN base in Juba, which has been turned into a refugee camp for people fleeing the fighting. Some 23,000 people are still sheltering inside two UN facilities in the capital, despite a ceasefire declared between the government and the rebels on January 23.
Ariane Quentier, a UN spokesperson, said the mission was documenting everything that had taken place in Juba and the rest of the country. She said the UN mission was unable to comment on the alleged atrocities pending the release of a report, which is expected in early February. The contents of the UN dossier will be examined closely by the international community as it seeks a negotiated settlement, as well as an understanding of what has happened in South Sudan.
Ivan Simonovic, the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, said in January that he has evidence of mass murder, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and sexual violence in the country. He said an independent and impartial fact-finding commission should be established to investigate the crimes and hold those responsible accountable.
‘We can’t blame them for being afraid’
The chief of staff of the SPLA, James Hoth Mai, admitted in a phone interview that civilians had been killed in Juba but promised action against what he called criminal elements: “We arrested individuals from the police and from the army, and they are being investigated. If someone was commanding them, we will investigate this too.”
Meanwhile in Addis Ababa, the capital of neighbouring Ethiopia, representatives of both sides are expected to resume talks on February 7 following the cessation of hostilities. Both sides accuse each other of violating the ceasefire and sporadic fighting has been reported in several locations. The partial release of 11 detainees has been followed by calls from the government for people displaced by the fighting to go home.
For now, the Nuer sheltering inside the UN base in Juba, and others hiding in UN bases elsewhere in the country are refusing to move. Keah is too afraid to leave the camp and go home.
The horrors of recent weeks will not be easily forgotten. “We can’t blame them for being afraid,” said Hoth Mai. “It will take a long time to rebuild trust.”