Tens of thousands flee as fighting hits large city, prompting fears that last year’s peace agreement could collapse.
Wau, South Sudan – Looting, killing, beatings and sexual assault were the hallmarks of ethnically motivated attacks against civilians by South Sudanese government forces in the town of Wau earlier this year, according to the personal stories of those who witnessed and endured them.
Houses were routinely ransacked and dozens were killed, including a three-year-old child, a 50-year-old teacher and a man in his 60s. Some of the dead were so disfigured that they could only be identified by the clothes they were wearing.
The attacks bear all the characteristics of the war crimes that have been a tragic feature of South Sudan’s brief history.
In the space of just a few days, at the end of June, tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes in Wau, one of South Sudan’s largest towns and a key trading hub, as government troops and plain-clothes militia went from house to house attacking civilians with machetes, guns, sticks and spears.
The attacks were perpetrated by members of the Dinka tribe, the largest tribe in the country and that of President Salva Kiir. They were predominantly carried out against members of a group of tribes known locally as the Fertit, denoting inhabitants of the former state of Western Bar el-Ghazal who are not Dinka, Luo or Arab.
Those fleeing sought sanctuary wherever they could: in the grounds of churches, schools, a Red Cross compound, and around the perimeter of the local UN base.
Twenty-six-year-old Mary Luka, from the Zande tribe in Western Equatoria, sat in the grounds of St Mary’s Cathedral a few days after the attacks.
In steady tones, Mary recounted the story of how soldiers came to her house, murdered her husband and sexually assaulted her.
When the attacks began Mary was at her home in the Haya Salam area in the west of Wau with her husband, Sadam Ali, and six-year-old son, Alex Sadam.
“We heard heavy shooting of guns, so we decided to come to the church,” she said. “We were afraid, there was shooting of guns close by on all sides and we saw people running.”
As they left the house with two other women and their four children, 12 armed men stopped them.
“Two of them were wearing uniforms and had guns,” she said. “The others had machetes, knives and sticks. They were all Dinka. The two soldiers were in charge. They were only young, around 30 years old.
“First, they killed my husband. The soldiers told him to run. While he was running they shot him in the head. My son was there, watching as his father was shot.
“Then they took me inside a room and they took a knife out. One of the soldiers tore my skirt with a knife. They wanted to have sexual intercourse with me. They wanted to use me. They harmed my vagina with a knife.
“There were five men in the room with me. Four of them were without uniform. The one wearing the uniform cut me. He held a knife to my vagina. He was intending to kill me.
“They wanted money, my mobile phone, and all my possessions. They put all my things in the street. I said I’d go out to bring money and, as soon as I got out, I started running. I don’t know why they didn’t kill me.”
In one of the nearby buildings in the grounds of St Mary’s, Elizabeth sheltered from the heat surrounded by four of her five children. Her six-month-old daughter was receiving treatment in a local hospital.
It is not the first time Elizabeth has suffered the tragic consequences of ethnic violence in South Sudan.
In December 2012, her husband, a Zande from Western Equatoria, was one of hundreds murdered by government soldiers who went from house to house, slaughtering people they suspected of being Nuer, the second-largest tribe in the country and that of Salva Kiir’s adversary in the civil war, Riek Machar.
When her husband was killed, Elizabeth returned home to her community in Wau. But the violence followed her.
The attacks in Wau were a chilling echo of what happened in Juba, and also of the violence meted out by troops loyal to Machar in Unity state, in April 2014.
Elizabeth and her children abandoned their house in the Souk Salam market area in northwest Wau at around midnight on 24 June. They were on the move for 11 hours, before they found shelter.
“There was huge shooting of guns,” she said. “We didn’t know what was happening. I was afraid. We ran all through the night.”
Five days later they returned to Wau to find that their homes had been stripped of all their possessions.
“Utensils, mattresses, children’s clothes, cooking flour, everything had gone,” she said.
Father Natale Gurucho
Mary and Elizabeth were among more than 10,000 people who sought refuge at St Mary’s.
From a chair overlooking two rows of unmarked graves, Father Natale Gurucho, a priest at the cathedral, describes the unfolding horror of the attacks on June 24.
“Night was falling, and I had just rung the big bell for a special 7pm prayer, when I saw a group of young people in the street by the church,” he said.
“They were armed with machetes and sticks and spears. There were more than 20 of them, maybe more than 30. They were beating their sticks against the wall. They were talking in Dinka.
“Throughout the night, we heard a lot of gunshots from around the town. I spent the whole night awake. We opened the church gates to the people who were fleeing.”
By the next morning, people were arriving at the church in their hundreds. “They were very fearful,” said Father Natale. “They told us people in military uniform and others with spears, machetes and sticks came into their houses.
“They took everything from the houses: clothing, mattresses, cooking utensils, phones, laptops. If they refused them entry, they threatened to shoot them or cut them.
“We saw some of them marching along the street in front of the church with their loot on their heads.”
Soon, it was not just those fleeing who were arriving at the church, but bodies.
“The first body to arrive was a three-year-old baby,” said Father Natale.
“Her grandmother Mariana came running with the dead child in her arms. We don’t normally bury people here, but we agreed to. We dug a hole, there was a prayer, a blessing and then we buried her.”
Over the next few days, the bodies of numerous others slain in their homes or in the street were brought to the church for burial.
“On Saturday evening, a young man called George, a volunteer in the church youth group, came carrying his dead father with three other men,” said Father Natale.
Father Natale drove his pick-up truck to collect more bodies from the local hospital for burial at St Mary’s.
“The room was full in the hospital – they were putting dead bodies on top of each other,” he said. “It was a really terrible scene. Some of them had been there for two or three days. They were rotten and smelling.
“Those that the relatives could identify were brought here from the hospital. It was not easy to look at. Some of them were disfigured because they had been shot in the head, but they were able to identify them from the clothes they were wearing.”
Sixteen people were buried at the church, said Father Natale, pointing to the two lines of dirt mounds each marked with a small wooden markers. They were all Balanda, one of the Fertit tribes, according to Oliver, a priest in training at the cathedral.
One grave stands empty. “We dug that for three other bodies, but the government took them away,” said Father Natale.
According to official government figures, 39 civilians and four policemen were killed in those attacks, although the figure has not been independently corroborated and may well have been higher.
Some of the local police force, along with members of other armed local authorities, opposed the attacks or provided protection to the sites offering sanctuary to those displaced.
Within a week almost 50,000 people were displaced within the town, according to estimates from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
In addition to the 10,000 people sheltering at St Mary’s, another 17,000 sought refuge in two local schools, and 2,000 in two other churches.
Within 10 days of the attacks, more than 22,000 people were living in cramped conditions on a site adjacent to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base.
The Red Cross compound provided refuge to about 5,000 people in the first three days after the attacks, according to Leon Archangelo, director for the South Sudan Red Cross in Wau. “The compound is only meant for 20 people,” he said.
In the south of the town, civilians fled to the Holy Family Church in an area called Nazareth. The church provided sanctuary to about 5,000 people.
Forty-five-year-old Mary Mario was one of them. Her husband, Angelo Tadeo, was murdered in the attacks and her eight-year-old grandson, Wilson Angelo, was also shot.
“It happened on Friday, at 4pm,” she said. “There was a mixture of people. Some of them in army clothes, some of them in normal clothes. They were in big numbers. They came and surrounded the area.”
Mary and her family tried to run to the church, but they were captured. “They beat my husband on the back with a stick and then they shot him in the left side of the chest,” she said. “He was 64. He died on the spot.
“My grandson was shot in his right hand. Local police helped carry him to a hospital at the army barracks.”
When Father Natale and his colleagues visited Nazareth on the weekend of the attacks, they found the rotting bodies of three other men.
Elias Khamis Kpoyo, a 50-year-old teacher working in the ministry of education, was killed in his compound along with his son, Louis.
Elias’s neighbour, 45-year-old Gabriel Joseph, heard the gunshots and ran into the compound. He, too, was shot dead.
“Their bodies were already swollen, covered in flies,” said Father Natale. “The blood around them had turned black. We just decided to bury them there.”
A fourth man, Thomas, was also shot dead and buried in his compound, said Father Archangel, a pastor at the Holy Family Church.
All four men were Balanda, all of them were killed by government soldiers, according to Father Archangel.
“During the incident, we buried around 17 people,” he said. “They were all killed in this area. All of the houses were looted.”
The perpetrators were a mixture of SPLA and plain-clothed militia, said Father Archangel.
“If someone is carrying a gun, you assume they are a soldier, but not all of them were in uniform,” he said. “They had pangas [machetes] and spears. They were not from around here. They had the intention of coming to loot.”
From a small room inside the church grounds, Father Archangel reached for a laptop and brought up photographs of the sprawling, bloodied bodies of Elias, Louis, Gabriel and Thomas.
“The bodies were already rotten, so we had to bury them in their homes,” he said.
Besides those seeking shelter in the church grounds, Nazareth was almost completely deserted. Father Archangel spoke in hushed tones, saying he was wary of Dinka informers.
“The government has announced that people should go home, but they have nothing to go back to,” he said. “The neighbourhood is not safe and people have nothing to sleep on because the houses have been looted.”
Nazareth was not the only empty part of town. Driving through the west of Wau revealed swaths of deserted residential areas. NGO staff said that armed patrols made them unsafe to visit.
On the main roads, heavily-armed soldiers stood around, machine guns mounted in the open backs of Toyota trucks.
Government soldiers prevented access to the main road leading from the west of the town. Those wishing to use the only alternative would have to pass through an armed checkpoint, at which NGOs are routinely harassed, some of those affected told Al Jazeera.
At the hastily constructed Protection of Civilians (POC) camp beside the UN base, 29-year-old Mina Lawrence sheltered under a tree from the scorching midday sun.
“On Saturday, there were two people killed outside my compound in Loko Loko,” he said. “One of them was Clinton Lemi, from Eastern Equatoria. He was South Sudanese, but had been a refugee in Uganda.
“He was shot on Saturday morning. On Wednesday, we buried him with a second body in a hole between my compound and the road, because the dogs and chickens were eating the bodies.
“I tried to go to my house the following Thursday, but wasn’t able to get there. There were six dead bodies nearby – three covered with a tent and three others. I tried to go again on Friday and the bodies were gone.
“My mother’s house has been looted, and the houses of six other neighbours. When my friend James, a Zande from Western Equatoria, went to get my motorcycle from Haya Fezata, he was beaten in the road by soldiers and they took the motorcycle and his phone.”
Fatna Jol Magas
Some casualties of the fighting sought treatment at the town’s overstretched hospitals.
Fatna Jol Magas, a 31-year-old single mother of six, lay in a bed in the ward of Daniel Comboni Catholic hospital, her foot wrapped in bloodied bandages.
That morning, 10 days after the first attacks, she was shot in the street by government soldiers.
“Me and my neighbour were near the gate of the University of Western Bar el-Ghazal, where I work as a cleaner, when two soldiers stopped us,” she said.
“They asked me whether I was Balanda, and I said ‘no, I am Jur Chol [another name for Luo].’ They were going to kill me, but instead, they took my money and my phone and they shot me in the foot.”
Fatna had fled her home in Nazareth on the second day of attacks. “They were shooting my neighbours. Four men were killed. All of our things have been taken.”
Her youngest child is with her at the hospital, but she has had to leave her other five children at St Mary’s Cathedral.
It has been challenging for the hospital to continue to treat patients, said Sister Rosemary, the head of the Daniel Comboni facility.
“The hospital went into a bit of a crisis because the staff fled,” she said. “Ten of the staff stayed and worked four days non-stop, between Friday and Monday.”
Sitting on the ground of the Red Cross compound in the north of the town, 69-year-old Pio John tells his story of the attacks.
Originally from a village to the north of Wau, but educated in England, Pio is the local land and logistics coordinator for the Catholic church.
A trained motor vehicle engineer, he worked for 36 years as the director of administration in the state physical infrastructure ministry. But he has no pension and now he’s homeless.
“In my area of town, the shooting was very bad,” he said. “We saw two guys killed down the road next to my house, local citizens. The ones shooting were dressed in the usual uniform of the government.”
The attacks were deliberately targeted against certain tribes, said Pio.
“The shooting is all directed to the western part of the town where the Fertit community lives, so it seems like there’s something behind it,” he said.
“It’s an ethnic problem. The people who are now the ruling party are only from one tribe. I think they want their own united kingdom. They want to eliminate the rest of the small ethnic groups.”
The view that the killings were ethnically motivated is widely shared in Wau.
“There’s a kind of hidden agenda that the Fertit people are done away with,” said Father Archangel. “Only this side has been looted; the other side hasn’t been touched.”
“In South Sudan, it is 63 tribes against one [the Dinka], and the one is trying to dominate,” said an Equatorian aid worker in Wau, speaking off the record in order to preserve the organisation’s relationship with local authorities.
“It’s no surprise that these people are in such a bad situation,” said a local aid worker in Mboro, a small town west of Wau, referring to the hundreds of displaced who sleep in the nearby forest in an effort to stay safe. “They have been forced here by the government. It’s a deliberate policy.”
The government denies that the attacks were tribally motivated. Brigadier-General Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the SPLA, told Al Jazeera that the SPLA mobilised to defend the town in response to an attempted rebel incursion.
None of those spoken to by Al Jazeera could confirm this version of events, although several witnesses said that there had been a build-up of rebel troops in the area in the preceding months.
The antagonism between Fertit and Dinka dates back to the 1980s, when Fertit tribesmen fought on behalf of the Khartoum government against the SPLM/A.
In the past few years, these historic tensions have been inflamed many times, particularly since 2012 when the government sought to move the capital of Western Bar el-Ghazal away from Wau.
But, recent events in Wau are also part of a broader trend. The battle lines in South Sudan’s civil conflict have always been always fluid, but, since Kiir and Machar signed the peace deal in August 2015, they have multiplied.
In the past year, local militias across the country – particularly in Central and Western Equatoria and Western Bar el-Ghazal – have taken up arms against the government.
They have done so for a host of reasons, including a desire to have a stake in post-peace South Sudan, local grievances, and defence against the encroachment of the army or Dinka tribesmen into their territory.
“The conflict is expanding geographically,” said Jonathan Pedneault, South Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch . “It has morphed into something closer to insurgency and sometimes brutal counterinsurgency, by mostly Dinka soldiers on behalf of the government, against populations deemed to be supportive of the rebels.
“The events in Wau seem to fit squarely with this new phase in the war.”
There is overwhelming evidence that the government’s actions in Wau amount to war crimes.
Direct attacks against civilians, degrading treatment and murder all feature among the list of war crimes included in the statute establishing the International Criminal Court. All were witnessed in Wau.
“The allegations of what happened in Wau in June are extremely concerning and, in some cases, could amount to war crimes by the SPLA,” said Pedneault.
“Whether it is part of a strategy or not, there has been a forcible removal of people from their houses, concentrating them in points that are easier to control and weakening rebel forces.”
Almost six months later, about 40,000 people are still displaced within Wau town, 83 percent of them are women and children, according to OCHA. Entire sections of the town are still deserted, and barriers to the delivery of aid remain.
Meanwhile, the brutality continues. In early December, government forces began an offensive in Yei River state in former Central Equatoria, forcing civilians to flee their homes to escape air strikes and artillery fire.
There is “credible information that the South Sudanese government is currently targeting civilians in Central Equatoria and … preparing for large-scale attacks in the coming days or weeks,” said the US representative at the UN Human Rights Council, Keith Harper, on November 30.
“South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war,” warned the head of a UN human rights commission on December 14. “The stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it.”
There is little optimism that the conflict will be resolved any time soon. Sitting on a mat at the Red Cross compound in Wau, Pio is despondent. “I don’t expect this situation to calm down in the next two or three years,” he said.