BENTIU, South Sudan – On April 29, the 4th division of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, operating around Panakuac—a South Sudanese town in northern Unity state, located about 23 kilometers away from Heglig where SPLA troops recently withdrew—came under attack from Sudan Armed Forces, or SAF. I, along with a group of international journalists embedded within the 4th division, was caught in the crossfire.
The following CNN video documents the attack:
The experience gave me and my compatriots a firsthand account of what civilians and SPLA soldiers, alike, have experienced almost daily in Unity state over the past several weeks, as military forces on both sides of the ill-defined international border separating the two Sudans engage in escalating conflict. Also on April 29, SAF bombed densely populated areas in Rubkona, several kilometers away from Bentiu, killing at least six people, including two children.
En-route to Panakuac over the weekend, we encountered trucks of soldiers rushing in both directions, to and from the frontline. There was nothing but soldiers to be seen in the area, as civilians have fled and moved to the relative safety of Bentiu and neighboring villages.
When we arrived in Panakuac, we met the Commander of the SPLA’s 4th division, Major-General James Gatduel Gatluak, along with his soldiers. He led the SPLA forces that overtook Heglig earlier this month and says that he is ready to go back, if necessary, to stop further aggression from Khartoum.
“We are only three kilometers from SAF, they are in Tashwin, “ he told us. Only a few moments later his soldiers scrambled to their positions to respond to what appeared to be gunship fire from SAF, followed by the sounds of MIG 29 jet–fighters approaching in the sky above.
For the ensuing 15 minutes, we sought cover in a trench while a barrage of anti-aircraft weaponry, artillery and explosions raged around us. It was 15 minutes before the first lull in firing, when Major-General Gatluak told us to get away from the frontline.
A few hours later, we met Bol Simon Chol, a young SPLA soldier from Jonglei, at a hospital in Bentiu. He suffered from wounds inflicted during the attack.
“I was there standing close to the Major General when I was hit, soon after you left,” Bol told me. He was one of the four soldiers wounded in the attack.
Indignation with the international community is palpable here in Bentiu. SPLA soldiers grow impatient with every day passing, and with every new SAF attack their resolution to push SAF forces further north and retake the Heglig area is gaining momentum. The SPLA withdrew from Heglig under heavy pressure from the international community, they all say. They wanted to show the world that they desire peace. Now, they demand that the international community put an end to “Bashir’s aggression.”
“[The] African Union and Thabo Mbeki are only talking and talking,” a soldier from Central Equatoria told me in Bentiu during his short break from the frontline. While the political work to find a peaceful solution to the crisis is being dealt with by the government in Juba, people in Unity state increasingly appear to see an all-out offensive against SAF as the only option to bring them much wished-for peace.
“We are human beings and the question is how long are we going to be able to tolerate this?” Lt. Colonel Obuto Mamur Mete, Deputy Chief of Staff of the SPLA, asked.
The Lt. Colonel’s question came as the government of Sudan declared a “state of emergency” in three Sudanese states bordering South Sudan. While the declaration reportedly suspends certain legislation and creates judicial mechanisms, it falls short of a formal declaration of war. That said, its issuance may indicate that fighting along the north-south border between the SAF and the SPLA, as well as between the SAF and forces from the Sudan Revolutionary Front, or SRF, may continue, at least in the immediate term.
Photos: Nenad Marinkovic / Enough Project