The Episcopal Church has been working in South Sudan for many decades, but in mid-January 2014, the church in Bor, Jonglei's state capital, may have experienced its darkest moment. Very near the church, a compound inhabited largely by pastors and other church workers became the site of a massacre. Just two weeks before our visit there, a mix of anti-government soldiers and irregular militia known as the White Army stormed into the compound, killing everyone who could not escape. Remaining church personnel told us six female pastors aged 50-70 were raped and killed, some in their bedrooms. Twenty-two people are now buried in a mass grave behind the church grounds.
The atrocities committed in Bor are just one example of brutality unfolding across the country at the hands of both national army and anti-government forces. Over the course of the past two months, our Satellite Sentinel Project has documented evidence of wide-scale and systemic destruction to large swaths of Unity, Upper Nile, Central Equatoria, and Jonglei states.Now an estimated 716,100 people are displaced within South Sudan. Another 156,800 people have fled to nearby countries.The U.N. refugee agency has warned against their return home.
The U.N. has declared South Sudan a Level 3 humanitarian emergency, on par with Syria, the Central African Republic, and the Philippines. The cessation of hostilities agreement between the warring parties appears to have collapsed entirely.
While in Bor, we visited three other mass graves where hundreds of people have been buried, killed during the withdrawal from Bor of the anti-government forces. Every day, dozens of new corpses are discovered in abandoned homes. The body bags prepared by medical workers appear along the roads with relentless regularity. We rode down one road and returned a couple hours later to find a number of new body bags lying by the road. Because most of the town has been abandoned, there is no way to know how many dead are still to be counted.
Everyone we talked with says that the dead in Bor, a Dinka stronghold, were almost uniformly ethnic Dinka. In other parts of the country, including Riek Machar’s hometown of Leer, Nuer civilians continue to bear the brunt of tit-for-tat clashes between the combatant forces.
Traveling in Bor, the signs of looting are everywhere, as if the entire town was systematically looted by departing opposition forces. The Enough Project’s contacts across the country confirm similar patterns of looting by both government and anti-government forces throughout South Sudan. In Bor, as in other places, a significant transfer of assets and wealth has taken place, with possessions and cattle being carted away to opposition-controlled areas. The stolen cattle constitute the bulk of the savings of most families in the hardest-hit war-torn areas. The heightened polarization between South Sudan’s communities is eerily reminiscent of 1991, when then-splinter rebel faction leader Riek Machar’s forces launched a brutal attack on Bor and the surrounding region, killing thousands of Dinka civilians and stealing tens of thousands of cattle. The counter-attacks by Dinka communities and the main rebel faction were equally deadly. In the aftermath, I researched these and other massive human rights crimes for a book Human Rights Watch published in 1994 called Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Sudan. Those 1991 atrocity-filled attacks and counter-attacks sparked years of intra-rebel fighting within the south, in which mass atrocities were committed by both sides against civilian populations. Those years of fighting laid the foundation for today’s ethnic schisms to widen so quickly, especially since both sides have referenced the 1991 events as a touchstone for mobilizing their constituencies.
As one pastor in the U.N. displaced camp in Bor told us, “Peace must come soon. If not, the divisions will become devastating to all of us.”
But atrocities elsewhere had preceded the ones committed in Bor. At the outset of the conflict in mid-December 2013, Dinka soldiers of the Presidential Guard conducted targeted killings in Nuer neighborhoods in Juba and Bentiu, going doorto- door in search of Nuer and executing hundreds. We visited the main U.N. compound in Juba, where over 27,000 internally displaced people—mainly Nuers—have sought sanctuary, and listened to harrowing stories of ethnic targeting.
Through our discussions with displaced persons in the U.N. compound, we learned that these communities are afraid to return to their homes in Juba and have asked to either be evacuated to a third country or return to their “places of origin.” We also traveled throughout the neighborhoods where fighting in Juba was heaviest, and we observed that the Nuer sections of town were completely looted and abandoned, with some houses or market stalls burned or otherwise destroyed.
Juba’s neighborhoods are now ghost towns. Still, soldiers we spoke with were adamant that no orders had been given to kill Nuer, and that these were the actions of individual Dinka soldiers. Nonetheless, the consistent and prolonged character of the attacks on Juba’s Nuer community suggests either a significant omission of responsible command and control, or tacit, if not explicit, endorsement of these actions. This perception is only underscored by the fact that the attacks were conducted by Dinka members of the Presidential Guard. These initial attacks provided fodder and fuel for revenge attacks by defecting Nuer soldiers under Riek Machar and their militia allies in a number of places, including Bor.
In Juba, we also attempted to access the building in the Gudele neighborhood where Human Rights Watch concluded that over 200 Nuer were massacred by Dinka soldiers when the war first erupted. In an editorial published by Sudan Tribune, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović cited survivor accounts of 200-400 people who were identified by their accents and traditional markings and brought to police station in Gudele where they came under fire. Government soldiers in the area refused to allow us access to the site, but independent observers have documented harrowing accounts by those who were trapped inside the police station.
Still, the capital city’s social cohesion did not completely fall apart. In fact, we visited a couple sites where government soldiers were dispatched to rescue Nuer who were trapped and feared for their lives. AidLeap collected over two dozen similar testimonials, attesting to Dinka who shielded Nuer in their own homes and many similar accounts. One older Nuer man was taken in and cared for as a family member by Dinka neighbors who had found him alone shortly after the onset of violence. Similarly, a community near Juba arranged community patrols bringing together Nuer and Dinka men tasked with providing collective security for local community members. Dozens of similar stories abound.