Stephen*, 28, says he was obeying a government order issued over the radio, for civilians to remain in their homes, after fighting between rival military factions broke out in the South Sudanese capital of Juba early last week.
"We were hearing gunshots – not sporadic, but…one shot [at a time]; after five minutes you would hear a gunshot, then later, after five minutes, you would hear another gunshot," he recounts.
"We didn't know what was happening until they came to our places," he adds, referring to soldiers.
"They left two people standing at my door and they went to my cousins' house, next door. I saw them calling my cousins out of their house and they asked them to sit down and then to stand up and then to sit down again. Then they shot them."
Stephen says he escaped through the bamboo fence of his garden before the men could enter his home and then found sanctuary at a UN base by the national airport in Juba, where he has remained ever since.
His story is hardly unique among the thousands of Nuer people gathered at this location, where most people are still sleeping out in the open, with little access to food or toilets. Men from this ethnic group say that they have been approached by Dinka elements of the security forces, who, in the Dinka language, asked their names. Those unable to respond were then summarily executed, they claim.
The unrest began on Sunday, December 15, in what President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, claims was an attempted coup by his former deputy, Riek Machar, a Nuer, who was fired in July. The fighting in Juba, which came close to the president's residence, stopped by December 17 afternoon, when the forces that remained loyal to the president secured the capital. But the killing continued.
Some men in this camp nurse multiple gunshot wounds; the victims, they claim, of a massacre at a police station, perpetrated by security forces.
"It was horrible, because to survive you had to cover yourself with the bodies of dead people," says Andrew*. Over the next two days, Andrew says shots were repeatedly fired through the windows of the room in which the men were being held. "I was in the corner by the windows so I hid myself down there – and that's how I survived," he explains.
He adds that he is one of only 12 survivors, out of more than 250 men herded into the police station.
His testimony is corroborated by a second man, in a different part of the makeshift camp at the UN base.
"[There were] 275 people - and we remain as only 12 people still alive now," says Michael.*
Both men say that they were held at a local police station in the Gudele neighbourhood of Juba. They were only rescued on December 17, when police officers – who were not involved in the alleged massacre – came to the police station and took the survivors to hospital.
Government officials blame ‘criminals’
Shortly after the men recounted their harrowing tales, two of my colleagues visited the location where the alleged atrocity occurred. They found a cluster of buildings at the site, but they couldn't get inside, because of uniformed military and plain clothes security operatives, who were in a hostile mood. There were new padlocks on the doors of two of the buildings, one of which had shredded curtains and pockmarks in the walls. An abnormal number of flies buzzed around, and the stench of rotting flesh hung in the air.
A spokesman for South Sudan's army, Philip Aguer, has denied that Dinka elements of the military targeted Nuers. According to Aguer, the deaths of Nuer civilians were the work of "criminals exploiting the chance" to loot and kill innocent civilians. Some have donned military uniforms, he added – a common diversionary tactic by criminals in South Sudan.
"This is not the SPLA [the country's military]. No SPLA soldiers are involved in this criminal activity and we are ready to arrest and take [the perpetrators] to court,” said Aguer.
He also says he has not heard about the alleged massacre at the police post in Gudele and that he would welcome information from any civilians about it.
It’s not just Nuers who have been victims. Nuer militiamen have been blamed for last week’s deadly attack on a UN base at Akobo, Jonglei state, in which two UN peacekeepers and twenty Dinka men were killed.
The ethnic fissure and targeting of non-combatants will clearly complicate efforts to slow the country’s likely descent into civil war. Rebels now control large swathes of territory in the oil rich African nation – although government forces have recently recaptured the town of Bor, capital of Jonglei state.
International community can play a critical role
Two years after South Sudan finally became independent following decades of conflict and a brutal war against authorities in Khartoum, there are fears that the world’s newest nation might be unravelling at the seams.
But there are important factors which may yet pull the country back from the brink.
Crucially, James Hoth Mai, South Sudan’s army chief of staff, is a Nuer, and he remains loyal to President Kiir. This Nuer-Dinka cooperation at the very top of the regime might encourage the two sides to reconcile. Observers have also noted that both Kiir and Machar have signalled their openness to talks.
The international community is also likely to play a significant role in trying to get the rival parties to agree to talks and reach a compromise. Both the US and China have strong interests in ensuring a peaceful solution to the latest crisis. China buys most of South Sudan's oil for its resource hungry economy and has significant direct interests in the country's oilfields.
The US, perhaps the principal foreign midwife in the birth of South Sudan, can play a critical role in trying to resolve a problem that could threaten the very future of this young nation.
The mood today is starkly different from the cautious optimism on display back in 2011. I was present both at the referendum in January and independence seven months later, when Nuers and Dinkas celebrated side by side, having fought alongside one another for much of a two-decade-long war against Sudan's government.
But even that struggle for independence was undermined by a Nuer-Dinka military split, with Machar creating a renegade faction in 1991 that endured for many years.
The question now is whether this reconciliation can be repeated. Until or unless this happens, many civilians, both in government and rebel-held areas, will continue to seek the protection of the UN.
Around 45,000 people are now in UN facilities, the peacekeeping mission says. But, ominously, many more may have already fled into the bush, where they are cut off from protection, food and shelter.
* Individuals' names have been changed to protect their identities
Date created : 2013-12-25