The canoe is barely visible at first, a dark shape moving among the lily pads and grasses in the vast expanse of South Sudan’s Sudd marshes.
The little craft is laden with five villagers — faces anxious and tired — and the few possessions they were able to rescue as they fled fighting around the counties of Leer and Mayendit, two days distant by boat.
Like others arriving in the opposition-held marsh town of Nyal in recent weeks, they recount horrifying stories of atrocities: people burned to death in their houses by government soldiers, arbitrary shootings, rape and widespread looting of cattle, the villagers’ major source of wealth.
Illustration: Mountain People
Eyewitness accounts from the displaced confirm reports from the UN and other international agencies that paint a picture of abuses brutal even by the standards of recent episodes in South Sudan.
Thousands have fled, many taking refuge in squalid conditions on overcrowded marsh islands lacking food and medical facilities, while many have subsisted by eating waterlily bulbs and fishing, aid agencies say.
Like many who were interviewed, the canoe occupants had escaped Thonyor, a village near Leer, one of the first locations to be attacked by South Sudanese soldiers last month.
“They came in several armored vehicles,” said Peter Kuol, 60, who was traveling with his two daughters aged 13 and 15.
“They shelled the area and took women,” he added, describing how villagers had fled to one of several large islands in the swamps traditionally used by villagers as refuge in times of conflict.
However, the soldiers followed by barge and canoe, shelling the crowded swamp island where they had sought safety, villagers said.
Kuol’s story was repeated by other witnesses from Thonyor and other villages. All told of a pre-dawn assault involving up to three armored vehicles, of civilians caught in the crossfire and deliberate atrocities.
At times, the level of violence has suggested a scorched-earth policy with food stores and medical facilities also attacked.
Tut Kai, also from Thonyor, made the two-day marsh crossing a few days before Kuol.
“The government and the militias attacked at around 5am. We saw people killed as we ran away. They weren’t just looking for fighters, they were shooting everyone. We hid until the soldiers had moved on, then went to see what had happened. We buried 18 people including children and old people,” Tut Kai said.
Lam Puok, who was in a nearby village, described people being burned alive in their houses.
“There were many people killed where I was, including two old people who were burned inside their huts,” he said.
He named those burned alive: Bol Pala, 90, and Duop Ngunow, 72.
South Sudan’s conflict is marked by the complexity of its rivalries, with the fighting around Leer and Mayendit pitting soldiers under South Sudanese Vice President Taban Deng against supporters of Riek Machar, a former vice president and a long-time rival of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement, which has dominated the nation since independence from Sudan in 2011.
The long war that led to independence — pitting the largely Muslim north against a Christian and animist south in a secessionist struggle fueled in part by resources — seems almost conventional in comparison with the current conflict.
If South Sudan is important, it is because it has become starkly representative of a series of recent and intractable conflicts, whose defining feature is their post-ideological and almost privatized struggles for individual power — represented by ministerial office and its trappings — largely beyond the reach of international peacekeeping efforts.
And with the conflict exporting large numbers of refugees over its borders, it has an increasing regional significance.
While Machar and Kiir were prominent in the conflict against Khartoum that led to independence, they now represent one of the fault lines around which the new nation has fractured since 2013, when Kiir accused Machar, then his deputy, of attempting a coup d’etat.
Since then, three rounds of peace negotiations — most recently the face-to-face talks last week between Kiir and Machar in Ethiopia — have failed to end a conflict increasingly marked by Kiir’s government’s increasing authoritarianism and inter-ethnic violence.
Leaked reports from the body charged with ceasefire monitoring in the nation depict similar grave abuses to those gathered by the Observer: a young girl strangled and gang-raped, children burned alive as government soldiers blocked the door of their hut and set it aflame.
Largely lacking any ideological basis, South Sudan’s conflicts have become a carousel of violence pitting rival elites from different tribes and political groupings against each other as they compete for power.
Despite three rounds of peace talks, the threat of new sanctions from the UN security council last month and a worsening humanitarian situation, no lasting solution appears in sight.
The reality is that after decades of intermittent conflict, the promise of independence for the world’s newest country has delivered not so much a state that has failed, but one that never succeeded in the first place.
With much of the impoverished nation’s tiny budget going to military spending, rampant inflation and an economy in free fall, hundreds of thousands have been displaced both to neighboring Uganda and even to the old enemy, Sudan, in the north.
While peace talks have delivered occasional pauses in the killing, critics say that they have also produced further impetus for conflict as rival factions have internalized the message that violence and the threat of instability is a ticket to a seat at the talks.
The most recent was the formation of the South Sudan United Front announced in April by former Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) chief of general staff General Paul Malong Awan.
He was sanctioned in February by the US and the EU for atrocities committed by his forces in support of Kiir, but is now at odds with him.
The result of the spiraling violence is one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises. The total of South Sudanese refugees has now passed 2 million, which makes it the largest refugee crisis in Africa, and the third largest in the world, after Syria and Afghanistan, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
In addition, more than 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes, but still remain inside the country.
The conflict is having a less obvious effect on the nation’s social structure — not least fostering a climate of endemic violent crime that has forced foreign aid workers to adopt their own 7pm curfew.
A drive around the capital, Juba, is a tour of places symbolic of conflict or the disappointments of a young nation: the airport crowded with World Food Programme aircraft whose air drops are keeping significant parts of the population from famine; at Kiir’s presidential palace the walls dotted with gunfire from the attack by Machar’s forces during the “2016 crisis” — distinct from the “2013 crisis” — white-uniformed convicts clear rubbish, watched over by a soldier with a rifle; the main open-air market, looted during the last crisis, is running far under capacity; and in a cemetery close to the Nile, those fleeing the fighting have built shelters.
All of which has led the civil society group Ana Tabaan — meaning “I am tired” or “sick” in Arabic — to warn the political elites that “South Sudan is watching,” an admonition that sadly seems without much force.
In his headquarters on the outskirts of the city, UN Mission in South Sudan head David Shearer is concerned about the conflict’s trajectory.
Although he believes the level of control maintained by Kiir’s SPLA forces across the nation means that South Sudan is far from, say, the situation in Somalia, he said that “violence and atrocities are being committed by all sides, particularly the SPLA.”
However, the dynamics that have seen the SPLA become more powerful have not delivered more stability. Instead the opposite has happened, as opposition groups have splintered and become more numerous.
“You have a situation where one side is winning: the government, but it never wins enough, meaning that the opposition can create a level of instability that the government is not able to deal with,” another foreign observer said.
Instead the pressure has fractured rival factions into an ever greater constellation of groups, more than 50 at the last count.
That instability is being driven by a pattern of opposition factions being co-opted into government, followed by an inability to deliver on promises to supporters, followed by retreat to armed opposition in the bush, analysts say.
AT ALL COSTS
Juba University political analyst James Okuk sees a more fundamental issue driving the violence, saying that the long history of war has created “a psychology of military power.”
“It’s the attitude of the leaders that is letting people down. They are not prepared to build a state or a nation. They got used to staying in power and enjoying privileges of being in government. They can’t envision a good life outside. It is about them being either in government or there being no South Sudan,” he said. “So they have got themselves into this unnecessary struggle where everyone wants to be in the government and be in power and so get a free ride.”
As Luka Kuol said last month in a commentary for the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the attempted mediation by African neighbors in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development trade group — including Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which is host to the current peace talks — is exacerbating the conflict, with Uganda in particular supporting Kiir’s regime in Juba.
On top of the violence, the most immediate consequence has been a continuing condition of almost endless humanitarian crises, exacerbated by the insecurity that has seen three kidnappings of aid workers in recent months and the difficulty of using the dirt roads to move aid supplies for six months of the year.
That led Oxfam International — which has been giving vouchers to displaced villagers to pay for canoe operators to take them across the marshes to Nyal — to say last month that while “aid efforts have so far kept famine at bay, the need is growing at such an alarming rate that Oxfam and other aid organizations are struggling to keep up.”
“At the end of the day it looks like, despite peace talks, that on the ground the violence is not going to stop any time soon,” Oxfam deputy country director Nicolo’ di Marzo said during a visit to Nyal. “It seems the people suffering are the civilians who are innocent victims of the warring parties. Almost half the population is food insecure, and there seems to be a willingness by all warring parties to make people even more vulnerable.”
One of those who fled early from the current round of fighting in Unity State is Elizabeth Nyalony, a young mother of three.
She escaped to Nyal two months ago, before the worst atrocities, and now sells coffee and tea at a stall in the marsh town, having borrowed money to set up her business from a local shopkeeper.
Three of her relatives were killed in the latest fighting, but Nyalony feels safe in Nyal for now.
Asked what she would say to the international community, she burst into tears.
“I would tell them that the fighting has taken many lives. If it continues, more lives will be lost,” she said.
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