Wed, Jun 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Born out of brutality, South Sudan drowns

As thousands flee the vicious civil war, families seeking safety in the swamp town of Nyal tell of villagers murdered and their homes burnt to the ground by government forces

By Peter Beaumont  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

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.

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.

COMPLEX WAR

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.

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