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Living Among The Dead After A Massacre In South Sudan

South Sudanese refugees who fled the violence
South Sudanese refugees who fled the violence
Jean-Philippe Rémy

BOR — Apart from the birds of prey gliding in the hot air, everything is as motionless as the corpse with the mummified face. It is a man, judging by his clothes, and he had curled up in a hole no bigger than a basin, hoping to be invisible in the grass.

He had clearly perished in a failed last-ditch effort to escape the ongoing manhunt along the banks of the Nile River just outside the village of Bor in December. Rebel soldiers fighting against the regime of President Salva Kiir in the South Sudan capital of Juba were responsible for the blood bath.

The great river, with its waters filled with silt and plants, flows 200 kilometers to the north of Juba. The man did not reach the shore. He was executed in his hole. In the surrounding area, other corpses are scattered along the stretch that leads to the water or neighboring areas. Civilians were killed in their homes, in their bathrooms. A lilac nail varnish and a black and white pearl necklace are evidence of tortured young women. These dislocated bodies seem to be still screaming out in their final moments of terror.

In areas around the Nile, Le Monde counted a total of 40 decaying bodies, which accounts for only a fraction of the victims. Some were carried away by the river, while others are still in the swamps or are scattered somewhere around this vast town.

Scavengers, silence and stench

In other parts of Bor, in late January, many others are still waiting to be buried. One of the few surviving observers of the massacre describes horrific scenes: women raped and slaughtered, bodies strewn along the roads. Nothing was spared: not the Episcopal Saint-Andrews cathedral, where women who sought refuge were executed, and not the hospital where wounded people were killed in their beds. Here and there, men and women who miraculously survived live amid signs of death. An old woman points to the spots where her neighbors, also elderly, were killed. They did not have the strength to flee to the swamps. Some were executed in their toukouls (round mud huts), others randomly in back alleys.

An old man, a long stick in hand, walks in the high grass in which he spent six days hiding, barely surviving by drinking stagnant water. From his hideout, he saw a young man running towards the shore before being seen and killed by the rebel soldiers. His body seems to have disappeared. All around there are disseminated bones, a skeleton strewn across several meters. There is not a single shred of flesh left. Dogs, insects, birds, beasts from the river have all scavenged. The horror leaves the old man speechless. Scavengers, silence and stench: Bor is still deep in a nightmare.

The town changed hands four times

William Deng, who returned a few days ago, is sad but fortunate. On Dec. 19, at the height of the violence, he managed to take his wife, his mother and his son on a frantic escape. A pirogue, or boat, keeper offered to take them across the river for $200. A fortune. They paid and made their way through the river’s arms for eight hours. During that time, on the main river, barges filled with rebels from Bentiu were shooting at the unfortunate people they saw on boats.

We will never know the exact number of those who were taken away by the Nile or who are still rotting in the swamps. “It was Peter Gadet’s soldiers who were killing,” Deng eventually says. Gadet, a former rebel familiar with changing sides, was appointed as head of the 8th division of the South Sudanese Army (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA), in Bor. When the confrontation peaked in the capital in December, it led to army defections and utter mutiny in towns such as Bor, Bentiu and Malakal.

The last two cities, territories located near oil reserves and with a high density of Nuer people, had a strategic value. But Bor could serve as a forward base to attempt an offensive on the capital. The rebels and loyalists, soon backed by Ugandan troops, then fought each other over Bor more than in any other South Sudan location. It changed hands four times.

Over the course of the battle, both sides committed atrocities. Then, a succession of lootings finished devastating Bor that, in the past, was mostly populated by the Dinka Bor group. After the independence and peace agreement in 2011, the town welcomed a large diversity of inhabitants, including small foreign businessmen from Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The vast central market is now a sad wasteland, a tangle of metal twisted by fire. On the premises of the Kenya Commercial Bank, thieves are arguing while trying to force the main vault open. Until now, it had resisted every attempt. It is the last wave of thieves, and they will only find leftovers. Bor is now little more than an open-air cemetery, controlled by loyalist forces and their Ugandan allies.

They only think about one thing

Before the massacre, some of the population had already fled to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan’s settlement (UNMISS), which had a capacity of 2,000 people. In just a few hours, over 10 times more people arrived, both South Sudanese and foreigners.

At the UNMISS camp, there is now a large proportion of Nuer people. Many feared that the clashes or the punitive expeditions would reach the perimeter. Inside, the refugees live cheek by jowl, all with the same obsession: to leave the region as soon as possible. “If we leave now, we will killed immediately,” says Reverend Tut Diet, president of the camp’s association of communities.

At his side, John Ding Rim adds, “Between my home and my life, the most valuable is life. We want them to bring us to Ethiopia 300 kilometers away.” According to the refugees, many people were killed on the outskirts of the camp, presumably by loyalist forces, which are mostly Dinka. “Anyway, there’s no possible agreement. It’s not just a simple war. They only think about 1991 and getting revenge.”

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