Wave of ethnic killings and atrocities engulfs South Sudan town, once a bastion of peace
Infants hacked with machetes. Charred bodies with their arms bound. Women who were gang-raped. Men who were spared death but arbitrarily detained.
These are the tales of horror told in Yei, a formerly peaceful town surrounded by farms in southern South Sudan near its border with Uganda and Congo.
Once a beacon of coexistence, Yei is now a centre of the country’s renewed civil war, gripped by a wave of killings among South Sudan’s dozens of different ethnic groups.
And things could get worse.
“The signs are all there for the spread of this ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians that could evolve into genocide, if something is not done now to stop it,” said Adama Dieng, the UN’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, after visiting Yei last week.
Civilians and local government officials in Yei told of army troops and, to a lesser extent, the rebels terrorising the population and killing people based on their ethnicity.
“Some leaders will not hide their (loyalty) to their ethnic groups. They cannot hide it. Genocide is not an event that one day comes. It builds and it builds up. The indicators are there,” said Jacob Aligo, a minister in the Yei state government.
At night, gunshots echo through the town and soldiers prowl the streets, looting and raping, according to more than a dozen residents and government officials.
A woman who identified herself only by her first name of Betty for fear of reprisal said government soldiers knocked on her door one night in mid-October.
“My husband pushed me and my two children under the bed and he opened the door. They demanded money, and he had none, and then they shot my husband,” she recalled, saying he bled to death. She said she later visited a friend who had been gang-raped by armed men.
When civil war spread across South Sudan in December 2013 — more than two years after the country gained its independence from Sudan — the town of Yei was spared the violence that arose elsewhere.
The civil war, which killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2 million people, grew out of a political split between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Rick Machar. The conflict often pitted Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer community and other minority groups.
Yei became a refuge for all of the country’s 64 tribes who wanted to avoid the fighting, and crime was almost nonexistent, residents said. The surrounding area produced food for the entire country and a nearby coffee plantation received support from actor and longtime South Sudan activist George Clooney.
When a peace deal was signed in 2015, it seemed that Yei had avoided bloodshed.
But last summer, after fresh fighting erupted in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, between Kiir’s army and the rebels under Machar, the renewed civil war came to Yei.
Civilians in Yei began to suffer in August when the army came in to fight nearby rebels, said Gista, a resident who also refused to give her last name out of fear for her safety.
She said government soldiers swarmed a village on Yei’s outskirts, where her daughter and son-in-law lived. He apparently didn’t hear the soldiers coming, and “when he tried to run, the killers were already there,” Gista said. They killed him and her daughter, as well as her 4-year-old granddaughter, and hacked a 4-month-old granddaughter with a machete, she said. The infant survived after being hospitalised, she added.
The military, which residents and local government officials say are from the Dinka tribe, attacked other tribes who are natives of Yei and surrounding Equatoria state on suspicion they supported the rebels, the locals said.
A militia called Mathiang Anyoor, which is allied to Kiir and Army Chief of Staff Paul Malong and is Dinka, also terrorised civilians, according to residents, local officials and UN officials.
Santo Domic Chol, a spokesman for the South Sudan army, or SPLA, said the allegations of soldiers targeting civilians were “baseless,” and part of a propaganda campaign influenced by the rebels.
In early November, 11 people traveling from Yei were rounded up by unidentified individuals, placed in a thatched hut, and burned alive, local government officials said. Their charred corpses were still there in mid-November when seven bodies could be seen, some with their arms bound behind their backs.
“We are living in crazy times,” said Athanasio Yongule, minister for Local Government and Law Enforcement. Like other local officials, Yongule said South Sudan’s army does not answer to them.
Since July, hate speech has been on the rise in the region on social media, according to Stephen Ladu, the acting governor of Yei River State.
“We can see that the boys in the bushes will be writing on the social media that they will come and attack this community,” Ladu said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a stark warning about South Sudan this week.
“There is a very real risk of mass atrocities being committed in South Sudan, in particular following the sharp rise in hate speech and ethnic incitement in recent weeks,” Ban said in a report to the Security Council. But he added that UN peacekeeping operations don’t have the “appropriate reach, manpower or capabilities to stop mass atrocities.”