AN EYE-WITNESS ACCOUNT FROM MALAKAL OF EVENTS SINCE CHRISTMAS EVE 2013
By someone who lived through the recent events in Malakal
Edited version, 26th January 2014
20/01/2014 – I am writing now after many days. The SPLA army has just entered Malakal and freed it from the rebels of Riek Machar. It is the second time that the town is ‘freed’ in less than one month. Until now I was not able to put anything in a written form. I was also thinking that if the computer got looted I was making an effort for nothing. I will do it as it comes, aware that order and logic might be a bit loose. It will be also my own perspective and point of view, so I do not claim to be objective. I think it will do me personally well to narrate what happened. It will be a way of releasing a pressure that makes somebody look at food without any wish to eat it.
24/12/2014 – On Christmas Eve the national army split within Malakal town and the forces loyal to Riek Machar managed to overrun the remnant loyal to the Government after a whole day of battle. At 6 a.m. the noise of sustained gunfire broke the silence of the morning. At 6 p.m. ululations of exultation and shootings in the air made us to understand that the rebels were in control.
25/12/2013 – Christmas day and the following one were days of looting. Nobody came to pray at the cathedral except for one boy who was not probably realizing how critical the situation was. A short prayer amid the cracking of the guns was celebrated in the house, at the dining table because the chapel was too exposed to the stray bullets on the road. A small statue of the Baby Jesus was put in the middle.
The looting of the main markets continued unabated until the evening of the 26th. From time to time we could hear the sound of the artillery in Malakia and at the airport, the north side of the town where the remnant of the national army had retreated and managed to resist. About one hundred people had meanwhile reached the compound of the church, looking for safety, among them a number of ethnic Dinka. The fact that Riek Machar, the leader of the rebellion, is a Nuer whereby Salva Kiir, the President of South Sudan, is a Dinka, has given a dangerous ethnic overtone to the conflict.
27/12/2013 – At the end of that day we could thank God that we were still alive, and so could do any citizen in Malakal. At 9 in the morning the sound of heavy artillery announced another battle. Many people ran to the compound of the church, reaching a total of 250. They locked themselves in the cathedral until the battle was over. We sat or lay down in the corridor, the most protected part of the house. As the army was advancing from Malakia the sound of gunfire, artillery and the very dangerous tank were coming closer and closer. Surely we thought that to be alive or dead was not in our power at that moment, but in the hands of God. The rebels offered a fierce resistance that prolonged the battle. Eventually the barrage of fire was in our area and then moved further. The noise of the tank moving slowly ahead signalled that the SPLA was advancing southward. At 1 p.m. the heavy artillery was moving out of Malakal indicating that the army was pursuing the rebels.
In the afternoon the siren of the ambulance was heard for a short time. They had started collecting the wounded. They were added to the about 150 people treated since the first day of the conflict. Nobody until today has offered official data, but the victims of the fighting were in large numbers. For days the corpses of the rebels were left unburied where they had fallen, until the International Red Cross collected those within the town. Common graves were dug with a caterpillar and people were buried mostly without any ceremony. The bodies of the rebels in the outskirts of Malakal were left to the vultures and the dogs. While walking on foot from the UN base to the airport I got the shock to see one of them. The skull had been left bare and the animals had started eating other parts. As a flash, pictures that we see in the books of science when we study the anatomy of the human body came to my mind. My second thought was that I would have wished a photo of the corpse of that rebel in that condition to be sent to Riek Machar and to others pushing for this rebellion to continue.
29/12/2013 – An evacuation flight of the UNMISS, the Mission of the United Nations in South Sudan, took a colleague to Juba. She had been visiting Malakal before Christmas and had remained trapped here because of the incidents. The following day another colleague also managed to reach Juba on an UNMISS flight. She had been through the experience of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and living again in a conflict was difficult for her.
Walking through Malakal town, particularly the main market, was an experience re-echoing the lamentations of Jeremiah when he was stating that ‘even the prophet and the priest’ did not know what to do in front of the desolation brought about by violence and destruction. It was not possible to imagine that the market full of life and multicoloured goods, ready for the Christmas shopping, could be abruptly changed into a desert place where the open doors of the looted shops resembled gaping wounds. The day before the attack, I had bought something at a grocery where the many goods almost prevented the movement of the customers. What remained was now a burnt structure and ashes.
Saut al-Mahabba, the Catholic FM radio station, resumed broadcasting a few hours per day, to give hope to the people and help them to go back to a normal life. Few presenters had the courage to come back to work, overcoming the sense of desperation and loss that the days of fighting had caused. Almost no means of transport were available and Malakia in the evening remained an area off limits due to the heavy presence of soldiers. They were the liberators, but after a few days they started themselves committing abuses against the civilians.
05/01/2014 – In spite of the dire situation of Malakal, people started the new year with some hope. The Sunday of the Epiphany witnessed the first ‘normal mass’ at St. Joseph’s Cathedral since Advent time. The new statue of the Baby Jesus was set on the altar area with its own decorations and shining lights, to the joy and curiosity of the children. The situation remained tense since other areas of Upper Nile, specifically the Nuer counties, continued being under the control of the rebels. Exams for the Primary School leavers were suspended indefinitely and Upper Nile University remained closed. The Government of the State repeatedly assured the citizens that Malakal was secure and that there were enough armed forces to protect it. However, a good number of people travelled to Renk, the extreme North of the State, with a few going back to Khartoum.
12/01/2014 – It was Sunday morning. Immediately we went back to the same scenario already lived before Christmas. Groups of people, mainly women and children, started appearing on the road, all carrying a few belongings on their heads and walking swiftly towards the port or the north of the town. Others still, entered the compound of the church and sat down with their little luggage next to them. The news that the army had split again in Bailiet, Adong and Obel had spread like fire. In Gorachell and Adong, 80 km. south of Malakal, the SPLA had been engaged in some difficult battles and with difficulty had managed to repulse a huge number of rebels. I contacted colleagues in those areas and they only confirmed that the situation was critical. They had left their villages and were walking towards Malakal fleeing the advance of the Nuer forces from Nasir and Ulang. What made a huge number of citizens to flee Malakal early on Sunday morning was the splitting of the army in Obel, at a distance of 25 km. only.
To add disaster to disaster, the news was brought that a boat capsized, overloaded with women and children trying to cross the Nile and reach the villages on the other side. Most of the passenger got drowned, surely more than one hundred people. Fear and panic contributed to the terrible incident.
The radio did not operate on Sunday, but was back on Monday. Meanwhile the State Minister of Information broadcast a message of reassurance to the citizens, even inviting them to go back to their houses as there was not a real threat. All the same, only a few trusted the words of the Government spokesperson and most of them remained in the villages. The bus and other private cars heading to Renk left completely full. At 5 p.m. we crossed a town that looked silent and almost empty. The evening was quiet and people therefore planned activities for the following day.
14/01/2014 – In the morning the deep sound made by the firing of the tanks started being heard at a distance. By 8 a.m. the artillery was shooting in three different areas at the outskirts of Malakal. Undoubtedly the town was again under attack by the rebels. Although this move was expected, myself and others were confident that the army could fairly cope with the situation since reinforcements had been poured into the town in the previous days. I managed to make a last phone call and send a text message before the MTN network got completely cut. After the incident of the boat, the Minister of Information had decided to cut mobile communication to avoid – in his opinion – the dissemination of misleading information and the spreading of panic. With the going off of the last mobile network we remained completely isolated.
By midday gunfire from light weapons was in the middle of the town, very near to us, and then subsided. I was not worried and actually still confident, but when silence came, I asked someone, ‘Who is now in control?’ When he answered that ‘it was not known’, I started realizing that the situation had again become critical. To clear any doubt, after a short while a military pick-up, loaded with machine guns and young people in uniform came along the road. They were again the rebels, although in this rebellion is so difficult to say who is who since all the combatants wear the same uniform. We stood dumbfounded looking at them, but the reality was clear. The gates of the Cathedral compound were closed, to protect the more than 1,000 people who had run there. I went to tell my colleagues that Malakal had fallen again and then we waited.
15-19/01/2014 – These days will be impressed as a nightmare in the memory of all those who lived them in Malakal. The situation kept going from bad to worse. Random shooting started again on the Wednesday after the recapture of the town. Hundreds of young people in various military and police uniforms started flowing into Malakal from South and in a short while they could be seen on any road and any corner. We learned that they were the so called ‘White Army’, Nuer civilians armed and mobilized to support the rebellion of Riek Machar. The number who came to Malakal was reportedly an impressive 20,000. From what we witnessed, I believe that the figure is true.
Those trickling in to the compound of the Cathedral kept on steadily increasing. In the evening of the 14th there had been even a peculiar group of 15 individuals who introduced themselves as ‘inmates of the prison’. According to the narration of the deputy director of the federal prison himself, some rebels had gone there and asked the prison guards to join them or to be disarmed. Three were killed in that instance, and those who did not embrace the cause of Riek Machar walked away leaving their weapons. The rebels then freed literally all of the more than 200 inmates, including those condemned to capital punishment.
15/01/2014 – The first day of the new captivity was again a time for looting. The targets were the shops in the areas of the town that had not been reached by the rebels of the first attack. I managed to reach the hospital to ask the staff of the International Red Cross about the possibility of evacuating some colleagues, while my colleague who is a nurse looked for essential drugs to assist the internally displaced at the Cathedral, by that time more than 2,000. While walking to Malakia area I saw hundreds of young people in various military and police uniform, all of them with a gun. Those who had defected from the SPLA were few in comparison to the multitude of this other group, the so called White Army. They were walking confidently, sometimes singing songs in honor of Riek Machar and were ready to greet. On the way back, in the early afternoon, the scenario was changing. The people in uniform were starting to force the doors of the shops that had been spared during the first wave of rebellion. Also a church residence was looted at gun point.
16/01/2014 – The men and women who continued entering the compound of the church with their children were increasingly frightened and traumatized. The rebels had moved from the shops to the houses. In looting, they were generally sparing the homes of people of their own ethnic group. Some of them were asking the civilians in the houses if they were Dinka, Nuer or Shilluk. A Shilluk man who came crying through the gate narrated how after this question, his brother and another person were shot dead and his wife was forced to follow the White Army members. A short time afterwards, however, she reached the church. She had run towards some soldiers who rescued her. People and their stories continued flocking in.
Other church personnel as well had the bad experience of the intrusion of armed rebels into their house. They were chasing somebody whom they suspected to be an enemy and whom they saw running to the church compound. After one of the church personnel was threatened to be killed, they came to our house in the afternoon and stayed with us, feeling safer.
Bishop Emeritus Vincent Mojwok refused to leave the people who took refuge in his house and said that he would remain with them.
At 4 p.m. General Garhoth Galuak, the leader of the rebellion in Upper Nile, wanted to give a message to the citizens to create some order in the chaotic situation. He gave a brief message over the radio in English and Arabic where he announced that he was the military governor of Upper Nile according to the wish of Riek Machar. He promised that the security situation in the town would be stabilized and invited the women to go to fetch water to the river for the needs of their families. He proceeded by offering his own point of view of the military and political events in Upper Nile. It was interesting to hear that he was talking about the ‘liberation’ that the rebellion intended to bring about, the same terminology used by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army when they were fighting for the independence of South Sudan.
We were driven back in the same car where he was. On the way, in the desolated panorama of a series of empty shops, he was telling the looters to ‘go home’. Crossing next to Ivory Bank, he made the car to stop when he noticed a group of about 20 uniformed men at the entrance of the building. Some of them were already inside. He asked some soldiers who apparently had been set as guards what was happening and chased the looters out. As a matter of fact, all the banks in Malakal were ransacked sooner or later, including the South Sudan national bank.
17/01/2014 – The worsening of the security situation scared the international NGO personnel who had been offering an invaluable help in treating the hundreds of wounded since the early days of fighting before Christmas. Members of the White Army did not respect their compounds and went there to loot and threaten at gun point. UNMISS armoured vehicles came to the hospital to escort all the NGO staff to the UN base, leaving the few local medical personnel stunned and dismayed in the face of the emergency situation at the hospital. The driver of the ambulance courageously took to the UN base some of the Church personnel asking for evacuation to Juba. Crossing the town, we could realize that indeed the battle of the previous Tuesday to recapture Malakal had not been very tough. In one of the crucial areas not far from the airport there were only a few bodies of the SPLA soldiers, left to the vultures and the dogs as it has been customary in this rebellion. A damaged tank arguably set there to protect the town was a discouraging sign of the set back of the national army. How the rebels re-captured Malakal so quickly from a very numerous army remains an issue that deserves an explanation.
18/01/2014 – The looting was going on house to house. Terrified people were still reaching the compound of the cathedral that was by then holding 6,500 IDPs camped in the most precarious situations. Women and children had been given the limited accommodation indoor and the rest was staying in the open, facing the cold nights of January. A nurse set up an improvised dispensary and with the help of medical personnel sheltering at the Cathedral was attending the sick, who kept on increasing in number. The Catholic Church buildings in the various areas of the town, two Presbyterian churches, the hospital and the SOS orphanage became all safe havens for the civilians seeking protection from a violence that seemed not ending. These premises sheltered the majority of the citizens who had been trapped in Malakal. Those who remained in their houses faced terrible experiences: a number of them were killed in cold blood, including elderly, women, children and sick. Most of their bodies lay unburied up to today in their houses and on the roads.
I came to know myself what it means to be asked for something under the threat of a gun when a group in uniform stopped me on the way from the hospital to the church. They whistled, blocked me and took my watch and a key. Immediately Nuer boys in civilian clothes ran, shouted to those fellows and snatched the watch away from them. Some soldiers were also coming to the scene to try to rescue me. Until that moment I had not experienced harassment, but it was clear that by now it had become unsafe to walk without a military escort. The rebel soldiers of the SPLA remained the only weak guarantors of some security in the town, but they were very few in comparison to the thousands young people of the White Army and to other armed thugs who had started appearing on the roads as well. In this chaotic environment, some of my colleagues eventually managed with difficulty to reach the UN base, waiting for a flight to Juba.
Food was becoming a critical issue since people could not go back to their houses to look for supplies and the churches were not prepared to face an emergency of that proportion. Some rebel soldiers came to the gate and said that women could go to a nearby store of the SPLA army that they had opened and could get food items. It took a while for women to trust the word of the rebels, but then some courageous ones went to the store. When they came back with bags of flour, many others followed until the late afternoon. The Lord had given food to the 6,500.
19/01/2014 – The Sunday Mass, officiated in the open, was a very participated and moving moment. Faithful of different Christian denominations, including their Pastors, all cried to God in a moment of such anguish.
A committee of people wrote a petition to the UN mission to make them aware of the dire situation of the civilians in Malakal. I started walking to the UN base joining some soldiers but a vehicle kindly picked me up. Providentially, inside there was the coordinator of the IDPs at the UNMISS camp, a multitude of more than 20,000. At the UNMISS offices the personnel was sympathizing with the plight of the thousands of people trapped in the town at the various Churches, but they had themselves the huge burden of the IDPs at their location. To go to Malakal they were in need of security guarantees and, moreover, all the stores of the UN agencies had been looted, therefore the items for humanitarian assistance were not there. Very kindly, the coordinator brought me back to Muderia area. Crossing the town, we noticed what he himself stated, that only civilians belonging to the Nuer ethnic group were moving freely, apart from the rebels. The first days after the recapture, civilians could venture on the roads by wearing a yellow or blue strip on their heads, the sign of identification the rebels had told people to show if they wanted to be allowed to move. With the deterioration of the situation that sign became a very weak defence.
20/01/2014 – The previous evening there had been some rumours of an imminent attack of the SPLA, circulated by mouth. After sunset the rebels had fired a tank as they used to do, likely to show that they were firmly in control. Needless to say what effect that explosion that made the air shaking was having on the people. For a few minutes there would be silence.
Two colleagues in Malakia were looking for a means to reach the UN camp and be then evacuated to Juba. In the morning, not seeing any indication of an attack to the town except for the usual random shooting I reached Malakia joining one of the rebels who was wearing a cross. For a while the atmosphere became kind of silent, with the open doors of the looted houses making an eerie sound as the wind was moving them. One of the missionary priests had been threatened of death the previous day and was already walking towards the UN camp, accompanied by the parish priest, and soldiers. I was mentioning the possibility of the ambulance, who had remained behind, when the well known rumbling of heavy artillery started in the direction of the airport. In a few minutes groups of women came running along the way carrying a few belongings on their heads and definitely terrified. At the same time clusters of uniformed rebels started emerging from various directions and converging on one of the main roads, heading southwards. I ran with them to get far from the area of the fighting, hoping to reach our house. In a short while there were hundreds of the White Army walking away at a fast pace. Only a few military headed to the battle singing songs of war. Some of those young people stopped to throw off the police uniforms they were wearing and remained in civilian clothes.
Near to the market area I managed to branch and leave that very dangerous company. The explosions of the artillery were continuing. It was the SPLA advancing to recapture Malakal town. Nuer people were running to the hospital to look for protection. It was an apocalyptic scene. Those who had been terrorizing a whole town, keeping it in a cruel captivity for a week were now abruptly in disarray. When I reached the cathedral, Nuer women with their children were flocking in, carrying a few belongings and looking frightened. The sound of the battle kept on approaching from the north side of the town, a pattern that had been already experienced when the SPLA had recaptured Malakal for the first time on December 27. This time, however, the rebels opposed a scarce resistance. We understood that the case was almost over when we saw them moving away with one of the tanks they had captured. At 3 p.m. some soldiers walked along the way and came to the gate of the church asking for water. Who were they this time? The question was legitimate because the uniforms were the same as those of the rebels. To the relief of the IDPs, they were SPLA soldiers. By then, they were in control of most areas and were proceeding southwards. When the first group of the national army reached the hospital people ran out to meet them cheering loudly.
As it had happened on Dec. 27, the rumbling of the various machine guns faded in the distance, southwards. The SPLA was pursuing the rebels. People started talking loudly, in excitement, although there was no jubilation since nobody had been spared suffering. That night for the first time after one week there was no random shooting.
In the following days citizens started cautiously to venture outside their places of refuge and reach their houses to assess the situation. Almost all had been looted. Corpses were laying down here and there on most of the roads and a stench that by now had become familiar signalled the presence of a dead body in a house. The army started a searching operation since some of the rebels were still hidden in the town. Exchange of gunfire and burning of houses belonging to Nuer people, often changed into stores for the looted properties, indicated critical areas. Other corpses went to increase the number of those who were already there.
On Jan. 23, the Government of South Sudan and the leaders of the rebellion signed an agreement for the cessation of hostilities. The civilians in Malakal are hoping for its implementation, and some started going back to their houses.
Some biblical images captured the reality of this month in Malakal. The shadow of death of the canticle of Zachariah swept over this town and marked it heavily. Bodies were left to the dogs and the vultures as at the time of queen Jezabel. All through this, though, many kept their hope strong in the rising sun of a salvation still possible. In their majority, people are very strong and resilient and start piecing their lives and their houses together. Reconciliation will be the rays with healing power so that the people of South Sudan, of different tribes and nations can live together as brothers and sisters.