Tension among South Sudanese spills over into neighbouring states
For John Riek, a priest with the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan, Sunday 15 December 2013 started out just like any other Sunday. He woke up, went to Church in Juba then went back home to be with his family and friends.
At around 10 pm, he heard gunshots outside and assumed that it was coming from the military barracks nearby; maybe there was a misunderstanding between soldiers, he reasoned. No-one thought that that night’s incident would turn out to be part of the nightmarish violence that has engulfed South Sudan ever since.
On Monday 16 December, John and his friends came to learn that the gunshots they heard the previous night were from forces loyal to President Salva Kiir battling with soldiers loyal to ousted vice-president Riek Machar.
This power struggle has led to the loss of life and destruction of property.
‘Until a Presbyterian pastor and an army brigadier were killed, we did not think that it was a serious fight,’ says John, when I meet him in Nairobi, where he is taking refuge after fleeing from the violence in his country.
That December Sunday is a day that many South Sudanese would like to erase from their memories. It is a day that brought sad memories to many of them.
‘I lost a friend; so many people that I know died. Many died around the UN compound in Juba,’ John remembers sadly. ‘There were places you couldn’t visit in Juba, because of the stench of dead bodies in the air.’
He says that between 15 and 23 December the situation in Juba was so bad that he could not take a shower or change clothes. He tells me that there were gunshots everywhere, people were being killed, and even children were killed by security personnel.
‘I lost four people who were very close to me,’ he adds. ‘What I have gone through is too much… I am confused… I have been counselling and crying with people… It is too much!’
Many South Sudanese have been forced to flee into Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan. Aid agencies report that more than 10,000 people have been killed and more than 400,000 others displaced in the crisis.
John is now safely in Kenya; his flight from Juba mirrors the story of many other South Sudanese who had to flee from their country.
With the help of a friend, he first went to Kampala, Uganda, where he stayed in a hotel for a number of days, before finding his way to Kenya – his second home when he was a student a number of years back.
Bad blood has been stirred by this war, which has taken on an ethnic dimension and spilled into neighbouring countries. In Kenya, a meeting called earlier this month took place in an atmosphere of tension. John Penn De Ngong of the South Sudan Peace Coalition (SSPC) says groupings have developed along ethnic lines, especially among the two main rival ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, who are now refusing to associate with each other.
Ngong says that when his group called for a prayer meeting for all South Sudanese to gather in Nairobi to pray for peace, some kept away because they feared an open confrontation among the different communities. He adds that some received alarming text messages, which stopped them attending.
John Riek (a Nuer), tells me that relations between the Nuer and Dinka have been severely strained.
‘I met some friends from the other tribe but they were not willing to greet me. I had to force myself to speak to them,’ he tells me, recalling an incident that happened on his way to our interview in a restaurant in Nairobi.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says an estimated 1,000 South Sudanese are streaming into Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya every day. A crisis looms
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says an estimated 1,000 South Sudanese are streaming into Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya every day, mostly women, children and unaccompanied minors. A crisis looms.
The UNHCR says it is working to establish new refugee camps and expand existing ones in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, to cope with the influx of refugees from South Sudan. Since the conflict erupted, more than 86,000 South Sudanese have crossed into neighbouring countries. The UNHCR estimates refugee numbers could exceed 100,000 by the end of January.
John Chol Daau, a Dinka, tells me that he has encountered such a situation. He has some Nuer friends whom he remembers helping when they were back in Juba. But ironically, when he met them this month in Nairobi, they were not willing to even shake his hand.
‘There is a lot of tension and mistrust between the two tribes,’ he says.
Samuel Marial, a Bible school teacher in Juba who fled at the height of the violence late last year, tells me that he is going back to Juba this week. Samuel says the relationship between Dinkas and Nuers is so bad that it ‘will require a number of years to heal’.
John Riek says there is an irony in this situation: among all the South Sudanese ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka are the closest, through many intermarriages, yet at the same time they dislike each other the most.
He says the two groups must learn to live with each other as members of one community.
‘They need to come together and discuss and find out why they are the victims… They need to reconcile and forgive one another. Why is it always the two tribes?’
One of the things that he has embarked on is facilitating a conference in Juba that will bring together members of the two communities, for them to discuss ways of ironing out their differences, and not to make the current strained relationship a generational problem.
Meanwhile, though John is in Kenya, his wife and children remain holed up in Uganda.