Endless Conflicts in South Sudan by Guest Author Nhial Tutlam
I visited my homeland, South Sudan, just 4 months after independence in 2011. During that visit, I met many relatives for the first time in my life. One of them was Chur Bakual, a brilliant young engineer who inspired me by his intellect and dedication to his work. At the time, Chur, like many young South Sudanese who had known nothing but war, was excited about finally living in a country he could call his own, a country where he was not treated as a third-class citizen. And like many idealistic young people full of hope for a brighter future, he used his knowledge and skills to help build the young nation, literally. During the brief time we spent together, we formed a bond instantly and continued to communicate after I left South Sudan. Exactly two years later, he was murdered by his own government, along with countless others, for no reason other than the fact that he hailed from a different tribe than his president. The pretext used to commit this heinous crime was a baseless claim that a man who happened to hail from the same tribe as he did had plotted a coup against the government.
During the same visit, I reconnected with my uncle, Johnson Chuol Thoat, whom I had last seen in 1986. A gifted high school teacher with brain as big and bright as the tropical sun, his ideas and potential were only stifled by the unforgiving environment that is South Sudan. We spent many hours together arguing about everything from politics to family affairs. In the summer of 2014, as my uncle lay on a makeshift bed in one of the Protection of Civilian (POC) sites in Juba, a camp set up by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to protect civilians from their own government, a deranged woman hit him on his head, killing him instantly. This woman had witnessed her entire family being killed by the very government that was supposed to protect them in December 2013. This unspeakable trauma she endured directly led to her mental instability; she even tried to commit suicide twice. She killed my uncle because she believed he was a government sympathizer. Should I hold her responsible for my uncle’s death?
In July 2016, I lost two relatives—at least that I know of—when clashes erupted between bodyguards of the president and the then First Vice President, Dr. Riek Machar, who had just returned to Juba for the implementation of the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS). One of them, Tut Lam Kierkok, was a civilian who was still living in the city only because he did not want to leave behind relatives who had decided not to leave Juba. He was shot in the back of his head from a close range. The other one, Chany Tot Bol, was a soldier, killed in the line of duty. He was one of the bodyguards who had accompanied Dr. Riek Machar to his meeting with the president at state house. Then, three months ago, I lost another cousin, Sigin Lual. He was part of a contingent of government soldiers attempting to advance to the town where our grandmother lived.
These aren’t the only deaths that have occurred, of course. There are countless other horror stories of death and destruction across the land, on multiple sides of the divide. And by many accounts, some of the atrocities committed in this senseless conflict among South Sudanese are far worse than those committed during the North-South conflict. This is the reality of the nightmare that most South Sudanese have been living for the last four years.
Beyond targeting its own citizens within the boundaries of South Sudan, the government has also resorted to kidnaping its critics in foreign capitals. In January this year, my cousin Dong Samuel Luak, a human rights lawyer and fierce critic of the government, was kidnapped by government security agents from Nairobi with the help of Kenyan security forces, along with another top opposition official. To this day we don’t know his whereabouts. We don’t even know whether he is still alive or not. All we know is that he was taken to Juba after he was kidnapped.
I highlight the death of my relatives and my cousin’s kidnaping for two reasons. First, to show the complex nature of the conflict. Although the conflict started with the government targeting one community, my community, now some of the worst offenders fighting on behalf of the government are some whose family members were killed by the same government. In fact, I have relatives and very close friends who are ardent regime supporters. What good they see in the regime is beyond my understanding. Secondly, I highlight them because they are the prism through which I view the current conflict. Therefore, in my view and that of many who share my perspective, any peace agreement that does not seriously address why those innocent people were killed, is nonsense.