A Year of War in South Sudan

Malakal, South Sudan

Boys peer through the window of an aid agency tent on the United Nations base outside Malakal (Tristan McConnell)
Boys peer through the window of an aid agency tent on the United Nations base outside Malakal (Tristan McConnell)

South Sudan’s war began a year ago in the capital city of Juba. It spread quickly and on Christmas Eve fighting broke out in Malakal, a city of 140,000 people at the other end of the country close to its northern border. As the army split along ethnic lines and fought for control Malakal’s residents cowered or fled.

David Koud, a thirty-six year old civil servant, had gone out early that morning. When the shooting and shelling began he raced home but found that his wife and two young sons had already been swallowed up in the exodus. As government and rebel fighters wrestled over the town Koud stayed to protect his property and wait for the return of his wife Marageret and two boys, Kopi, aged four, and Teki, aged six.

Weeks passed with no trace of his family and no sign of an end to the worsening battles. On 18th February a fresh rebel offensive began and Koud decided to flee. He failed to persuade his younger brother Juma, a twenty-two year old student, to leave with him.

Two days later, he returned to look for him and found Juma shot dead in his bedroom alongside the bodies of four other men in civilian clothes who Koud didn’t know. His own home had been looted.

I had been to Malakal almost exactly three years earlier. A referendum on southern independence was due early in 2011 and I wanted to see one of the fissures along which the country of Sudan would split.

The town was a trading center and cultural crossroads. There were mosques and churches, and a busy market where northern Arabs and black southerners traded side-by-side. It was ramshackle but prosperous, a hub for aid workers with hotels and imported goods arriving by barge at the chaotic river port.

When I returned earlier this year months of war had destroyed all that. The only inhabitants seemed to be soldiers — at the time government ones — while civilians had fled to the United Nations base just outside town, or further.

Undergrowth was swallowing the outskirts of the city, disused power lines were hung with creepers, blackened buildings with bashed-in doors lined the cratered roads.

A feature of South Sudan’s catastrophic war has been the targeting of medical facilities and Malakal’s hospital too was looted and burned. A doctor told me that during the attack that forced Koud to flee in February gunmen killed eleven patients in their beds, including a mother and her infant. I walked around the abandoned children’s ward which had become home to feral dogs and was scattered with empty whisky bottles, cigarette butts and piles of human excrement.

The history of South Sudan is one of violence. Decades of north-south civil war preceded its independence in 2011. After that Koud, like many others, dared to hope that freedom from Khartoum would mean peace and growing prosperity.

Late on 15th December 2013 fighting broke out in Juba between soldiers loyal to Salva Kiir, who had been the country’s President since independence, and those supporting his former deputy Riek Machar, whom Kiir had fired nearly five months earlier. Both men are veterans of South Sudan’s long armed struggle, leading members of the ruling party and hungry for power.

What sets them apart most starkly is their ethnicity: Kiir is a member of the majority Dinka and Machar a Nuer. Their enmity erupted into war when Kiir accused Machar of planning a coup and ordered Nuer soldiers within the Presidential Guard be disarmed.

Although politically motivated the violence was tribal from the start and immediately brutal. Within hours of the first shots being fired, pogroms were occurring in Juba, as Dinka soldiers cleared out Nuer neighborhoods. Thousands were killed while thousands more Nuer civilians gathered at the entrance to the main United Nations base begging for protection. They were let in.

After a few days, a fitful calm was established in Juba, but fighting spread to the towns of Bor, Bentiu and Malakal as the army cleaved and local militias rallied to both sides. Each town changed hands multiple times, attended by awful violence, mostly visited on civilians.

In the months that followed the tribal tit-for-tat grew and spread. UN peacekeeping bases in the three worst-hit states were transformed into refugee camps as victims sought shelter. At the height of the civil war, more than one hundred thousand people were living behind UN barricades. One-sixth of the population has been uprooted and the International Crisis Group estimates the death toll from the past year to be at least fifty thousand. Peace talks in Addis Ababa have achieved nothing more than broken ceasefires and large hotel bills.

Before the fighting began Koud, who is a member of the Shilluk tribe that dominates Malakal, was successful. He had a job at the county council and was paid a regular salary of $200 a month. He ran a haulage business on the side renting out a two-ton Mitsubishi truck and he owned two houses, one he lived in and one he rented. He had a television set and another vehicle, a small 1990s Hyundai hatchback that he was proud to own even though it was unsuited to Malakal’s extravagantly rutted roads. His sons went to the St Paul Basic School, a private, fee-paying Christian primary.

With the war, all of that ended. “When I lost everything, I lost hope,” Koud told me in a soft voice. I met him in a place called Wau Shilluk, once a small fishing settlement of five thousand people that has swelled with refugees to more than seven times that size. It sits on the west bank of the Nile a half-hour motorboat ride north of Malakal. Security is provided by a Shilluk warlord, Johnson Olonyi, who is allied with Kiir. In a large house in the main market I met one of Olonyi’s commanders. He sat on a bed in civilian clothes with a pistol beside him and a half-empty box of bullets on the low table in front of him. Beneath a verandah outside a group of rangy, suspicious militiamen smoked cigarettes and played cards.

The town’s mud-walled, grass-roofed huts, and its scattering of cinderblock buildings are now lost amid temporary shelters made of sticks and thatch and wrapped in plastic sheeting donated by aid agencies. One such seven-by-ten foot, single-room dwelling is Koud’s new home.

Koud had arrived by boat in February, travelling upriver from Malakal. Others were less fortunate: the previous month three hundred people drowned when their ferry capsized as it crossed the Nile to escape the fighting in Malakal. Koud was alive, but the fact that he had left behind his family weighed heavily on him. “I lost everything and had no hope they were alive,” he said. He drank heavily through his despair. Living in careless squalor and solitude he ventured out rarely except to buy ‘marissa’, a lumpy local beer brewed from sorghum. “I became like a madman,” he said.

For months his days blurred by. Then, in early July, a message passed along a chain of cousins and acquaintances reached Koud: his wife and children were alive. They had escaped to a remote village across the shifting frontlines in Jonglei State, where there was no mobile-phone reception. They were reunited soon after and, as we spoke, Marageret was busy at the market and both of his sons were lying next to Koud on the family’s sagging metal-framed bed.

David Koud sits with his sons Kopi (left) and Teki (right) in their temporary home in Wau Shilluk (Tristan McConnell)
David Koud sits with his sons Kopi (left) and Teki (right) in their temporary home in Wau Shilluk (Tristan McConnell)
 Teki sprawled on his tummy in his old school shirt diligently practicing handwriting and spelling in a worn exercise book and occasionally lifting his head to listen to our conversation. The younger boy, Kopi, wouldn’t leave his father alone. He clung to his side, draped an arm over his shoulders, fidgeted with the hem of his polo shirt, and clambered over him as if he were a climbing frame. Now and then Koud would absentmindedly rest a hand on Kopi’s leg as he spoke or interrupt his recollections to answer a homework question from Teki.

The family’s few remaining possessions were piled around the room, things they had escaped with, salvaged, bought, borrowed or been given. There were a couple of suitcases of clothes, two plastic chairs, a stack of dented metal cooking pots, cups and wooden spoons and a few books arranged on a plank of wood on the swept dirt floor. Colorful sheets hung on the walls to dim the brightness of the sun shining through the gaps in the thatch.

The joy of finding his family had not blunted Koud’s anger with what South Sudan’s leaders have done to their country and its people. “I’m angry with the rebels and the government also. They are all the same,” he told me.

“Those who are worst affected are the civilians. The army and rebels can protect themselves but we cannot. Everyday civilians die but Salva [Kiir] and Riek [Machar] live in nice hotels and their children are safe,” he said.

As South Sudan marks the first anniversary of its new civil war the callous fight for power continues. Peace talks stutter on but mediators say that neither Kiir nor Machar, nor their soldiers, seem genuinely interested in peace, at least not yet. There was a pause in hostilities this summer because so much of the country is inaccessible during the rainy season but fighting has restarted in recent weeks and aid agencies are, again, issuing dire warnings of starvation and death from illnesses that are entirely and easily preventable in peacetime.

For Koud, who spent years building a future in his country, the damage already done is beyond repair. “We struggled for independence but we did not know what could happen after,” he said. “I don’t want to be in South Sudan anymore. Anywhere would be better.”

This story was shortlisted for the One World Media Awards and Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism in 2015