18 Dec 2013

‘I need to get the word out about what’s happening in South Sudan’

“I think we are on the verge of civil war,” said my friend Jok Madut Jok. He was sitting in his office at the Sudd Institute in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Yesterday he watched a group of armed, uniformed men on the top of the building next door and fire into the presidential compound.

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President Salva Kiir was not there, but a group of his Presidential Guard manoeuvred their tank into position and fired a missile at the building, the top storeys of which collapsed.

That ended – at least for the moment – fighting that erupted on Sunday night between two factions of the Presidential Guard, known as The Tigers.

Jok, an anthropologist by training, chose to return to his native South Sudan when it split from its northern neighbour, Sudan, after decades of war.

On 9 July 2011, I sat in sweltering heat watching the ceremony marking the birth of Africa’s youngest nation.

Jok, who had taken leave of absence from his position at a university in California to serve his new country, was appointed permanent secretary in the Ministry of Culture.

Read more: On the verge of civil war – hundreds ‘killed in South Sudan’

South Sudan was born in poverty and violence – generations of south Sudanese had been brutalised by a series of conflicts with the north; they had nothing but hope.

Those hopes have been dashed, day by day, as ministers in the new government have plundered the country’s oil wealth and either failed to curtail or, at times, stirred up local ethnic conflicts.

The simmering rivalry between President Kiir, a Dinka, and his Vice President, Riek Machar, a Nuer, came to the surface in July when the president sacked Machar and 10 ministers.

The conflict turned violent on Sunday when the Presidential Guard split and started fighting each other.

This morning Jok went out to count bodies. He saw 200 in the barracks where the fighting started and 40 in the morgue of the hospital.

Read more: Curfew in South Sudan after government defeats ‘coup’

So far, he says, the authorities report 190 soldiers and 110 civilians have lost their lives, but the toll is likely to rise as not all have been counted.

“Most civilians who died were caught in crossfire,” he says. “One woman died in hospital after she was crushed by a tank.”

He gave me the impression of soldiers using heavy weaponry with no discipline or reason, launching mortar attacks on their rivals with no regard for civilians.

Other reports suggest that Dinka soldiers have killed Nuer civilians, and hundreds of South Sudanese, many of them Nuer, have take refuge in the UN compound.

On Monday, the president went on TV to say a coup had been thwarted.

Ten former officials, seven of them ex-cabinet ministers, have been arrested. Many dispute that there was a coup attempt, saying that the president is trying to place all the blame on his former vice president to consolidate his own power.

Riek Machar himself has said nothing. He is reported to have headed north to Jonglei state, where his fellow Nuer, Peter Gadet, has taken his militia into the bush in a new rebellion against the government. If Machar and Gadet join forces against the government that could mean civil war. Alternatively, mediators might be able to prevent the worst.

Read more: Humanitarian disaster in South Sudan

Juba is reported to be quiet with some shops and offices open, but for how long? The Sudd Institute, which Jok directs, says its aim is to “improve the quality, impact, and accountability of local, national, and international policy and decision-making in South Sudan.”

That seems like a vain hope when the founding fathers of South Sudan are murdering their own child.

I asked Jok if he might be safer if he headed back to his village.

“There are roadblocks everywhere,” he said. “It’s not possible.”

The airport is reported to have opened again today. Departing planes are likely to be packed with foreign aid workers leaving while they can. I suggested that Jok too should leave – after all, he can always go back to his university in the USA.

“I think I should stay,” he said. “I need to get the word out about what’s happening, and this is where I am supposed to be.”

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