NYAL, South Sudan — The South Sudanese government soldiers arrived in a village outside rebel leader Riek Machar’s hometown of Leer early on an October morning last year, and they fanned out quickly through the maze of thatch-roofed huts and mud-brick buildings. Before Michael Mathok had time to hide, one of the troops loaded his assault rifle, pointed it directly at the cattle herder’s family, and then shot and killed his wife, Nyagany, in front of the couple’s two young sons.
In a panic, Mathok, 48, grabbed the 7-and 9-year-old boys, and the three ran for their lives, leaving the 28-year-old Nyagany’s bleeding body on the dusty ground.
In a conversation with Foreign Policy in the rebel-controlled town of Nyal in May, Mathok said he and his sons then hid in a nearby well, where he peeked over the edge and watched in silent horror as 20 government troops took turns raping a local grandmother to death.
“They told the old woman, ‘We are going to kill all Nuer in this community. We do not want any Nuer in South Sudan,’” he said, referring to the ethnic group he shares with Machar. “I told my children, ‘If you cry, they will find us and kill us just like your mother.’”
Mathok lives far from the capital of Juba, where Machar’s return in April, eight months after he signed a peace deal intended to end the country’s two-year civil war, was heralded as a hopeful step in the shaky peace process. That hope all but unraveled last week, when fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and Machar erupted after a period of relative calm in the capital. More than 300 people have been killed since then, adding to the at least 50,000 people who have died since the conflict began in late 2013 after rumors emerged that Machar planned to overthrow Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group. Millions more have been displaced by the war, which continued for months after the peace agreement was signed, including tens of thousands of people who live on U.N. civilian protection sites in South Sudan.
The Obama administration helped give birth to South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, and insists it’s committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the violence. Thus far, that solution has involved Kiir and Machar peacefully sharing power for long enough to organize elections. But accounts of displaced civilians like Mathok help explain why many South Sudanese think it’s a mistake to push for that kind of arrangement and believe that any government led by Kiir and Machar is destined to collapse into the kind of violence that has wracked the country in recent days.
If news of the latest uptick in fighting even reached Nyal, where there are very few radios, no working cell towers, and spurts of generator-powered electricity reserved only for the small number of aid workers stationed there, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise. The civilians who live in the rebel stronghold and its swampy environs have spent much of their lives running from conflict, first from the decades of civil war that resulted in South Sudan’s liberation from Sudan in 2011 and most recently from the fallout of the power struggle between the two men who have led the country uneasily ever since.
In more than a dozen interviews in Nyal in May, civilians recounted stories of mass rape, murder, and forced cannibalism at the hands of government soldiers and affiliated militias loyal to Kiir. The objective of the soldiers, the witnesses said, was to destroy and humiliate the Nuer ethnic group. Although FP could not independently verify their accounts, they are consistent with witness statements included in reports from the African Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.
The same groups have gathered accounts of similar atrocities committed by opposition forces, including systematic killings, mass rape, kidnappings, and attacks on schools, churches, and mosques. In one particularly gruesome case, witnesses claimed that when rebels invaded the northeastern city of Malakal in 2014, they entered a hospital there to murder sick and wounded civilians. In Bentiu, a town in northern South Sudan, witnesses said rebel forces took over a radio station and encouraged men to rape and kill Dinka civilians from Kiir’s ethnic group.
“This is one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war — yet it has been more or less off the international radar,” Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the U.N.’s top human rights official, said in a statement accompanying a March report about atrocities in South Sudan.
Machar and Kiir both deny they ordered these crimes to take place. In a May interview with FP at his makeshift camp in Juba, Machar called the use of mass rape as a weapon of war “pathetic” and said he was unaware of any atrocities committed by troops loyal to him after they were organized under central command in 2014, although he did acknowledge reports that some troops may have misbehaved before then. The South Sudanese government did not respond to multiple requests for reaction to the witness accounts FP recorded in Nyal, but presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny and other government officials have said on various occasions that Kiir’s government “categorically rejects” accusations of human rights violations. Ateny has also said that allegations that government troops carried out a range of atrocities that include suffocating more than 50 men from Leer to death in a shipping container are “exceedingly far-fetched.”
Despite reports of massive human rights violations committed by both sides, the international community — including Washington, which played a major role in South Sudan’s push for independence — has largely insisted that both men sharing power under the terms of the August peace deal is, for now, the most likely path toward lasting peace.
Following the most recent outbreak in violence, State Department spokesman Jeffrey Loree told FP that “for now, [U.S. officials] are focused on immediate actions to restore some measure of stability to South Sudan.”
“We have demanded that Kiir and Machar continue to instruct their forces to refrain from violence, and that they cooperate with international partners, particularly the countries of the region, on a way forward,” he said.
For the civilians attacked by Kiir’s forces, the suggestion that the same two leaders should maintain power is incomprehensible.
When Kiir’s forces invaded Nyal in May 2015, Angelina Nyaguaong, a 35-year-old mother of nine, piled her family into a canoe and rowed to a nearby island, where she said they ate nothing but leaves for days on end. Two weeks later, after her husband died from hunger and disease, she used that same canoe to row his body to the mainland, where she buried him alone. Margaret Nyakume, a 19-year-old newlywed, concealed herself in the tall grass near her family’s home in Leer, holding her breath when she heard soldiers threaten a young boy until he showed them where the civilian women were hiding. She managed to stay out of view, but the soldiers found her two sisters and raped them both. They survived, but due to their isolation, neither has been able to access medical treatment. On his way out of Leer after the October attack that left his wife dead, Mathok ran past piles of ashes where his neighbors’ huts once stood. He later learned that was how children his sons’ ages died that morning, after government soldiers crowded them inside the buildings and burned them to the ground. Mathok no longer lives with his two other wives and 14 children, who ran in different directions from the same attack.
Their stories paint a picture of the average life for a resident of Nyal, where a group of ragtag rebel soldiers wander the town with loaded AK-47 assault rifles and strings of bullets slung awkwardly over their shoulders, purportedly preparing for a government attack. The troops, many of whom look too young to be carrying guns, wear a mix of soccer jerseys, T-shirts, and faded military fatigues. Only their weapons distinguish them from the crowds of civilians who kick soccer balls and sip tea on Nyal’s unpaved roads. The majority of those armed men, who are loyal to Machar, helped repel the government invasion of Nyal in May 2015, three months before the peace deal was signed. At the time, their town was starving: Fears of government attacks had prevented farmers from planting, and local trade had all but ground to a halt. Even now, with the World Food Program airdropping packages of grain to the isolated community, farming has not resumed, and many people there live on nothing more than boiled water-lily bulbs they collect from the swamp.
Other displaced people who live on mosquito-infested islands travel hours through the muddy waters to ask for a share of the handouts but are often forced to boil grass and leaves when the already limited supplies run short.
Throughout the Sudd, a sprawling swamp that spans tens of thousands of square miles, islands that were once sparsely populated with nomad fishermen have begun to overflow with displaced people who couldn’t find shelter in nearby towns. On one of those islands, a two-hour canoe ride from Nyal, some 50 people, mainly from Leer, settled their families into makeshift tents after a series of attacks last year.
John Gatkuoth, a 25-year-old musician from Leer, used to travel to Juba to sing and play drums at nightclubs in the capital.
In October, he was walking with a group of eight other men when government forces invaded Leer and hacked four of them to death with machetes on one of the town’s main roads. Gatkuoth managed to flee and hide with the remaining three in the brush by the swamp. It was from there, as he concealed himself in the tall grass, that he watched helplessly as 15 troops took turns beating and raping a middle-aged woman with a branch they ripped down from a nearby tree.
“‘You are loyal to Riek Machar. We don’t want you here,’” he recalled the troops shouting at the woman as they mocked her suffering. “‘We will kill all of you, whether you are a man, woman, or child.’”
Gatkuoth was so shattered by what he had seen and heard that after the troops left and the woman had died, he barely had the strength to leave his hiding place and make his way to safety.
“I was unable to even walk because I could never imagine seeing something like that,” he said, adding that he was thinking of his own wife while he hid, praying that she was safe. He later found her with their two children by the banks of the swamp, at which point he built a canoe from a plastic sheet and then dragged them through the water for days until he reached the island outside of Nyal, where he found other friends from Leer.
Months after he fled his hometown, Gatkuoth’s performances in Juba seem like a distant memory. It’s hard to sing, he said, when images of the woman’s brutal death still cloud his head.
“I still can’t stop thinking about what I’ve seen,” he said, dropping his forehead decorated with traditional Nuer scars into his calloused hands.
Like the displaced civilians who are still too terrified to return home, the rebel forces working to protect Nyal knew right away last August that the peace deal celebrated as a success in the West meant very little to them. Throughout last summer and fall, floods of bruised civilians continued to arrive in Nyal and other islands in the swamp, carrying with them stories of torture and mass murder. There is no exact count for how many have arrived, but residents there guess the numbers are in the thousands. And although Nyal itself has not been attacked since May 2015, human bones and skulls still litter the ground on the outskirts of the town — a somber reminder of the toll the war has taken on innocent civilians.
The rebels based there remain on high alert, in large part due to the difficulty in communicating with their colleagues stationed elsewhere. When FP visited the town in May, many civilians had either not heard Machar had returned to the capital or said they didn’t believe it to be true. For the higher-ranking soldiers based in Nyal, whether or not their commander is attempting to set up a unity government is irrelevant. Brig. Gen. Thomas Gatkoi Gai told FP that he and his forces are starving and afraid that the government may attack again. They rely on handouts from the World Food Program, which are collected by community members who then share the humanitarian aid with them.
“Just because Machar is in Juba does not mean the war is over,” Gatkoi Gai told FP in an interview in his rebel camp in the heart of Nyal, where a government truck captured during the battle in May 2015 is proudly on display. “We still believe Kiir could attack us at any time.”
Like many of the people FP interviewed in Nyal, Gatkoi Gai believes that Kiir deserves to go to court for the atrocities South Sudanese troops committed during the war. “Killing someone, cooking them and forcing them to eat him, raping women and burning their houses down, and castrating young children,” he said, shaking his head and counting on his fingers the war crimes government troops have allegedly committed against civilians. “If we don’t want that to happen again, he must go to court.”
That might prove to be difficult. Although the African Union announced last year that a hybrid court designed to try war crimes suspects would be established in Juba, Kiir’s camp published an op-ed in the New York Times last month calling for a reconciliation process rather than a series of trials. Machar was listed as a co-author, but his staff furiously denied having anything to do with it, and the newspaper had to acknowledge that following its publication, saying that Machar claimed “he had not been consulted about the essay, which was submitted by representatives of [Kiir].”
The journalistic misfire was perhaps an early harbinger of the chaos that broke out last weekend. In an earlier interview at his camp in the Jebel neighborhood of Juba in May, Machar told FP he would happily appear in court, and would even travel to the Hague, if he was also accused of atrocities. The State Department’s Loree also told FP that “renewed violence in South Sudan reinforces the absolute necessity of establishing a hybrid court.”
“Accountability remains an essential piece of post-conflict stability and reconciliation in South Sudan,” he said.
But after the resurgence in fighting last weekend, talks of anyone going to trial might be premature. Machar has reportedly fled the capital, and although the violence hasn’t spilled out of Juba on a large scale quite yet, Gatkoi Gai said in May that his troops were prepared to protect Nyal if the fragile unity government collapsed.
“If they disagree, we will not be scared,” he said. “We’ve seen it all before.”
Siobhán O’Grady’s trip to Nyal was sponsored by Oxfam, which had no control over the content of this article.
Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. (@siobhan_ogrady)