South Sudan

In South Sudan they don't just shoot to kill

©Mikkel Østergaard

Precisely six years ago, 12 million South Sudanese celebrated that South Sudan, after more than 50 years of civil war with Sudan, became independent.  Now peace would come.

Instead, independence became the start of a bloody civil war between the new country’s ethnic tribes – a war that today has cost 50,000 lives, sent two million fleeing out of the country and displaced just as many internally in South Sudan.

But what is it that the South Sudanese are fighting about and what does everyday life look like for those South Sudanese, who have stayed behind.  DanChurchAid has travelled for three weeks against the flow of refugees and into war-torn South Sudan to talk to those who haven’t left.

By Thomas Tjaerandsen

43-year-old Deng Avijok scratches his scalp and takes a tired look at five of his in all 12 children, who he has insisted should stand still, so our photographer can take a picture of them. He sends me back an apologetic smile, turns toward the children and says something in a loud voice that makes them stand completely still.  It is important for him that the picture is good.

Deng is a slight man with a somewhat forced, but gentle smile.  With sweeping gestures he shows me around in the abandoned school where his family and the rest of their 700 person tribe have taken shelter after their village was attacked by a rival tribe.  That was a month ago.

©Mikkel Østergaard

Deng Avijok, 43 years old, with his family in the background. The family lives in an abandoned school.

“We had disagreed about who could use some particular fields.  One night they came, in the dark, while we slept…”

Deng takes a deep breath.  I can already feel that he is about to tell a story that I have heard time and time again during my stay in South Sudan.

“..they had knives, guns.  It all happened very fast.  Two of my tribe were shot, and a woman was stabbed.  All I thought about was getting my children away.”

Deng was lucky.  All his 12 children and three wives managed to flee.  I write a zero in my notebook against his name.  In that respect Deng’s story is after all different from the many other accounts that people have told me.

"The worst place I have been"

It is a warm and humid Wednesday morning and we are in the village of Malek, 200 kilometres north of South Sudan’s capital Juba.

My body is sore after having been tossed around in a four wheel drive on the, at times, impassable and potholed red gravel roads. Dirt roads, that despite their poor quality function as the vital connection of the flat and fertile South Sudan. A country the size of Spain and Portugal together.

When I stand with Deng it is easy to forget that we are in the middle of a civil war.  It is quiet around us, a slight breeze ruffles the tree tops and crickets sing in the fields.  Far away, I can glimpse the big, broad Nile that winds through the green landscape.  The Nile provides not just water, fish and nourishment for the many people who live in South Sudan but also functions as one of the country’s busiest refugee routes.  And most dangerous.

You never know what is hiding around the next bend – which is why Deng stays where he is for the time being.

In fact it is dangerous for everyone to move around in South Sudan.  Just a couple of months ago six relief workers were shot and killed when they were going to visit a project in the Eastern part of the country.  And since the civil war in South Sudan broke out in 2013, 82 relief workers have been killed.  I try not to think about it too much, but it can be hard.  As one hardened relief worker, I met, said dryly:

“South Sudan is the worst place I have been, and I have really been in many war-torn countries.”

What DanChurchAid does in South Sudan
  • Mine clearance
  • Teaching school children about the danger of old mines and grenades
  • Business training for savings and loan groups
  • Distribution of fish nets
  • Training in techniques to preserve fish

©Mikkel Østergaard

Everything is gone

Several of the walls have wide cracks from ceiling to floor, and a mouldy smell is mixed with the heat from outside.  Deng shows me what used to be a classroom, but now is a home for him and his family.  All the tables and chairs are gone.  Just a blackboard at the end of the room indicates that children once sat here to receive their schooling.

Today there is a runny-nosed child on a couple of grass mats at the back of the room, looking blankly out into space.  The air is heavy and the heat makes it hard to breathe.  My t-shirt is soaked and I really want to get away from there. 

©Mikkel Østergaard

A woman on the floor in front of the blackboard that was once used for teaching.

Deng wipes the drops of sweat from his forehead and turns toward me.

“We walked through the bush for four days to get here.  It was especially hard for the smallest children to walk so far, and we were afraid, because we didn’t know who we could risk running into on the road out there.”

Before he fled, Deng’s life was about fish and goats.  He sailed out every day on the Nile, fished and sold his catch on the local market.  The money he earned was used to buy goats and tools to cultivate the ground around the family’s house.  Now he has nothing.  Everything was burned when the attack rolled in over the village.

“How will I ever get it all back,” he says, as he waves his arms in despair.

I had never thought that I would stand here today.  When we got independence we were so relieved.

Deng Avijok

Danced for three days

Deng voted for independence himself back in 2011.  He advocated that South Sudan finally should secede from the Muslim Sudan in the north that it had been a part of since the English gave Sudan independence in 1956.  It would create peace to be alone in one’s own country.

“I would not have believed that I would be standing here today.  When we got independence we were so relieved.  We believed that we would finally be allowed to live our lives without being afraid.  I can remember when the news of the election result was announced in 2011.  We were so happy.  Yes, in fact we danced for three days without sleeping.”

Deng laughs a little when he remembers the celebration then.  Then they forgot to sleep because they danced for joy, today they don’t sleep for fear of being killed.  It is just a couple of days ago that a man was shot a bit farther down the road he tells us, without batting an eyelid.

“We discuss what to do the whole time.  Should we go home, should we go on?  I’m afraid that we will be killed if we go home.”

The world's newest and most fragile country

In 2011 Deng did the same as 98 percent of his fellow countrymen: he voted for independence.  Even though the result from some districts had to be disallowed because there was suspicion of cheating, the support for independence was striking.  South Sudan wanted to be on its own. And South Sudan finally was on July 9th 2011.

Before I left I watched again the videos of the celebrations that were immortalized in Juba on mobile phones in the dancing days after the election.

Today the videos on You Tube are a sad witness to the many people who hoped for a better life.

It can be hard to understand that so much has happened in South Sudan in six years.  That the overwhelming unity about wanting to have their own country so quickly turned into a conflict that so far has cost 50,000 people their lives and caused millions of people to flee.

A situation that means that the American magazine Foreign Policy today characterizes South Sudan  as the world’s most fragile country.  A list on which Syria is in fifth place.

Grew up with war

A couple of weeks before I met Deng in the abandoned school in Malek, I’m sitting in a car with Afrim Bardoniqi.  He is a strong man with a long face and a pair of narrow, dark eyes.  He comes from Kosovo originally and after the Balkan war, he became a mine clearer and has done that ever since.

Today he is the leader of a mine clearance team from DanChurchAid in South Sudan – and he also has a terrific ability to avoid holes in the ruined South Sudanese roads.

Afrim loves to talk when we drive through the countryside.  About Kosovo, about South Sudan, about Angola where he once killed a Black Mamba (Africa’s largest poisonous snake) with his bare hands.

©Mikkel Østergaard

Afrim Bardoniqi has since the Balkan wars in the 1990's worked as a mine clearer.

“Politicians think about themselves and their tribes down here, it’s a pity,” he says and grabs the steering wheel hard to avoid a hole in the road causing my head to hit the side window.

I can feel the frustration in Afrim.  He won’t name any specific names but I know from my talks with the South Sudanese that there is a general dissatisfaction with the government in the country.  It is especially the country’s president Salva Kiir who many are upset with.  He comes from the governing party Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

The SPLM, which fought for the Christians in the southern part of Sudan, was established during the first Sudanese Civil War that lasted from 1955 to 1972.  That was when the Christians in the south fought to secede from the Muslims in the north.

I love to watch when they cultivate the fields.  When something very ordinary happens.  A person who cultivates a field is the way it should be.

Afrim Bardoniqi

That was a civil war that never really finished and flared up again in the 1980’s.  Not until 2005 was the process of establishing an independent South Sudan started.  By that time the disturbances between north and south had cost up to two million lives.

”It is obvious that the society doesn’t work, there hasn’t been anything other than war down here.  They have grown up with it,” says Afrim firmly.

©Mikkel Østergaard

Afrim suddenly steps hard on the brake, so my seat belt tightens across my chest.

“Can you see that tractor?  They cultivate the earth here.”

His eyes light up and he’s almost like a child that has just got a present.

“I love to see it when they cultivate the fields.  When something happens that is just ordinary.  A person who cultivates a field is the way it should be.”

What DanChurchAid does in South Sudan
  • Psychosocial help in refugee camps
  • Distribution of coupons that can be exchanged for food and tools
  • Teaching local organisations about better operations
  • Support of local peace committees that will persuade the tribes to put down their weapons


©Mikkel Østergaard

What tribe are you from?

When in the course of my three weeks in the country I have told the South Sudanese that we don’t have tribes in Denmark they laugh at me.  To be a part of a tribe is just as natural as the sun rises in the east and goes down in the west.  It says so much about who you are.

A Dinka is steely and able to act, a Mundari is more thoughtful and cunning, a young Sudanese told me.

In some parts of the country different tribes live side by side and in others they fight with one another.  Conflicts arise most often about the tribes’ cattle and which fields belong to whom.  They have done that just as long as people have lived in the region Afrim tells me while he sticks his head right down into an old grenade that is hidden in the grass.

“This one is armed and can explode if we touch it.  We just have to put an enclosure up.” 

©Nils Carstensen

President Salva Kiir back in 2011.

With 62 different tribes and cultural differences it has been a challenge for the country’s president, Salva Kiir, to gather the South Sudanese under one flag.  During his inaugural address in 2011, he emphasised that from now on it didn’t matter what tribe you belonged to; now you had to be first and foremost South Sudanese.

But that is easier said than done.  Salva Kiir himself is from the Dinka tribe which is the biggest tribe in South Sudan.  He is the commander in chief of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) which is the military arm of the governing party SPLM.

During the long civil war with Sudan he worked together with Riek Machar who, like himself, fought for an independent South Sudan.  Riek Machar comes from the Nuer tribe and after the election in 2011 he became vice president in the country.

Two years of peace

What sounded like a positive uniting of various tribes quickly became a bitter struggle between Kiir and Machar.  Kiir gradually appointed many more from his Dinka tribe into senior positions and accusations about discrimination flew through the air.  It culminated in 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of wanting to commit a coup against him.

Every time I remove a mine there is someone that doesn’t die or have a leg blown off.  That makes good sense.

Afrim Bardoniqi

Machar denied the accusation and called Kiir a dictator.  Machar fled from Juba with a group of loyal soldiers and that was the beginning of what today is a civil war in its fourth year. Machar started his own opposition movement called SPLA-IO, Sudanese People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition and the battles have today spread to most of the country.  The UN warns that the situation can end in genocide like the one in Rwanda in 1994.

©Agnete Rishøj

Abandoned road in Bor about three months after the civil war started in South Sudan. The picture was taken in March 2014.

The situation has also caused the UN to call the events in South Sudan one of the worst human rights crises in the world.

“It is serious,” Afrim emphasises.

“Now there is no longer a common enemy so they start to clobber each other.”

Kiir and Machar have tried to approach one another several times and in April 2016 Machar went back to Juba to resume his work as vice president, but after a few months battles broke out between Kiir’s and Machar’s soldiers.

Afrim talks louder and louder.  I can tell that this upsets him.  I ask him why he is working in a country like South Sudan.

“Every time I remove a mine there is someone that doesn’t die or have a leg blown off.  That makes good sense.

Even though two more are put in the ground every time you remove one?

That is exactly why is makes sense.

Mine clearance in South Sudan

A great many mines and old grenades are hidden in the ground in South Sudan after more than 50 years of war and conflicts.

DanChurchAid works closely with the local population in the country so the mines can be localised and detonated securely.  In 2017 alone over 700 dangerous explosives were disarmed.

The one-armed seamstress

Not everyone has moved into abandoned buildings such as the school in Malek as Deng did.  Just outside the town of Bor lies one of the UN’s seven Protection of Civilians camps in South Sudan.  It is not a classic refugee camp but on the contrary a more temporary camp that focuses on acute protection of the population.  South Sudanese who are fleeing rival tribes can find security here, get a tarpaulin and clean water.  The camp is surrounded by a high earth wall and in each corner there is a watch tower where UN soldiers stand guard.

In the middle of the camp I meet Nyalit Both who is 45 years old.  She is sitting slouched on a green plastic chair in the shade and I have trouble catching her eye.  We sit for a while quietly as people walk past us.

“I don’t know where two of my children are now,” she says.

She cries while she tells me about her two children of 12 and 15 who vanished when the civil war broke out in 2013.

©Mikkel Østergaard

Nyalit Both was hit by shots in the arm while fleeing from a group of soldiers.

I pause.  It is unusual for me.  I am normally very quick with a follow-up question.  I look at the stump of a left arm Nyalit has left.

“The soldiers came to our village and set fire to everything.  They caught my husband and my two middle sons who were 17 and 19, took them down to the river and shot them.”

Instead of bursting out crying Nyalit just stares into the air.  She remembers the flight from the town all too well.  She herself was hit by several shots from a machinegun on a pickup truck.  Shots that did permanent damage to her left arm, which later had to be amputated.

Nyalit once had seven children and a husband.  One child died of illness, two are perhaps somewhere out there, two were killed together with her husband by the river in their village and two were killed in Juba when fighting broke out there.  Today she has nothing.

“I don’t know what will happen.  I don’t know anything at all.”

Sewing with one arm

The only thing Nyalit is sure of right now is that she wants to sew.  That clears her thoughts of the last four years.  Together with 15 other women, she attends a therapy group supported by DanChurchAid, where the women talk about their experiences and afterward sew clothes and bags.  Together.

And the solidarity is important for Nyalit.  Many of the women she talks with have also lost their husbands and children.  In fact it is striking that almost all the women I talk to in the camp have lost their husbands.  Either because he was a soldier on one side or the other or because he belonged to the wrong tribe.

“It’s nice to have someone to talk to,” she says quietly.

©Mikkel Østergaard

Nyalit gets up from the chair and takes me to a small area where nearly 20 manual sewing machines stand in a row.  This is where they sit outside and sew.  She sits down at one of the machines and starts sewing.

The material is put under the needle.  She turns the wheel at the end of the machine with her right arm, the needle goes down comes up and she moves the material so it is ready for the next stich.  It is a slow job, but Nyalit continues unconcerned.  I ask her if she thinks she will ever see her children again.

“I hope, but it is in God’s hands”.

She moves the material.  The needle goes down and comes up.

“But I don’t think so.”

(The story contineus under the picture)

©Mikkel Østergaard

The battle for the black gold

“Supermatch” is the name on the cigarettes that I bought from the little grocer at the roadside.  The package is dark red and on the front is a drawing of a man who is playing football.  There is no picture of a crying child getting smoke in its face, or a text where it says “smoking kills”.

On the other hand it says “Made in South Sudan”.  That is perhaps scary enough in itself but actually it is rather a clever idea in a country that has ground to a halt after several years of war.  If you go around the local markets you will see that almost all the products come from Uganda, Kenya or Ethiopia.

The only product that South Sudan really produces and exports is oil.  According to the World Bank, South Sudan is the most oil-dependent country in the world but also one of the countries where the oil resources are most under-utilised.  And it is also here, according to several experts, that the cause of the strife in the country is to be found.

Unstable situation

When South Sudan gained independence in 2011 the country also got two thirds of Sudan’s oil fields and therefore an agreement was made with Sudan that oil pipelines would go through Sudan and that South Sudan would pay a fee to use them.

This was intended to create an economic incentive for both parties to develop peaceful and economically lucrative cooperation. However, there was never an agreement on the size of the fee.

Instead of cooperation a political fight broke out across the new border between South Sudan and Sudan.  A fight that in 2012  caused South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, to close oil production for eight months.  An attempt to force the government in Sudan to cave in.

©Henrik Stubkjær

Salva Kiir during the period prior to independence in 2011.

No money no loyalty

But without money in the bank Salva Kiir got into trouble.  Prior to independence he had used oil money to buy loyalty among his political connections and they began to cause trouble when the money didn’t show up.

At that point, oil accounted for 98 percent (figure from 2010) of the income in the national budget, so Kiir had nowhere else to look in order to pay for their loyalty.

In several political analysis, one can read that the conflict acquired an ethnic character because, among other things, the South Sudanese army consists of many fractions that are based on ethnic affiliation.  Meaning which tribe the soldiers come from.  When the money failed to arrive the various senior officials in the military, including Kiir and Machar, began to mobilise their troops based on tribal allegiance.

We love our country.  It is our responsibility to create a future.

The argument that the conflict in South Sudan was caused entirely by an ethnic conflict between the country’s tribes seems oversimplified.  And more of an excuse for a political fight in the country.  Because when I go around in the UN protection camp in Bor it is also clear that people do not hate each other.  Here there are members of many different tribes side by side.  And they all tell me the same story: We want to go home and we just want to be allowed to lead our own lives.

©Mikkel Østergaard

Life goes on

A short drive from the UN PoC camp where Nyalit lives there is a small fenced area with a couple of yellow brick houses.  The area is owned by the local relief organisation “Church and Development”, also called C&D.  DanChurchAid works closely with C&D and that is where I am allowed to stay while I am in Bor.

C&D has many activities in the area.  They distribute fish nets, provide psychological support to women like Nyalit and encourage dialogue between warring tribes. And much more.

The day is almost over and I am sitting in the shade and chatting with a couple of the staff members from C&D.  I offer them one of my Supermatch cigarettes but they neither smoke nor drink alcohol here.

One of them, who works for C&D, is Paul.  He is a slight man with a wide smile.  He always laughs aloud when we talk together.  Much of the hope I find in South Sudan, I find from Paul and his colleagues.  I am actually often surprised that they so firmly believe that it all will get better.

“We love our country.  It is our responsibility to create a future,” Paul says smiling and clapping his hands.

“It is going to take time but what else can we do, we just have to take one step at a time.  And then there is the matter of politics.  I don’t want to talk about that.”

Paul waves the flies away from his coffee.

©Mikkel Østergaard

The fishermen in the picture have fish nets given by DanChurchAid.

An explosive celebration

Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by shots from a machine gun.  The noise comes from across the road and my heart almost stops.  A crowd of men howl and sing but the voices don’t seem to be either angry or afraid, just happy.

“That is a wedding,” says Paul and smiles.

Can we go over there, I ask.

Paul looks out through the fence, calls a couple of colleagues and together we move over toward the wedding.  We are met by a big group of men who are dancing in a circle and hopping in time.  Many of them are carrying weapons.  Machetes, spears and guns that are discharged at regular intervals.

Paul explains to me that the men from the groom’s tribe are on their way over to the bride’s family to fetch her.  There the men will symbolically carry the woman out of her parent’s house to take her home with them to the groom’s family.

©Thomas Tjaerandsen

In South Sudan it is perfectly normal to fire shots of joy in connection with weddings.

Firing rockets

The dance in front of the bride’s house gets more and more frantic.  Everyone’s clothes are soaked with sweat making them stick tightly to their slim bodies.  Everyone is dancing to the sound of a single drum, and more join in.  Now the entire tribe is there and women from the bride’s family join the dance and howl in chorus. They are saying good bye, Paul tells us.

I stand there and fumble with my camera when an enormous bang makes me jump.  I don’t even think before I turn around.  In the grass, five meters behind me, an old man is kneeling.  He  is having trouble balancing.  Something is lying on his one shoulder.  It takes a couple of seconds before I realise that he is sitting with a rocket launcher normally used to shoot tanks.  I have only seen an RPG in films or in Donald Duck comics and I find it hard to understand what has just happened.  20 seconds later I hear a slight bang in the distance.

The elderly gentleman gets up and goes on as though nothing had happened.  For lack of anything better he had, to mark the occasion, used the rocket as an alternative to celebrate the wedding.  My eyes follow him and I’m not sure what to think and I look at Paul.  He looks at me.

“I’ve never seen that before,” says Paul.

(The story continues under the picture)

©Mikkel Østergaard

A step toward a more peaceful country

On the way home Paul explains to me that it is perfectly normal to own a weapon in South Sudan.   After more than 50 years of strife, most families have a weapon, which they use to defend themselves if necessary.

Paul and the rest of C&D, with help from DanChurchAid, work on getting the tribes to put down their weapons and instead start a dialogue about their conflicts.  That is a step in the right direction toward a calmer South Sudan, Paul explained to me.

The next day we find out that the rocket hit an area around the airport and that no one was hurt.  UN soldiers had however come by and arrested the elderly gentleman.

More problems than just weapons

Weapons are not the only problem in South Sudan just now.  In February a famine was declared in the central part of the country and the UN estimates that 100,000 South Sudanese are in danger of dying of hunger in 2017 if something isn’t done right away.  The UN has asked the international community for nine billion DKK (1,42bn US$) to be able to stop what they call “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis”.

It is money that is needed for acute relief in the form of food supplies for the very worst affected in the country.  So far only 14 percent of that amount has been raised. 

In addition, the country is struggling with heavy inflation that at times have been up to 800 percent.

“Fortunately we are paid in dollars so that way our living conditions are more stable but the problem for the others is that their money evaporates between their hands before they can get around to using it,” says David, who also works for C&D.

Salva Kiir has also invited what he calls a “national dialogue”.  The intention here is that the country’s tribes should meet and talk about South Sudan’s situation and in that way hopefully put down their weapons.  Kiir has however been criticised for not inviting Riek Machar and SPLA-IO to the negotiating table.  That is why many of those I have talked to doubt that it will create a stable peace.

It is bad here, but I fear for our lives if we go home.

Deng Avijok

"People are desperate"

Back with Deng and his family at the abandoned school several from the tribe have sat down under a high tree that provides shade from the rays of the sun.  It is late afternoon and they are sitting there and waiting.  To move on, to discuss whether they should go back.  Precisely that question describes very well the dilemma most of the people I have met in the course of my three weeks in South Sudan are in. Where should we go?

“It is bad here, but I fear for our lives if we go home,” says Deng.

Deng is from the Dinka tribe.  The rival tribe that burned Deng’s village down and killed two is called Mundari.  He tells me that there have always been small conflicts between the two but that before they could talk about it.

“The anger is greater, so is the way they talk about other tribes.  There is so much hate.”

He doesn’t know why the situation has escalated, why they have begun to attack one another.  But food is scarce, inflation is sky high and you are lucky if you find a job.

“People are desperate,” he says.

©Mikkel Østergaard

In the Nile outside Juba an old river barge has sunk. The Nile is used mostly for fishing and transport.

If God wills

Does Deng think it will get better?  What will the South Sudan his children grow up in be like? Deng smiles.

“It can be better, that is the only thing I can hope for, if God wills so that it happens.  It is not up to us.”

Several curious people have gathered around us.  “Khawaja” is being whispered in the corners.  The South Sudanese word for “white man”.

“Don’t pay any attention” says Deng.

“Many of them have never seen someone like you before.”

A young woman has stood and listened to our conversation.  She introduces herself as Lona.  With a firm grip she grabs my arm and looks at me.

“In South Sudan we kill one another.  It doesn’t make sense.”

Lona keeps on looking at me, then lets go and steps back a little.  I can tell she want to talk some more, but my time with Deng and his tribe is just about over.  I shake hands with Lona, smile and move toward the car.

“Don’t you want my number,” asks Deng as I get in.

“Then you can phone when you have written about us.”