Equatoria: The War Continues in South Sudan

General Moses Lojuko of the rebels speaks to troops in Loopo town of Kajo Keji county. General Moses Lojuko of the rebels speaks to troops in Loopo town of Kajo Keji county. © Jason Patinkin/IRIN

22 July 2017
Equatoria, South Sudan's breadbasket, has been consumed with violence in the past year. Whether this is due to the government or rebels, the crisis is ongoing.

When the South Sudan civil war broke out in 2013, Equatoria had initially managed to stay out of conflict. But in the past year, much of that has changed. Since the government army started taking over the region, the United Nations has warned of potential genocide and the refugee count has spiked dramatically.

Now the picture has blended into one in the same. Bullet holes mark the walls of stores, shell casings litter roadways, and dozens of homes have been burned. Rebels occupy towns across the Equatorian region and many of the civilians have fled to Uganda. Those who remain struggle with hunger, disease, and fear of another battle.

The county of Kajo Keji in the Equatorian region has a long history of conflict. Half a century ago, southern Anyanya rebels held bases there during the country’s first civil war, which lasted until 1972. When the southerners rebelled a second time in the 80s and 90s, Kajo Keji served as the rebel headquarters for the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is now the name of the independent nation’s government army. After the Second Sudanese Civil War ended in 2005, Kajo Keji enjoyed peace for a period of time.

In 2013, another civil war broke out between the ethnic Nuer rebels of former vice president Riek Machar and the Dinka army under President Salva Kiir. Kajo Keji, as well as most of Equatoria, was able to stay out of the violence. In 2015, the two men signed an agreement that made Machar the country’s first Vice President. It also gave both government and rebels the right to establish bases around the country to canton their troops. It was this peace deal that restarted the violence in Equatoria.

On Machar’s side is the SPLA-in-Opposition (IO), and these cantonment sites gave him the opportunity to grow his army in Equatoria. To oppose Machar’s widespread recruitment, the government deployed the Mathiang Anyoor militia to Equatoria. The Mathiang Anyoor executed a campaign of terror against the local population. They arrested or killed anyone with suspected links to the IO. These abuses increased the already present ethnic divide between the Equatorian population.

In 2016, the peace deal fell apart, and eventually Machar fled the city with his men into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Those who had joined Machar broke off to raise a rebellion.

In areas to the southwest of Juba, Dinka troops murdered Equatorian inhabitants while defending themselves. On the other side, Equatorian militia killed Dinka civilians living in the region. Refugees fled into Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which created the largest human exodus in Africa since the Rwandan genocide. At the end of 2016, the United Nations warned of such a genocide.

On 20 January, when the Kajo Keji county descended into war, rebels assassinated Oliver Jole, a well known official in the Liwolow town west of Kajo Keji. He was accused of being a government collaborator. Over the next few weeks, rebels and government forces began to violently clash. After all the violence, many civilians left Kajo Keji. This was beneficial to the rebels since without the civilians, the town had no functioning markets. Therefore, the government had few supplies and little ability to extend its reach. The rebels could now fill the empty countryside.

The next month continued in chaos. The government currently controls four garrisons in the east, but the rebels control the remainder. Part of the rebels’ success is that their organisation in Equatoria has  improved and they now have a more integrated fighting force. Another reason is due to the rebels’ support from Kajo Keji civilians. Many civilians stated they felt safer with the rebels in control. They stated that many government soldiers would rape and kill civilians, but with the rebels in control they are treated differently.

The biggest resource the rebels lack are weapons. The International Community has refused to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan. This would block weapons to both the government and rebels. Regional governments and the West have specifically acted to prevent weapon flows to the rebels only. The rebels have so little ammunition that any soldier who wastes bullets receives a lashing across the back.

There is more than just violence that threatens Kajo Keji’s civilians. Taban Dafala, the only doctor in Jalimo, states, “Malaria is the major problem, then typhoid, hook worms, worms in general, fungal infections, and skin problems. There is no water, even for bathing, for washing clothes, and that’s why the skin diseases are affecting them”. Dafala does not even have enough drugs to treat his patients.

The majority of the civilians in Kajo Keji are in three camps in the west. These “camps” are loose collections of mud, grass, and plastic huts. According to the UN, they house around 30,000 people. Many residents struggle with hunger, and there have been few general food distributions. The issue is that much of the aid from Uganda is controlled by Juba and agencies in Juba operate with the government, so it puts the aid workers in jeopardy.

Roughly three quarters of the Kajo Keji county’s population have relocated to Uganda. Much of northern Uganda has an integrated population of local Ugandan villages and refugee camps. Much of this has to do with Uganda’s open-door refugee policy. However, life for many of the refugees in Uganda is harsh, as the camp conditions are very rough. Given that many of the rations do not arrive to the camps on time, refugees suffer with hunger. Yet despite all of these problems, many of the Ugandan refugee camps are still safer than the original homes of the refugees.

Now the biggest concern is that the war itself will enter Uganda. In April, Uganda’s military had to block South Sudanese government soldiers from entering Uganda. They were trying to attack civilians who were escaping from a massacre in Eastern Equatoria. Since then there have been militants who have succeeded in crossing the border and in the past month there have been raids in refugee encampments in northern Uganda.

As the war worsens in South Sudan, there is little hope that the conflict will end soon. The government has broken its own ceasefire, and the rebels continue to fight.

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