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JUBA, South Sudan -- As I walked into Bentiu’s state hospital last week, I expected it to be overcrowded with wounded civilians who had fled the most recent onslaught between the SPLA and Peter Gadet’s forces in Mankien. But I could not find one such person. Instead it was bustling with soldiers getting their battle-scars dressed. “No person without an SPLA uniform is allowed to escape Mayom,” said one man, referring to a western county in Sudan’s Unity state where militia fighting has been rampant. “There are no civilians in Mayom, only rebels.”
The recent escalation of militia violence in Greater Upper Nile is rooted in the historic use of southern militias as proxies by Khartoum and the internal divides in the South that the South Sudanese government has not fully addressed. Southern officials allege that these militias, a number of which are led by individuals who formerly had ties to Khartoum, continue to be supported by the Sudanese government today in a return to a policy that has historically exploited internal, southern grievances. At the same time, the SPLA’s indiscriminant military response to the militia threat, as alleged by a number of reports, has harmed civilians, further inflaming divisions within the South.
Over the last couple of months, this trend has clearly emerged in the militia-controlled pockets of Unity and Upper Nile states. Firefights usually begin as surprise indiscriminate attacks in heavily-populated districts. Civilians, who earlier might have inadvertently been caught in the throes of such conflicts, are now increasingly being singled out by both rebel groups and the SPLA. According to some eyewitness accounts, men are killed, women raped, and tukuls burned. The dead are left where they were killed, hastily buried in communal graves, or dumped into a swamp. With no transport facilities, wounded civilians never make it to the hospital.
In Mankien, the SPLA and militias together have left nothing standing. Entire villages lie deserted. In Buaw, a payam in Koch county, Gatluak Gai’s men and SPLA forces alternately destroyed the entire area leaving more than 4,000 people homeless and on the run, according to the local commissioner.
“No one is a civilian here,” remarked one state official. “Everyone has an agenda.” In more ways than one, such a remark serves as a stark reminder of the internal frustration among soldiers and the government alike at not being able to resolve the militia problem once and for all. The most recent attacks were preceded by hit and run guerrilla style assaults in March and April this year and late last year. Current operations were supposed to have finished by May 12, but Gadet and Gai’s men reportedly remain in isolated pockets and continue to operate across the area. Landmines in the outskirts of Rubkona town and in Mayom, Mankien, and Abiemnom areas have claimed some lives, and restricted the movement of humanitarian workers. The SPLA claim that they were most likely placed by militia groups, and meant to destabilize the South.
Proving one’s innocence, or even one’s neutrality, becomes an impossible task in a place where everyone and anyone can be linked to one side or the other. For many in the SPLA, civilians simply living in areas where rebel activities are ongoing can no longer be considered non-combatants. Peter Gadet, Philip Bipen, and Matthew Pul Jang are rebel leaders known to be Mayom natives. As a result, according to the Mayom commissioner, the SPLA’s Division Four commanders recently ordered the destruction of 7,800 homes in the Mayom area, accusing residents of sympathizing with the rebels. Links to militia leaders, no matter how nominal, has meant that certain communities have been particularly targeted over others. The belief that everyone is a potential collaborator has left the SPLA with no moral qualms about conducting “clean up” operations across Unity state.
Part of the problem is the real difficulty of differentiating between combatants and non-combatants. Said one U.N. official, “It is impossible to tell the difference between a rebel and a civilian. It is sometimes impossible to tell the difference between an IDP and a civilian. Walk into any home and you will likely find arms.”
“Some people provide informational support to these rebel groups,” said one state official. “And the actions of a few end up harming everyone.”
The dilemma also lies in the fact that the SPLA, while a former guerilla force, does not have a strategy to battle other groups that use similar tactics. “The SPLA has manpower, but they don’t have a vision,” said one legislative assembly member. The southern army has engaged in forced recruitment to replace the high number of casualties in such operations. There are some soldiers who believe all civilians can be marked as collateral damage (“If they die, they die”). With huge uncertainty about what constitutes a civilian identity, many in the SPLA regard the deaths and displacement of civilians as a necessity and that military and operational success cannot be guaranteed otherwise.
In this setting, particularly when the movements of international observers or the humanitarian community is entirely restricted, rumors beget rumors, and violence begets violence. With little regard for restraint on either side, civilians continue to bear the brunt of this festering conflict.
Photo: SPLA and military police (Laura Heaton/ Enough Project)