South Sudan: Conflict Zone Widens as Militias Conduct Bold Attacks on Malakal

 
SPLA soldiers (Enough/LHeaton)

Upper Nile police and SPLA forces clashed with militia men led by Commander Olony in the state capital of Malakal over the weekend, resulting in the deaths of 40 rebels, one SPLA officer, and two policemen, with many wounded. In the past several weeks, the SPLA and other security forces have taken large casualties as militias led by Lt. Gen. George Athor and Commander Olony opened up several fronts in parts of northern Jonglei and southern Upper Nile states.

Hundreds of civilian casualties have been reported in several fights that began soon after the referendum, and GOSS officials are struggling to come up with new ideas to deal with the menace of local militias. Meanwhile, as the conflict theater expands and becomes increasing inaccessible to the United Nations and humanitarian organizations, details about culpability and the impact on civilians are difficult to ascertain.

There are large uncertainties about what prompted the most recent onslaught. Interviews with civilians on the ground highlight multiple understandings of what transpired. One version of the story goes like this: On March 7, one SPLA soldier is rumored to have raped a woman in Dur village near Owachi, just south of Malakal town. Olony’s group, which was located in the same village, retaliated with small arms fire when the SPLA refused to give the perpetrator up. This incident then grew into a larger firefight drawing in reinforcements on both sides. Another version claims that an SPLA soldier who accidentally strayed into Commander Olony’s camp was also killed. When the SPLA killed one of the rebels as a retributive measure, it led to the most recent crisis. A third scenario suggests that fighting broke out when the SPLA prevented Olony’s group from passing a checkpoint in Owachi, and a fourth still, put forth by the southern army, asserts that Olony’s group attacked the town.

It is debatable whether this uncertainty has been fomented as part of a strategy or whether it is merely a result of fluid, insecure conditions. All four scenarios show how quickly tempers can flare and a tense situation can deteriorate with deadly consequences.

Olony’s motivations remain ambiguous. Olony, who is a former SPLA officer and a Shilluk, broke away more than one year ago due to grievances against the Dinka-dominated army and government when his land was taken away from him. Despite an army-led peace effort to rein him in, he has remained an outsider. (See the recent “South Sudan’s Militias” report for more on Olony and others.) Some in Upper Nile’s government suggest that Olony was spurred by the NCP to carry out the most recent Malakal attack. Others say he was dissatisfied with the rank he was promised for reintegrating into the SPLA.

There is also confusion about whether or not Athor and Olony have joined forces. According to government officials, this is unlikely given that their motivations to fight are different. However, public perception is at odds with this logic, not least because they both have been fighting a common enemy. “Olony might have joined Athor,” said one church leader in Malakal. “They do not have big enough forces to take on Malakal alone.”

Meanwhile, however, the geographical range of security threats has considerably grown. Athor and Olony remain at large, and their area of operations has expanded from traditional, more remote hotspots like Khorflous, New Fangak, and the Atar regions to urban environments such as the Upper Nile state capital of Malakal. Unlike traditional armies, their men use guerilla methods, compensating for their smaller numbers even as fighting extends into towns where they might not be entirely aware of the road networks. Over the weekend, some of Olony’s men who were trying to flee SPLA soldiers took shelter in an orphanage and held over 100 children hostage while they tried to negotiate their escape.

Despite their military superiority, the SPLA/SPLM continue to remain unprepared, and there is a lack of consensus on developing a strategy to tackle the militia problem in Upper Nile. Some officials have reluctantly admitted that this has been a problem. “We do not know where this attack came from, and who really was responsible for it,” said the local police commissioner in Malakal. “Any attack from the outside on the city, it is the army’s job to protect, not the police,” he told Enough. “We did not expect this attack,” said the governor. “A strategy [to deal with this problem] is not there yet.”

 

Photo: SPLA soldiers in the back of a pickup (Enough/Laura Heaton)

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