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Dozens killed during clashes in Wau

Darius Wani
Dozens of people are feared dead or injured in Wau town, capital of the newly created Wau State, following violent clashes which started on Friday, June 24.
29.06.2016  |  Juba, South Sudan
An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) plane landed at 5:30 PM in ‎Juba on Sunday, June 26, evacuating six severely wounded patients from Wau. (photo: ICRC | Layal Horanieh)
An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) plane landed at 5:30 PM in ‎Juba on Sunday, June 26, evacuating six severely wounded patients from Wau. (photo: ICRC | Layal Horanieh)

South Sudan government officials say at least 43 people died in the recent clashes between unknown armed groups and government forces. “Up to now we have not yet received a final casualty figure, but up to this morning according to reports there are about 39 civilians and four police men who were killed,” Information Minister Michael Makuei told reporters in Juba on Tuesday, June 28.

Up to now we have not yet received a final casualty figure.

However, a health worker speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, said more than 500 people had been killed. In addition, more than 10,000 people have fled to the University of Bahr el-Ghazal campus, church compounds, or the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base. Thousands of others fled the town altogether and headed westwards to Bagari and Ngo Halima areas, aid workers and residents said.

Violence broke out in Wau town on Friday evening when armed Dinka youth attacked the Fertit community in Bazia and Nazaret on the southern part of the town to revenge what they say was the killing of two of their people two days earlier. On Saturday, an unknown armed group believed to be sympathetic to the Fertit ethnic group, which is usually based in the outskirts of the town launched a counter attack on the Dinka youth. Residents say the armed group also clashed with government forces who they viewed as sympathetic to the Dinka.

The Fertit community allied armed group withdrew from Wau town on Saturday afternoon. And by Saturday evening government forces had regained control, an eye witness who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said.

Until Monday morning residents said they were terrorised by armed men who went around looting houses and shops and killing civilians in the process. A Wau town resident who spoke on condition of anonymity said people he believed were government troops, because they wore army uniforms when they looted houses in residential areas and market stalls.

The looting spree followed heavy fighting between SPLA troops in Wau and unknown armed groups which attacked the town in the early morning of Saturday, residents said.

However, Makuei said the government believes that a new rebel group led by a South Sudanese veteran politician, Ali Tamim Fatak, clashed with government forces in Wau. “It comprises of an Islamic movement which actually has been started in South Sudan by Ali Tamim Fartak who is from Raja. As you know he is one of our Muslim people and he decided to set up an Islamic movement which he calls an ‘Islamic movement for the people of Raja’,” he explained.
Makuei said some government soldiers had joined the group. A Sudanese Arab militia from the Darfur region, commonly known as Janjaweed (meaning men on horseback), was part of the group, he said, adding that the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebels have also joined the movement. “They were 700 hundred […] and were divided into two. One went to Raja and one to Wau,” Makuei said.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Wau, Leon Arkangelo, said at least 5,000 civilians were sheltering at his organisation’s premises in Muqta. A resident who took refuge at the ICRC compound in Wau, and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he saw government soldiers and ethnic Dinka youth destroy or loot houses and kill people.

Though people were still fearful on Tuesday morning, local leaders said the situation was relatively calm. The Wau Town Mayor Akol Akol Agit said local authorities were trying to improve security in the area and he used a megaphone to call on terrified residents to return to their homes.

The mission’s military forces have created a security cordon.

The Acting UNMISS Spokesperson, Shantal Persaud, said the situation was relatively calm. “There are some people that are seen to be resuming normal activities in town although the numbers are small and some small traders and small tea shops are opening for business,” she said. Persaud added, the UN was doing all it could to assist the displaced. “The mission’s military forces have created a security cordon around an area which is next to the UN base and our peace keepers are conducting patrols to ensure the safety of these displaced civilians within this area,” she said.

The UNMISS base area of Wau was secure and humanitarian agencies were providing some basic assistance to the displaced population, she said adding “the mission is currently negotiating with the SPLA for access to Wau town to conduct some additional patrols to protect civilian population in the town”.

“Is this the country we have chosen?”

Catholic Church leaders have accused SPLA soldiers of killing and looting civilians in the Wau attack. “Your brothers and sisters are dying in big numbers in Wau since Friday. They are being slaughtered and being killed by the SPLA. More than one hundred thousand people are in the bush. Is this the country we have chosen? Is this the country whose independence we voted for?,” said the Apostolic Administrator of Malakal Catholic Diocese, Mosignor Roko Taban, while speaking during a mass at St. Josephs Church in Juba on Sunday.

Taban called on the International Criminal Court to investigate and try those responsible for killing civilians and destroying their property. The speech was broadcasted live on Bakhita Radio on Sunday provoking South Sudanese Security officials to try to shut down the station. But the security operatives abandoned their decision to shut down the station after staff told them to contact the church administrators first.

Many of our people are dying because our leadership is partial.

The Auxiliary Bishop of Juba Catholic Archdiocese, Santo Loku Pio, too accused leaders – who he says do not want change – of causing the violence. Bishop Pio said that despite having their own country since 2011, South Sudanese citizens were unhappy because they no longer trusted their leaders. “Many of our people are dying because our leadership is partial. Please, please be flexible and accept change, accept reforms, change the way you do things, everything will be better. The way of violence is not good. It is unacceptable to destroy because you want certain ideas to go through,” said Bishop Pio.

The head of the SPLM-IO peace delegation to Juba and the SPLM-IO’s proposed Governor for Wau State, Peter Tingo, said the Saturday early morning attacks on Wau were a direct response to violations by government soldiers, their allied militia and armed cattle herders against the civilian population. He said the violations had been going on for months but intensified in the past few days leading up to what he described as resistance attacks by a group of local armed youth. “There were some youth in the area and they tried to protect the civilians. Their families were being violated, looted and killed so they have every right to defend them,” Tingo said. He did not state clearly that the armed youth were affiliated with the SPLA-IO but he did not make any effort to deny a link.

Military Spokesman, Brig. Lul Ruai Koang, said some of the attackers were motivated by a desire to revenge. “One group is reported to be tribal fighters. They were angered after one of their sons was killed two days ago, a captain from the police. He was killed by unknown gunmen,” Koang said.

He said another group was composed of criminals who wanted to take advantage of the unfolding situation so that they could loot the town. Koang denied allegations that government forces preyed on, killed and looted the civilian population. “When the infiltrators attempted to enter Wau some greedy civilians started immediately on a looting spree. They were not SPLA forces. But we are not going to deny that as such, once we receive evidence showing that SPLA security personnel were involved in looting in Wau town. Then they will be investigated according to our rules and code of conduct,” said Koang.

The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement this weekend that he was deeply concerned about the current escalation of violence between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and armed groups in Wau town and surrounding areas. “He regrets the reported loss of lives,” the statement said. Ban called on all fighting forces to “immediately suspend the hostilities, provide access to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and cooperate with humanitarian partners to facilitate the delivery of assistance”, he said. He urged all parties involved in the fighting to resolve their political differences through dialogue.

This particular incident in Wau simply just crashes people’s hopes.

Layal Horanieh, the spokesperson of International Committee of the Red Cross in South Sudan (ICRC), described the situation in Wau as denting the resilience of people who have suffered during the two year conflict. “People are tired; people are scared, people are eager to regain a sense of normalcy. There is also economic crisis that is spiralling in ways that is further challenging every South Sudanese the a country,” Horanieh said. “This particular incident in Wau simply just crashes people’s hopes.”

Horanieh said the ICRC was providing food and shelter to more than 5,000 people who fled into their compound to escape the violence. She said the ICRC had evacuated an unspecified number people injured in the violence to Juba for treatment. She added the ICRC was working to protect civilians: “Tensions are very high but that civilians must be spared, must not be caught in crossfire and if civilians are seeking to flee, their movement must be unimpeded.”

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