Residents in the South Sudanese city of Yei have been prevented from fleeing clashes between forces loyal to President Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar after the state’s governor prohibited local citizens from leaving. Security personnel have been told to enforce the ban.
“No one will leave, I will stop (people leaving) today,” State Governor David Lokonga told reporters on Wednesday, July 20. Governor Lokonga rubbished rumours that Yei was unsafe for citizens, following the killing of four civilians by armed men on July 14. Lokonga said the containment policy would ward off looting in abandoned residences in the town and act as a measure to prevent local residents from facing “a terrible humanitarian situation” elsewhere.
On Wednesday, when the directive took effect, security forces could be seen stopping vehicles ferrying passengers to neighbouring provinces and the Ugandan border.
People in Yei however expressed anxieties about further attacks, following confirmed reports of ambushes on civilians by armed groups on the outskirts of Yei town, in particular in Mitika earlier this month. Many residents did flee but some have since returned.
Betty Amude, who fled Yei on Wednesday but returned on Thursday afternoon, said the situation in rural areas was worse.
“I left because of the killing of civilians and people with guns in the town,” Amude, a mother of three, told The Niles. “I ran to Yembe but the conditions were very bad, especially at night. There were many mosquitoes, it was cold and even rain. […] I left everything here in town and ran there with very little to eat,” adds Amude.
Some residents support the governor’s call not to leave. “Displacing ourselves to the bush or other countries without any clear cause would be very dangerous. It will add more suffering. Those who have been refugees during the liberation struggle learned about such suffering,” said Joseph Batali.
#SouthSudan | #Uganda – UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency has registered 16,000 refugees over the last five days alone. More...Posted by theniles.org on Friday, 22 July 2016
Richard Mawa agrees. “I thank the governor and I appeal to our people to return home because in an actual sense, it is only rumours which are making us suffer.” Mawa nevertheless moved with his children to a neighbouring village.
Rose Sunday, a mother of four, was not so lucky. Her car was stopped on the outskirts of Yei en route to Uganda and she was instructed to return to her residence. “It is not good to stop us from leaving,” Sunday told The Niles. “How many people already left and yet now we are being stopped? Okay, they stop us. But who will be responsible when it happens? The rumor is that gunmen want to attack the town yet where is our security?”
The ban on leaving the city was relaxed slightly on Thursday, July 21, to allow Yei residents to visit their families in surrounding villages, following the intervention of senior figures from the church.
Illegal to forbid free movement
Human rights activist Benson Khemis Soro stressed that it is against international human rights law to restrict the movement of people, although he expressed sympathy with the decision taken in Yei, as long as the security forces are able to defend the city from potential attacks.
Mawa George Lazarus, Executive Director of Community Empowerment for Rehabilitation and Development (CEFoRD), said many local residents were fleeing not only because of security concerns but also because of the increasingly dire economic situation.
“Some people are finding it difficult to live in terms of getting food: school prices are also rising. It is important we look at the issues of Yei holistically, not just address the security aspect of it,” said Lazarus, adding that the government should be focusing on bringing to justice the perpetrators of the violence.
A local clergy leader also emphasised that the government should focus on decommissioning arms, not repopulating the city. “In Yei, it has been very clear. Too many guns have been moving around uncontrolled,” Erkolano Lodu Tombe, the Catholic Bishop of Yei said during a recent peace rally. “My people, let us compose ourselves and overcome this fear,” he appealed. “Let us be peace makers, let us address these issues.” Bishop Lodu Tombe also called on those who have taken up arms to return and seek peace.