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Five days reporting from Malakal

Francis Michael
Radio reporter Francis Michael describes his fear and shock as fighting took over Malakal, reducing it to a ghost town.
9.11.2016  |  Juba, South Sudan
The Malakal market after violent clashes in December 2013. (photo: The Niles | Francis Michael)
The Malakal market after violent clashes in December 2013. (photo: The Niles | Francis Michael)

Everything looked calm and quiet in Malakal on the morning of December 23, 2013. It was just before Christmas and the city’s inhabitants were busy getting ready for the festivities. Despite the fighting which broke out in Juba on December 16, Malakal remained calm and its people were cheerful and relieved.

We aired special Christmas hymns for the listeners.

I left my house in the morning for work at ‘Sawt al-Mahaba’ radio station in al-Malakiya neighbourhood, nearly even kilometres away from my house. On my way to the office, I surveyed people’s opinions about their preparations for the feast, given the rising market prices following the border closure in Joda district, in the north of Upper Nile State towards Sudan.

I reached the radio station at 9:30 am and the morning shift for the link presenter ended at 11:00 am. I was alone for the second shift and we aired special Christmas hymns for the listeners.

Then a friend called me, wanting to know what was happening in the city. He told me that people were fleeing towards the Nile and the main market area. I called a friend who had gone out to buy some items, but her mobile phone was switched off. I was later told that she lost it as she fled the market.

Leaving the studio to check what was happening, I saw people hurrying, mostly running. I called the station manager to tell her what I saw. She asked me to close the station because there was news that rebel forces had attacked the city from the riverside.

Just before I left, two of my colleagues arrived and we closed the station together. As we were locking up, we met the then State Minister of Information and Broadcasting Philip Jiben Ogal who was racing towards the broadcasting station.

He requested me to reopen the station so he could address the people and ask them to return to their homes. I called the station manager and she gave him the go-ahead. We were also instructed that all programmes aired should be pre-recorded.

The minister aired his message for the people, reassuring them that there was no problem and asking them to return to their homes after many had fled to the United Nations mission headquarters outside the city.

I’d heard shooting from machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and other weapons.

In the evening, having investigated the situation to report the news, I made some telephone calls to other authorities. I learned that the senior officials from Upper Nile State, including the governor himself, had already left the city for the U.N. mission base. I made further enquiries through some colleagues who worked at the U.N. offices and it turned out that a dispute had broken out among government ministers, leading to divisions, caused by the December 15 conflict in Juba.

We spent that evening in fear, knowing that conditions were expected to deteriorate over the upcoming 24 hours. Overnight there was an exchange of fire at the army base, less than 1.5 kilometres from my house. The sound of gunfire was horrendous. It was the first time in my life I’d heard shooting from machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and other weapons.

Not far from my house, lived a minister of the state parliament. Assailants fired at her house, but stray gunshots also hit my home.
I’d experienced such an indiscriminate war before when I was living near the residence of former Upper Nile Governor Peter Charlemagne. Back then, fighting broke out between the popular army and government militias and his house was repeatedly targeted.

In 2011, a militia force from the Sudanese army broke away during a disengagement of forces agreement. At that time, I was at the radio station, less than 300 metres from an army camp, and I spent the whole night holed up inside the office.

In the morning of December 24, citizens took to the streets. Malakal’s inhabitants had grown used to the exchange of fire in the city and by now things had calmed down. People began to move from the south to the north and from the west to the east. However, a feeling of uneasiness remained.

Most people headed to the U.N. headquarters seeking refuge while some hid in nearby villages. In the evening of that same day, I went to the U.N. mission to enquire about the displaced people. The conditions I found were appalling: People lived out in the open and were in urgent need of water. They drank water from the small brooks near the U.N. offices, which was contaminated by sewage and wastewater.

After long attempts to get through the strict security checks at the U.N., I managed to speak to the organisation’s Malakal Officer Debora Shin, thanks to a local employee at the mission. I asked her what her mission would do to help people outside their offices fence, considering the ongoing indiscriminate shooting. She said she was awaiting instructions from Juba and could not allow those people into the headquarters.

Some lucky people had managed to get into the U.N. mission with their families, however, assisted by mission workers. But the majority, hundreds of scared citizens, remained out in the open from the early morning until 7:00 pm. One child and an old man died and three citizens, including a five-year-old child, were injured.

On the morning of December 26, the U.N. mission officials decided to go to the city to bring food and tents from the World Food Programme warehouses following a truce between the government and the rebels. I was one of the workers who was ready to go to the city. My main purpose was to find out what was happening. But soon after the truce arrangements were completed, shooting started again and two people were killed outside the U.N. headquarters.

That day, I had a brawl with an Ugandan U.N. mission officer, who was responsible for relief affairs but she refused to take the tents outside to the camp to provide shelter for the citizens who needed protection.

On the night of December 26, the U.N. mission in Malakal decided to allow the citizens into its headquarters to protect them from stray bullets, having received information that the government troops would attack the city in the morning of the following day.

We hardly had anything to give.

Then came a most difficult experience: We had to transport the patients to the hospital inside the camp. Hunger, thirst and direct exposure to the sun for three days were the main causes for people’s illnesses. Most of the patients were university students from the Upper Nile University and pregnant women. We transported them to hospital or offered them juice and water only because we were short of food, we hardly had anything to give.

I felt hungry, but I had to tolerate it, remain patient and help people. Without planning to, I switched from media work to humanitarian work.
Thanks to the efforts of a young South Sudanese man who worked in the AIDS Protection Ward, the U.N. mission representative allowed citizens into its library and we spent the rest of the night there.

On the morning of December 27, the sound of artillery fire was heard all over Malakal. At 10:00 am, the State Information Minister arrived from Folouj and told me the government forces would soon reach Malakal and that they wanted to resume broadcasting at the government radio station after forcing the rebels out of the city. As considerable damage was sustained by the government radio station, they wanted to broadcast from the ‘Sawt al-Mahaba’ station. I told him that the manager was responsible and they later agreed to reopen it on December 28.

The situation inside the U.N. mission’s offices was extremely bad and there was no water or food. We spent two days in which we survived on scarce supplies of water and juice. It was the most difficult stage and when we got out after the war, I decided not to return there under any circumstances.

On the morning of December 28, we walked out to the city and went to the main market which had been ransacked and looted. Large parts of it were burnt out. We could see dead bodies littering the street. It was the first time in my life I’d seen corpses in the city. I started counting them, but stopped because there were too many. Most of the bodies were of homeless children killed in front of the shops.

I started counting them, but stopped because there were too many.

My friend who was accompanying me was scared so we decided to return to the U.N. mission’s camp after I took some pictures to accompany my report for The Niles website. I will never forget the title of that story ‘Malakal Main Market: Lootings and Corpses on Streets’. At 1:00 pm, the radio station’s manager called me and told me that the station would be opened at 3:00 pm and that I should go there. After opening the station, the Information Minister Philip Jiben Ogal was on air. Malakal’s citizens began to return to their houses. We closed the station at 6:00 pm. There were only three of us; the minister, the station manager and myself, as well as the minister’s guards. We travelled in the minister’s car and parted at al-Malakiya neighbourhood.

I decided to return to the U.N. base to join my friend. There was a single bakery on the way and I thought about taking some bread with me, but night fell while I queued and so I returned to the U.N. base without bread.

On my way there, the city streets were completely empty. I was walking alone. Halfway to the U.N. base, I saw armed soldiers deployed in front of me and I decided to return to the al-Malakiya neighbourhood, in the hope of finding a safe place to sleep in as it was closer than going all the way to the United Nations. It was completely dark and I was very scared.

I knocked at the door of one of the houses and asked for a place to sleep. The family refused to take me in and I tried somewhere else. An old lady advised me to find a place to spend the night at instead of walking in the dark. I knocked at another door and I finally found someone who offered me a shelter. I spent the night with strangers who let me sleep under their roof. The following day, I continued my walk to the radio station where I worked alone for three consecutive days. All my colleagues were no longer in the area.

Malakal was a ghost town, completely deserted with empty shops and dead bodies strewn in the city streets.

We have spent very difficult times in Malakal since the start of those ill-omened incidents. Within a short span of five days, Malakal was a ghost town, completely deserted with empty shops and dead bodies strewn in the city streets. Most of the population left, but I decided to stay and continue my professional work as a journalist. Eventually, though, I was forced to flee as well.

At 6:30 pm of February 17, 2014, I left Malakal, packing up just before some of the city’s worst battles broke out in the early hours of February 18.

This article is part of:
Five: Enter houses through their doors ...
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