MALAKAL RECAPTURED BY THE OPPOSITION FORCES FOR THE THIRD TIME

Comboni Missionaries South Sudan

ssud3I would have never imagined to be back writing a third part to the chronicle of the events that happened in Malakal and surrounding areas since the beginning of the armed rebellion started by dr. Riek Machar in Dec. 2013. As a matter of fact, military activities continued and in February Malakal changed hands for the fifth time in two months.

23/01/14 – The media announced that an agreement for the ‘cessation of hostilities’ had been signed in Addis Ababa between the Government of the Republic of South Sudan and the SPLA/M in Opposition of Riek Machar. From the perspective of the people of Malakal what was happening in Ethiopia looked to be very far and without much practical effect on the ground. Most of those who had remained trapped in the town during the second attack, when the SPLA came back quickly moved their families to the villages on the Western side of the Nile or to Renk or to Khartoum or to Juba. Thousands of Nuer people looked for safety at the UN base. A few civil servants started coming back in February following the announcement that the Government was going to pay salaries. Some humanitarian organizations made assessments and planned to assist the displaced population within and outside the town, considering that in two consecutive attacks and counter-attacks people had lost most of their belongings, including food supplies.

There were some ominous signs, though, that justified the reluctance of the citizens to come back to a town looted and ransacked. Gathoth Garkuoth, the military leader of the rebel forces in Upper Nile, publicly stated that he was not going to abide by the ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement signed in Addis Ababa. In addition to that, one of the UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) military personnel who came to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, warned about an ongoing mobilization in Ulang county, 80 Km. south. The Government of South Sudan poured in additional troops in Upper Nile but the situation remained tense. Almost every day there were reports of clashes between rebel forces and Government troops south of Malakal, at a distance of about 20 to 25 Km. The national army and the soldiers of Johnson Olony, former militia leader pardoned by President Salva Kiir, seemed to be able to keep the rebels under control.

11/02/14 – Morning hours are the preferential time for military operations during this rebellion. At 8 a.m. while we were still attending the mass, we started hearing the well known sound of artillery and tanks, quite far but worryingly enough in the direction of Owechi, the garrison that controls Malakal on the western side of the Nile. Rebel forces had tried to overrun the location but even this time they had been repulsed, with quite an effort on the side of the military loyal to the Government. Wounded soldiers were brought to the hospital according to the unfortunately well known pattern of the aftermath of a battle. Sr. Cecilia attended to some of the patients and later on the Red Cross personnel went back to the hospital as well.

A number of people who had ventured to go to their houses returned to the compound of St. Joseph’s cathedral, scared by renewed insecurity. By the evening we were again in the numerous company of about 1,500 IDPs.

16/02/2014 – It was Sunday morning and I went to the nearby house of the SPLA operation commander to raise the issue of 3 cases of rape allegedly committed by the armed forces against Nuer women. The officer was not there, but the military chaplain, whom I knew, received the report and promised to pass it ahead. This was just the last case of a number of gross abuses allegedly committed by the Government forces after reoccupying Malakal town, especially against ethnic Nuers.
The chaplain was in need to release from his heart what had happened on Christmas vigil. As he stated, he remained the only commanding officer at the military headquarters, with seven soldiers only, during part of the terrible battle of that day, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. when reinforcements joined them. During the subsequent withdrawal – he remarked for two times – they left 41 wounded soldiers at the military hospital and they were all killed by the rebels together with the medical personnel. The memory of that massacre was still hunting him. In spite of the gruesome story, that narration gave me some confidence that the national army would defend the town to avoid similar atrocities to be repeated.

17/02/14 – The parish priest, Fr. Angelo Mojwok, did not come for the morning mass. Instead, we heard him talking to the people with the megaphone. After a while we saw many of the IDPs collecting their few belongings once again and walking out of the compound of the church. The Father had told them to leave and that if they wanted to remain in such a risky situation it was on their own responsibility. Some of them, however, were standing on the road, undecided, and the Father was earnestly warning them to leave. I asked him why all that pressure when the SPLA was heavily deployed in Malakal but he did not consider that a decisive element.

We worked at the radio station of the diocese from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the few staff that was around. By the afternoon, the information started circulating that an attack was expected for the following morning. The rebels were in Anagdiar, at the south entrance to Malakal. The SPLA was positioning its tanks.
Back at the cathedral compound, a certain woman told me that she would have left but she could not because she had to stay with her elderly mother who was unable to walk. I answered her that the Sisters were also going to remain, since that was the stand of our community. For any eventuality, I brought to the Fathers’ House an amount of money that was mainly to be used to buy food for the IDPs. The sum was placed on the roof of the building, hoping it would be safe there.

18/02/14 – At 6:45 a.m. the parish priest phoned to inform us that he was leaving with another priest and the Bishop Emeritus, Msgr. Vincent Mojwok. He asked what the Sisters were going to do. I replied that we were going to stay since there were still people sheltering inside the compound of the Church.
At 7:15 the vehicles of the Fathers left and meanwhile other people started climbing a small truck, preparing themselves to leave as well. The driver had just switched the vehicle on when heavy shooting started next to the compound, at the house of the operation commander. Srs. Mary and Cecilia were at the school premises to check on some people there while I rushed to the door of the cathedral and together with others we shouted at those who were by now throwing themselves down from the lorry so that they could come in. The church brick walls are an effective protection from the bullets. Actually those left at St. Joseph’s cathedral, about 100 people, were the most vulnerable, elderly, disabled, and some women with children. The few men helped them inside while the shooting continued. At that point five SPLA soldiers crossed in front of the church, running, one of them wounded and another with blood on his uniform. I asked them what was happening but nobody answered. I understood that they were running for their lives.

I went back to the house and with Sr. Mary we waited for the battle to be over. Gunfire and heavy artillery was by then heard in various parts of the town. When the atmosphere became somehow quiet, we looked towards the road. I cannot describe our dismay when we saw the unmistakable White Army youth already running ahead in that central part of the town. This time the strip tied around their foreheads was red instead of yellow, as it had been the case in January.

By 10 a.m. three members of the White Army had jumped the gate and were in the compound of the Sisters’ house. Their first question was if there were Denka people there, then they asked for the keys of our vehicles. Together with Sr. Mary we gave them the keys of our own cars but they were not satisfied. They wanted also those of other vehicles that various people had parked in our compound and in the compound of the church, thinking that they would be safer. By God’s grace, among the IDPs at the cathedral there were three Nuer men and a Murle pastor who could talk Nuer fluently and who knew some members of the White Army. The gunmen were threatening me and Sr. Mary because of the keys of vehicles that did not belong to us and it was very difficult to convince them that there was nothing we could do. The Nuer men talked to the White Army elements and eventually we could go back to our house. The day was very long, with gunmen looting in the Church premises and knocking at our door mainly asking for money. Even our Nuer friends had a hard time trying to refrain the White Army.

At 6 p.m. I thought that we could have some rest, but about 30 gunmen gathered in front of the Cathedral. The Nuer men and the Murle pastor started talking to them. I joined the group thinking to ask for a form of protection for the civilians as it had been previously done during the first and second attack. The leader of the group, talking in English, said instead that they had come to look for ‘somebody called Olony’ inside the church. Olony, the leader of the Shilluk forces that were fighting alongside with the Government was surely not in St. Joseph’s cathedral. Nevertheless, one of the armed men cocked an RPG launcher and threatened to hit the church. After other negotiations, some elements of the White Army went inside and checked the people. Eventually they departed, warning that they would come back the following day at 8 a.m. With the Sisters and other people we decided to leave the church compound the following day early in the morning and to move to the nearby Presbyterian Church. We considered it too dangerous to spend another day with the White Army.

19/02/14 – At around 7 a.m. we moved out of the Sisters’ house, with a group of women and a Nuer man part of the staff of the diocesan radio who had been trying to protect us the Sisters and the civilians of other tribes. We reached the nearby Presbyterian Church carrying a few personal effects as the rest of the people did. The four pastors, all Nuer, welcomed us and placed us in the bishop’s room. Soon after the usual random shooting started and we understood that the White Army was now continuing the looting. They quickly came to the Presbyterian Church as well, looking for people whom they suspected to be soldiers and for anything to loot. Even that place was not safe. In spite of their efforts, the Pastors were not able to control the White Army youth.
The hours passed very slowly when, at 4 p.m. one of the Pastors came and offered us a vehicle to take us, the Sisters, to the UNMISS compound. The driver was a person with the military uniform of the rebels. Part of the people who had come with us from the cathedral managed to squeeze themselves in the Land Cruiser and we took off. It was another sad drive across Malakal, with bodies of soldiers, rebels and civilians strewn on the roads. Areas of the town were burning. Approaching the UNMISS we witnessed an exodus of great proportions. The thousands of Nuer families that had been sheltering at the UN camp were leaving: men, women and children carrying their belongings. Some members of the White Army had declared that they had come to ‘avenge their dead’ and to set their people free from the UNMISS camp, to open for them a safe way to the Nuer counties.
The UN personnel kindly gave accommodation for the Sisters in the small chapel of the camp while the rest of our group went to join the about 20,000 IDPs still seeking protection at the UNMISS base. We thought we had reached a safer place but at night security personnel gave the warning that there was the possibility that the White Army would attack the UN compound, targeting the Denka and Shilluk since the Nuer had almost completely left. The whole night the tanks of the Indian battalion kept on patrolling the camp. In the morning the tension was high but at midday people relaxed when nothing happened.

20-26/2/14 – On Thursday 20, an appeal came to the UNMISS to rescue the situation of 1,500 IDPs at Christ the King Catholic Church. I accompanied the afternoon patrol. Outside the gate of the church there were three bodies, seemingly civilians, and, immediately inside, the area that had been a workshop for carpentry and mechanics for more than 30 years was only a heap of ashes and contorted iron sheets still smoldering. When the people saw the UN vehicles they rushed towards us. It was as if they had seen a ray of hope and they requested to be helped to reach the UNMISS compound. They narrated how they had been harassed by the White Army. Shooting and killing had taken place within the church premises. The radio station had been looted as well as the houses of the Fathers.
In the following days harrowing reports continued to be brought to the UN offices by people who were coming to the camp during the night hours, particularly from the hospital. The assessment of the patrols confirmed the killing of civilians, including patients. At the entrance and inside the hospital there were nine bodies while others were reported killed on the nearby bank of the Nile. Elderly and patients too weak to walk away were the only people left. There were some food items scattered here and there but those people were too weak to cook or take care of themselves. In the following days UN agencies and medical NGOs organized the evacuation of about 100 patients to their camp.

Remarkably enough, the UN military accepted to reach St. Joseph’s Cathedral to rescue three elderly people trapped there since the day of the fighting because they were unable to walk. That patrol was for me the chance to assess that the Sisters house and premises as well as the Fathers’ house and parish offices had been all looted. Even the money hidden on the roof had been discovered. The door of the tabernacle of the cathedral had been broken but not the one at the Fathers’ chapel where the Blessed Sacrament had been kept. I managed therefore to take it away.

On Wednesday the 26th, a group of people from Christ the King Church rushed to the UNMISS. Even old women with the stick pushed themselves ahead on the long and dusty road. In the night the rebel soldiers had taken away 9 girls. A few had come back in the morning after having been raped. One of them was 12 years old. There was no longer any kind of security even at Christ the King church.
By that day Malakal had become virtually an empty town, void of civilians. Even domestic animals could no longer be seen. Vultures and dogs were feeding on the corpses. Groups of rebel soldiers were the only ones moving around. The last images I had from Malakal while heading to the UNMISS aircraft bound to Juba were the corpse of a woman who appeared to have been gang raped and the smoke of the villages set on fire on the Western bank of the Nile. The rebels had crossed there. A comment made by many people was re-echoing: How can they say that they want to come to govern us if they are killing us and destroying everything?

Biblical images
This time the only words that were so present in the background of my mind were the last cry of Jesus when dying: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I imagined that this was the cry of the many innocent perishing in this senseless conflict.

Sr. Elena Balatti
CMS Malakal