He was a soldier who witnessed terrible massacres in a civil war. Then, in the optimistic early days of the world’s newest nation, he became a banker on the financial frontier. Today he is angry, grief-stricken and ready to become a soldier again.
The story of Mayom Ateny Wai is the story of South Sudan itself: how the people of a brave new country have stumbled back into catastrophic bloodshed. Despite a ceasefire, the bloodshed continued this week in smaller-scale attacks.
Seven political detainees, a central issue in the power struggle that triggered the latest war, were freed on Wednesday and flown to neighbouring Kenya in a gesture of reconciliation. But seven other opposition leaders still face treason charges, and the country remains a tinderbox of fury over atrocities on both sides. Up to 10,000 people are dead and 825,000 have fled their homes in just six disastrous weeks.
Mr. Wai, the bank manager, was helping his bank expand into the town of Bor last month when the fighting erupted. He fled into the bush and fought his way onto a boat to cross the river to safety. Last week, he returned to Bor for a few hours – and found a hospital filled with dead bodies.
His mind flashed back to the Bor massacre of 1991. He was a child soldier when he walked into the town that year, six days after the massacre that killed 2,000 civilians – one of the worst atrocities of the long civil war between southern and northern Sudan. Now the town was heaped with dead bodies again.
“When I saw the bodies, I broke into tears,” he said. “I was devastated. I don’t have words to describe it. I was asking, ‘Why, why, why are they being killed?’ The memories of 1991 came back immediately.”
He says he is ready to join the army again and fight the rebels if that’s what it takes to bring “law and order” to his country. “I feel the country is going back to civil war. The killings are continuing. The ceasefire isn’t working.”
A cousin in the small town of Jalle, about 40 kilometres from Bor, told him about a rebel raid this week that killed several people. Witnesses later said 15 were killed in the attack on Monday – three days after the ceasefire had officially begun. Similar reports have filtered in from several regions of South Sudan, with both sides implicated.
“South Sudan is going back to the dark days that we had forgotten when we became independent,” Mr. Wai said. “The rebels have to be cleared away. The government has to fight them. If I am called upon, I would offer myself.”
Mading Ngor, a journalist in Juba, said his uncle was among those killed in the Jalle attack on Monday. “The rebels are in smaller columns, still moving,” he said. “The army pushed them out of Bor, but it didn’t pursue them. I think both sides are playing games – and they’re playing games with lives. The ceasefire is on paper, but it’s not happening on the ground. Trust is gone.”
Anne Itto, a senior leader of the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, told reporters on Wednesday that there has been a “significant reduction in shooting” since the ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire violations could be a result of communications problems between the commanders and the fighters, she said. “Some may not have even heard of the agreement.”
While people such as Mr. Wai blame the rebels for the huge death toll of the past six weeks, many others blame the government for atrocities of its own. More than 23,000 people have taken shelter in a desperately overcrowded tent camp on a United Nations military peacekeeping base in the capital, Juba. They say they are too terrified to return home after they witnessed horrendous attacks by government soldiers in the early days of the war last month.
Most people at the tent camp are from the Nuer ethnicity – the second-biggest ethnic group in South Sudan. They say they were deliberately targeted for killing by soldiers of the Dinka ethnicity, the largest in the country, after the start of the rebellion led by former vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer.
“I saw the army collecting people at checkpoints and shooting them,” said Joseph Gadet, a 32-year-old oil company employee. Soldiers, he said, were asking: “Where are the houses of the Nuer?” He concealed the traditional Nuer tribal marks on his forehead and dodged checkpoints for two days until he could reach the UN base to take refuge.
Charles Riek Wal, a Nuer university student, said a large group of Dinka soldiers burst into his home on Dec. 16 and demanded to know the ethnicity of the nine men in the house. He was the only one who could speak the Dinka language, so he pretended to be Dinka and his life was spared. The others were tied together and marched out of the house at gunpoint. “I haven’t seen them since,” he said. “They are dead.”
Senior UN officials are increasingly worried that a lack of reconciliation might leave the displaced people in permanent camps, which could become a humanitarian nightmare.
“We cannot have people who continue to shelter in UN bases because they are so fearful,” UN emergency relief co-ordinator Valerie Amos told a press conference in Juba on Wednesday.
“The future of this country is blighted if people are not able to work together,” she said.