No Time for Tears and No Place for Justice

Part IV—Nameless, numberless and dead in South Sudan

No Time for Tears and No Place for Justice No Time for Tears and No Place for Justice
The culture of impunity in South Sudan — the world’s youngest nation — has spawned a civil war with no official body count. While... No Time for Tears and No Place for Justice

The culture of impunity in South Sudan — the world’s youngest nation — has spawned a civil war with no official body count. While government forces and rebels kill, rape and terrorize civilians, the United Nations refuses to estimate the death toll and ignores sites of mass burials.

Forgotten among the carnage is a new generation of trauma victims, waiting for peace and justice or, at the least, a time and a place to mourn the ones they’ve lost.

This is the final part of a four-part series. Read the rest here.


In the fight to survive the war, most displaced South Sudanese haven’t had the opportunity to bury the remains of their loved ones. The country possesses a rich multiplicity of funeral practices that are rooted in ancient traditions as well as religious beliefs about the afterlife. These vital forms of grieving have been irrevocably disrupted by the conflict.

Many will never find the bodies of their relatives and thus never have the experience of returning them to the dust, nor the experience of returning to them, from time to time, to the pay their respects in the long, non-linear process of grief.

One of the most common funeral rituals in South Sudan involves family members and friends gathering at the home of the deceased. They mourn, they reminisce, they pray, and they eat together. Sometimes they remain at the home for a few days or even an entire week. In rural areas throughout South Sudan, families inter the bodies of their loved ones near their homes.

The dead and the living exist side by side.

The nearness of a grave to the front door of a house demonstrates to every one in the community that the deceased is still loved, still cared for, and still considered a family member.

Though traditional funerals have several positive attributes, they also reveal some of the inequalities that afflict the heart of South Sudanese society. Richard Lobban Jr., an anthropologist and author who has been visiting the region that is now South Sudan since the 1970s, notes that protracted and elaborate funerals are, in most cases, reserved for men who possess high social and economic status.

The funerals of distinguished Nuer and Dinka men often include cattle sacrifices and feasts. Among ethnic groups in the southern part of the country, mourners will sometimes tie a string to the thumb of a deceased man of rank. As family members cover the body with dirt the other end of the string is held above the ground to, in Lobban’s words, “maintain a symbolic contact between the world of the living and the world of the dead.”

The remains of women and children are not afforded such honors.

South Sudan is a patriarchal society so the disproportionate attention given to adult males, even in death, should come as no surprise. The funerals of women and children are often short and devoid of ceremony, especially if the family of the deceased is impoverished. Sometimes their graves are not even marked.

Families living in extreme poverty are often incapable of honoring those they’ve lost with even a basic funeral. Thus, men, women and children are all put in the ground the same way. “Sometimes [families] don’t have much of a shovel, and they don’t have much time,” Lobban told me on the phone last month. “All the normal civilized attributes of a burial could be missing.”

Though traditional customs and poverty stop many from providing a “civilized” burial, the bereaved are still human. Men yearn for the company of their wives, who were taken away from them too soon. Women let out howls of pain for their lost children.

Their grief is paralleled in the ancient cultures of the region. Roughly 120 miles northeast of Khartoum, near a town called Shendi, Lobban helped to unearth the bones of over two dozen members of the Kingdom of Meroe, which ruled a large portion of what is today Sudan between 350 B.C. and 350 A.D. The bodies were carefully laid out in their graves and “presumably tears were shed over them, because it’s a human tragedy — a human loss — when someone in your kin group dies.”

John, a member of the Madi tribe and a pastor in Eastern Equatoria, offers another perspective on the relationship between the dead and the living. “Here in South Sudan … funerals are really [an] honor. There’s no way of throwing any dead person away,” he told me in January and added that, at least in Eastern Equatoria, the socioeconomic status of a person does not matter when the time comes to lay them to rest. All must be given a proper burial.

“The community must come together and bury that person in a right way, in an honorable way, because people have [the] belief that if you don’t respect the dead — if you don’t bury that person in the right way — then that will cause problems for the family.”

John explained that many believe “the lingering spirit will possess people” and cause mental illness, infertility, and even death. “Not only that, the dead will also continue crying.”

To appease the unsatisfied spirit and heal the afflicted, family members will perform rituals. In some cases they will cook food for the dead and place it over the grave. If they don’t have the remains then they will demonstrate a “right burial” by planting an object — a stone or a piece of wood — in the ground and covering it in dirt.

A significant number of casualties in South Sudan’s latest war have not been honored with either formal burials or rituals of conciliation. Lobban told me that the bodies left behind in the wake of battles and extrajudicial killings quickly become sanitation problems. And they are treated accordingly. Corpses are picked up by burial details that dig a site with a bulldozer, and then “with little rigmarole and practically no identification of the deceased, they just get rid of the bodies.”

In the minds of those who adhere to indigenous religions, the world is full of discontented spirits, waiting for funeral ceremonies that may never commence. The country’s true believers fear that the yearnings of the departed — to be honored, to be close to home, to be loved — may never be satisfied. There is, after all, an established precedent of disrespect for both the living and the dead — a culture of killing that clashes with the culture that values life and venerates the souls of the deceased.

In South Sudan, Lobban explained, people dying anonymously is nothing really new.

Above — Birds feed on a corpse near Malakal, South Sudan on Feb. 26, 2014. Ilya Gridneff/AP photo. At top — mourners at a grave in Nimule, South Sudan prior to the current war. Nathaniel Ross Kelly photo

Damage control

The nation’s present war, like its previous ones, creates an environment wherein essential burial practices — customary and communal ways of processing death — become almost impossible for a large segment of the population.

Many displaced people exist in a state of relentless uncertainty, waiting to confirm if their relatives and friends are still alive somewhere. Often the people who know that their loved ones are dead — those who, for example, saw them killed — did not have the opportunity to bury them. To save their own lives and the lives of others, they ran to U.N. bases, fled from their cities or crossed into neighboring countries.

The war’s damage to physical structures is readily apparent, but the war’s psychological toll is not. The internal damage to South Sudan’s people — caused, in part, by the disappearance of so many family members and friends — is insidious and far more difficult to repair than a neighborhood that has been demolished by bombs and bullets.

The violence today is rooted in a history of upheavals, rivalries and death. Before the end of the last civil war, the South Sudanese theologian Isaiah Majok Dau wrote, “The psychological, emotional, economic and spiritual impact of war and suffering is deeply imbedded in our minds.”

A missionary who worked in the country pre- and post-independence described the dilemma to me in another way, “At some point in my time in South Sudan I looked around and realized that almost the entire nation is suffering from PTSD. At least, that’s how it felt.”

No one knows how many South Sudanese have suffered or are suffering traumatic stress brought on by the current crisis. However, back in December, Fatuma Ibrahim, UNICEF’s chief of child protection in South Sudan, estimated that 600,000 kids had been psychologically affected by the war.

“Children are the first to be affected and the last to be relieved,” she told reporters at the time. If peace doesn’t come soon then South Sudan’s new generation of trauma victims will, in all likelihood, grow up to witness and help usher in another era of violence.

Properly numbering and identifying the dead will not completely heal the wounds that have been inflicted upon the South Sudanese. Nevertheless, an official death toll and a public record of the names of the casualties will begin the long, messy and absolutely necessary process of healing.

A small group of civil society volunteers within South Sudan have started the work of identifying the casualties by founding a project called “Naming the Ones We Lost.” Thus far they’ve compiled a list of 572 names, which they admit is only a “fraction of the total loss.”

In the introduction to the current list of names, which was published in December, the group respectfully demands that the SPLA and the rebel forces adhere to what they’ve already agreed upon —

Under Article 4.2 of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, signed by the two warring parties on 23 January 2014, ‘The parties agree to an enabling environment to facilitate the decent burials of the dead and memorialization, support reunion of families and any such act that promote[s] human dignity.’ We accordingly call on all parties to the conflict and citizens to take all possible measures to identify the dead, maintain detailed records and, as far as possible, ensure that the dead receive dignified burials such that the information can eventually be made available to their loved ones.

Neither side paid any attention to Article 4.2 of the agreement that they broke immediately after signing it. Moreover, neither side is going to stop senselessly killing civilians in order to carefully listen to a group of volunteers with good intentions. For the “Naming the Ones We Lost” project to gain any amount of traction it must be integrated into a much larger movement that demands not merely respect for the dead but justice.

Amnesty International and the South Sudan Law Society are calling for the African Union to establish a hybrid court, which would bring together local and foreign legal experts to try those suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Other groups have suggested that the International Criminal Court is best suited to handle the cases of the most egregious war criminals.

To set the groundwork for domestic and foreign trials to occur, the final peace deal between the government and the opposition should not afford blanket immunity to any high-ranking officials, including Kiir and Machar. South Sudan’s president will never stand trial while he holds such a prominent position, but he should be forced to answer for his alleged crimes at a future date when he’s left or been removed from office. If Machar is reintegrated into the government then provisions should also be made to prosecute him when the opportunity arises.

Any peace agreement that is devoid of immediate and long-term justice mechanisms will be false, fleeting and utterly contemptuous of the civilians who have been devastated by the conflict.

For the wrongs to be rectified in South Sudan, investigators must pull back the curtain on extrajudicial killings, gang rapes and incidents of illegal confinement and torture. They must uncover the names of perpetrators and the names of victims.

In the end, not every abuse and atrocity will be exposed. Some will slip into the lacunas that wars always carve into history. But the combined efforts of witnesses, researchers and legal specialists can build a body of evidence that ensures some of the worst offenders are tried and convicted for their transgressions against their own people.

Tens of thousands of lives — snuffed out in the course of one year — should garner the world’s attention. The deaths in South Sudan have not done so. The imprecision of the body count makes the loss of life seem illusory. Perhaps if the U.N. and its partners worked together to calculate and disclose an official estimate of the carnage then the world would take notice.

Perhaps, even then, it would remain unmoved.

An official death toll will not halt the bloodshed just as it will not fully alleviate the emotional anguish of the survivors. However, it has the potential to make the war’s human cost impossible to overlook and to accelerate a political solution. Leaders in South Sudan and the international community would be forced to recognize the high price of continued fighting.

If the human cost is weighed in the international court of opinion and still seems insubstantial, then perhaps the world should consider the estimated monetary cost of the war. Frontier Economics in collaboration with the Center for Conflict Resolution and the Center for Peace and Development Studies released a report in January that projected the war’s cost to the local region and the international community. The ever-increasing price tag of the catastrophe could reach $28 billion over the course of the next five years.

If the conflict persists for two decades, like the previous civil war, then it could cost as much as $158 billion.

A group of orphans standing on a hill in Nimule, South Sudan prior to the current war. Sophie Beya photo

Wartime holiday

The remains of brothers, sisters, sons and daughters lie under the surface and in the seams of the country. They lie in ashes and in mass graves, nameless and numberless. If their souls still linger here on earth, as some believe, then they must be waiting for the final addition to their ranks and for the reckoning of the final bloody sum. They must be longing for what Pastor John calls a right burial.

Since proper South Sudanese funerals do not appear imminent, the souls must find ways to pass the time. Perhaps they speak to one another, articulating their emotions and casting their judgments in dozens of different languages. Perhaps they ask for information about relatives and friends — the lucky ones who vanished into thin air instead of getting killed when their cities were reduced to dust, debris and bloodstains.

Perhaps they implore a higher power to bring peace to their homeland and, in the same spectral breath, curse the leaders who are fueling the conflict. If their voices were audible, then certain politicians and military commanders might never hear the end of it. Tens of thousands of voices would turn the country’s killing fields and burial sites inside out.

“I just feel in me, if the dead could come back to life and talk, they could take revenge … [for] all the inhuman acts that were done against them,” Okot tells me over the phone on May 16.

Thirty-two years ago, on this same date, a group of soldiers attacked Arab-Muslim troops in their garrison and then fled into the bush — an action that helped to initiate the Second Sudanese Civil War as well as the formation of the SPLA. Over the course of the next three decades, May 16 transformed into a national holiday, which mixes revelry with reflection.

In the years between the last war and current one, most South Sudanese would take time during the day to honor the achievements of the SPLA while also recalling the men, women and children who died in the course of the liberation struggle. Singing and yelling, men would fire their Kalashnikovs into the air, like they were Roman candles.

For many people in South Sudan, May 16 is now defined entirely by the absence of relatives and friends who have been dragged under by the tide of war. There is nothing to celebrate.

As I speak with Okot, government troops and rebels are struggling for control of Malakal, the oil town in Upper Nile state that was the site of some of the bloodiest combat last year. In the last few weeks, Kiir and Machar have outdone themselves, directing military operations across the country’s northern expanse and, in the process, forcing at least 650,000 people to lose live-saving aid.

Some civilians are hiding near the periphery of the battlefields in the hopes that the fighting will cease. Some have found shelter far from the eruptions of bullets and mortars. Others are still running on empty stomachs.

By the time I reached Okot on the phone the majority of Juba’s residents were settling down to rest, grateful that the war had chosen to reside elsewhere, at least for the night.

His voice — urgent and yet utterly composed — cuts through the 8,000 miles between us. “If the dead could come back to life or if their souls could speak … they would share the darkness of man’s heart among themselves, and I think they will not love to see Kiir and Riek and other human rights abusers still preaching savagery and ethnicity.”

Okot does not attempt to hide the anger and disgust that he feels toward his leaders, and he is far from alone in his fury. The people of South Sudan, regardless of their ethnic group, are united in their grief over the loss of loved ones and united in their discontentment with the men who are ruining their young nation.

When Okot was a teenager, torn between the devastation of his childhood and the possibilities of his future, he told me that he wanted to kill the soldiers who took the lives of his mother and father. I tried to talk to him about mercy, but he wasn’t interested. He wanted to hold an assault rifle in his hands and show the world that he wasn’t weak — he wasn’t a victim.

His words have stayed with me through the years, like a thorn trapped under my skin.

I ask him what he wants now. This is what he tells me — “I know how important the human soul is — human life is. … I wish anybody could get in my heart and see what is in my heart. I forgive those who killed my father and mother. … Though I take revenge right now, can I bring back my mother and father? No, I cannot bring them back.”

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