Death and life in the lost town of Leer
by NICK TURSE
There it is again. That sickening smell.
I’m standing on the threshold of a ghost of a home. Its footprint is all that’s left. In the ruins sits a bulbous little silver teakettle — metal, softly rounded, charred but otherwise perfect, save for two punctures. Something tore through it and ruined it, just as something tore through this home and ruined it, just as something tore through this town and left it a dusty, wasted ruin.
This, truth be told, is no longer a town, not even a razed one. It’s a killing field, a place where human remains lie unburied, whose residents have long since fled, while its few remaining inhabitants are mostly refugees from similarly ravaged villages.
The world is awash in killing fields, sites of slaughter where armed men have laid waste to the innocent, the defenseless, the unlucky; locales where women and children, old and young men have been suffocated, had their skulls shattered, been left gut-shot and gasping.
Or sometimes they’re just the unhallowed grounds where the battered and broken bodies of such unfortunates are dumped without ceremony or prayer or even a moment of solemn reflection.
Over the last century, these blood-soaked sites have sprouted across the globe: Cambodia, the Philippines, the Koreas, South Africa, Mexico, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — on and on, year after year, country after country.
Chances are, you once heard something about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw up to one million men, women and children murdered in just 100 days. You may remember the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai. And maybe you recall the images of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical weapons attack on Kurds in Halabja.
For years, Sudan contributed to this terrible tally. You might, for instance, remember the attention paid to the slaughter of civilians in Darfur during the 2000s. The killings there actually never ended, only the public outcry did. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were also massacres farther south in or around towns you’ve probably never heard of like Malakal, Bor and Leer.
A 2005 peace deal between U.S.-supported rebels in the south of Sudan and the government in the north was supposed to put a stop to such slaughter, but it never quite did. And in some quarters, worse was predicted for the future.
“Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said in 2010. “Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”
In late 2013 and 2014, Malakal, Bor, Leer and other towns in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, were indeed littered with bodies. And the killing in this country — the result of the third civil war since the 1950s — has only continued.
In 2014, I traveled to Malakal to learn what I could about the destruction of that town and the civilians who perished there.
In 2015, I walked among the mass graves of Bor where, a year earlier, a bulldozer had dug huge trenches for hundreds of bodies, some so badly decomposed or mutilated that it was impossible to identify whether they had been men, women or children.
This spring, I find myself in Leer, another battered enclave, as aid groups struggled to reestablish their presence, as armed men still stalked the night, as human skulls gleamed beneath the blazing midday sun.
The nose-curling odor here told me that somewhere, something was burning. The scent had been in my nostrils all day. Sometimes, it was just a faint, if harsh, note carried on the hot breeze, but when the wind shifted it became an acrid, all-encompassing stench — not the comforting smell of a cooking fire, but something far more malign.
I looked to the sky, searching for a plume of smoke, but there was only the same opaque glare, blinding and ashen. Wiping my eyes, I muttered a quick curse for this place and moved on to the next ruined shell of a home, and the next, and the next. The devastated wattle-and-daub tukuls and wrecked animal pens stretched on as far as I could see.
This is Leer — or at least what’s left of it.
The fire last time
If you want to learn more about this town, about what happened to it, Leer isn’t the best place to start. You’d be better served by traveling down the road several miles to Thonyor, another town in southern Unity State where so much of Leer’s population fled. It was there that I found Mary Nyalony, a 31-year-old mother of five who, only days before, had given birth to a son.
Leer was her hometown and life there had never been easy. War arrived shortly after fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in December 2013, a rupture that most here call “the crisis.” With civil war came men with guns and, in early 2014, Nyalony was forced to run for her life.
For three months, she and her family lived in the bush, before eventually returning to Leer. The International Committee of the Red Cross was airdropping food there, she tells me. In her mind, those were the halcyon days.
“There was enough to eat,” she explains. “Now, we have nothing.”
The road to nothing, like the road to Thonyor, began for her in the early morning hours of a day in May 2015. Single gunshots and staccato bursts of gunfire began echoing across Leer, followed by screams and panic.
This has been the story of South Sudan’s civil war: few pitched battles between armies, many attacks on civilians by armed men. Often, it’s unclear just who is attacking. Civilians hear gunfire and they begin to run. If they’re lucky they get away with their lives, and often little else.
The war here has regularly been portrayed as a contest between the president, Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, and Riek Machar, a member of the second largest ethnic group, the Nuer. Kiir and Machar do indeed have a long history as both allies and enemies and as president and vice president of their new nation. Kiir went on to sack Machar.
Months later, the country plunged into civil war.
Kiir claimed the violence stemmed from an abortive coup by Machar, but an investigation by an African Union commission found no evidence of that. It did, however, find that “Dinka soldiers, members of Presidential Guard and other security forces conducted house-to-house searches, killing Nuer soldiers and civilians in and near their homes” and that it was carried out “in furtherance of a State policy.”
The civil war that ensued “ended” with an August 2015 peace agreement that saw Machar rejoin the government. But the violence never actually stopped and after a fresh round of killings in the capital in July, he fled the country and has since issued a new call for rebellion.
In truth, though, the war in South Sudan is far more than a battle between two men, two tribes, two armies — Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO). It’s a conflict of shifting alliances involving a plethora of armed actors and ad hoc militias led by a corrupt cast of characters fighting wars within wars.
The complexities are mind-boggling: longstanding bad blood, grievances and feuds intertwined with ethnic enmities tangled, in turn, with internecine tribal and clan animosities, all aided and abetted by the power of modern weaponry and the way the ancient cultural practice of cattle-raiding has morphed into paramilitary raiding.
Add in a nation in financial free-fall; the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny, riven elite; the mass availability of weaponry; and so many actors pursuing so many aims that it’s impossible to keep them all straight.
Whatever the complexities of this war, however, the playbooks of its actors remain remarkably uniform. Men armed with AK-47s fall upon undefended communities. They kill, pillage, loot. Younger women and girls are singled-out for exceptional forms of violence: gang rapes and sexual slavery.
Some have been forced into so-called rape camps, where they become the “wives” of soldiers; others are sexually assaulted and killed in especially sadistic ways. Along with women, the soldiers often take cattle — the traditional rural currency, source of wealth and means of sustenance in the region.
In Leer and the surrounding villages of Unity State, last year’s government offensive to take back rebel territory followed exactly this pattern, but with a ferocity that was striking even for this war. More than one expert told me that, at least for a time in 2015, Leer and its surroundings were one of the worst places in the entire world.
Armed youth from Nuer clans allied to the government offered no mercy. Fighting alongside troops from the SPLA and forces loyal to local officials, they carried out a scorched-earth campaign against other ethnic Nuers from spring 2015 though the late fall. Their pay was whatever they could steal and whomever they could rape.
“People in southern Unity State have suffered through some of the most harrowing violence that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen in South Sudan — or in almost any other context where we work,” says Pete Buth, Deputy Director of Operations for the aid group.
“Over the course of the last two years, and particularly from May to November of 2015, women, men and children have been indiscriminately targeted with extreme and brutal violence. We’ve received reports and testimonies of rape, killings, abductions of women and children and the wholesale destruction of villages. The levels of violence have been absolutely staggering.”
By late last year, almost 600,000 people like Nyalony had been displaced in Unity State alone.
“They came to raid the cattle. They seemed to be allied to the government,” she tells me.
Given all she’s been through, given the newborn she’s gently palpitating, her eyes are surprisingly bright, her voice strong. Her recollections, however, are exceptionally grim. Two younger male relatives of hers were shot but survived. Her father-in-law wasn’t so fortunate. He was killed in the attack, she tells me, his body consumed in the same flames that destroyed his home.
The fire this time
On the road from Leer to Thonyor I discovered the source of the harsh odor that had been assaulting my senses all day. A large agricultural fire was raging along the winding dirt road between the two towns, the former now in the hands of Kiir’s SPLA, the latter still controlled by Machar’s rebels.
A plume of smoke poured skyward from orange flames that leapt maybe 15 feet high as they consumed palm trees, brush and swampland.
I watched the same inferno on my way back to Leer, thinking about the charred corpse of Nyalony’s father-in-law, about all the others who never made it out of homes that were now nothing but ankle-high rectangles of mud and wood or piles of shattered concrete.
On another day, in Leer’s triple digit heat, I walk through some of the charred remains with a young woman from the area. Tall, with close-cropped hair and a relaxed, easy demeanor, she guides me through the ruins.
“This one was a very good building,” she says of one of the largest piles of rubble, a home whose exterior walls were a striking and atypical mint green. “They killed the father at this house. He had two wives. One wife had, maybe, six babies.” (I find out later that when she says “babies” she means children.)
Pointing to the wrecked shell next to it, what’s left of a more traditional decorated mud wall, she says, “The other wife had five babies.”
We thread our way through the ravaged tukuls, past support beams for thatched roofs that easily went up in flames. In her honeyed voice, my guide narrates the contents of the wreckage. “It’s a bed,” she explains of a scorched metal frame. “Now, it’s no bed,” she adds with a laugh.
She points out another tukul, its mud walls mostly still standing, though its roof is gone and the interior walls scorched. “I know the man who lived here,” she tells me. His large family is gone now. She doesn’t know where. “Maybe Juba. Maybe wherever.”
“They were shooting. They destroyed the house. If the people were inside the house, they shoot them. Then they burn it,” she says. Pointing toward another heavy metal bed frame, she explains the obvious just in case I don’t understand why the ruins are awash in these orphaned pieces of furniture.
“If they’re shooting, you don’t care about beds. You run.” She pauses and I watch as her face slackens and her demeanor goes dark. “You might even leave a baby. You don’t want to, but there’s shooting. They’ll shoot you. You’re afraid and you run away.” Then she falls silent.
“What civilians experienced in Leer County was terrible. When the population was forced to flee from their homes, they had to flee with nothing into these swamps in the middle of the night,” says Jonathan Loeb, a human rights investigator who served as a consultant with Amnesty International’s crisis response team in Leer.
“And so you had these nightmarish scenarios where parents are abandoning their children, husbands are abandoning their wives, babies are drowning in swamps in the middle of the night. And this is happening repeatedly.”
Nataba, whom I meet in Leer, faces away from me, her legs folded beneath her on the concrete porch. She carefully removes the straps of her dark blue dress from her left shoulder and then her right, letting it fall from the top half of her body so that she can work unimpeded.
“I came to Leer some weeks ago. There was lots of shooting in Juong,” she says of her home village.
From there she fled with her children to Mayendit, then on to Leer, to this very compound, once evidently a church or religious center. Nataba leans forward, using a rock to grind maize into meal. I watch her back muscles shudder and ripple as she folds her body toward the ground like a supplicant, then pulls back, repeating the motion endlessly.
Though hard at work, her voice betrays no hint of exertion. She just faces forward, nude to the waist, her voice clear and matter-of-fact. Five people from her village, including her 15-year-old daughter, she tells me, were shot and killed by armed men from nearby Koch County.
“A lot of women were raped,” she adds.
Deborah sits close by with Nataba’s four surviving children draped all over her. I mistake her for a grandmother to the brood, but she’s no relation.
She was driven out of Dok village last December, also by militia from Koch who — by her count — killed eight men and two women. She fled into the forest where she had neither food nor protection from the elements. At least here in Leer she’s sharing what meager provisions Nataba has, hoping that aid organizations will soon begin bringing in rations.
Her face is a sun-weathered web of lines etched by adversity, hardship and want. Her wiry frame is all muscle and bone. In the West, you’d have to live at the gym and be 30 years younger to have arms as defined as hers. She hopes for peace, she tells me, and mentions that she’s a Catholic.
“There’s nothing here to eat” is, however, the line that she keeps repeating. As I get up to leave, she grasps my hand.
“Shukran. Thank you,” I tell her, not for the first time, and at that she melts to the ground, kneeling at my feet. Taken aback, I freeze, then watch — and feel — as she takes her thumb and makes a sign of the cross on the toe of each of my shoes. “God bless you,” she says.
It’s still early morning, but when I meet Theresa Nyayang Machok she already looks exhausted. It could be that this widow is responsible for 10 children, six girls and four boys; or that she has no other family here; or that her home in the village of Loam was destroyed; or that, as she says, “there’s no work, there’s no food;” or all of it combined.
She turns away from time to time to try to persuade several of her children to stop tormenting a tiny puppy with an open wound on one ear.
The youngest child, a boy with a distended belly, won’t leave the puppy alone and breaks into a wail when it snaps at him. To quiet the toddler, an older brother hands him a torn foil package of Plumpy’Sup, a peanut-based nutrition supplement given out by international aid agencies. The toddler licks up the last daubs of the high-protein, high-fat paste.
Men from Koch attacked her village late last year, Machok tells me, taking all the cattle and killing six civilians. When they came to her home, they demanded money that she didn’t have. She gave them clothes instead, then ran with her children in tow.
Stranded here in Leer on the outskirts of the government camp, she brews up alcohol when she can get the ingredients and sells it to SPLA soldiers. If peace comes, she wants to go home. Until then, she’ll be here.
“There’s nobody in my village. It’s empty,” she explains.
Sarah, a withered woman, lives in Giel, a devastated little hamlet on Leer’s outskirts. To call her home a “wattle hovel” would be generous, since it looks like it might collapse on her family at any moment.
“There was fighting here,” she says. “Whenever there’s fighting we run to the river.”
For months last year, she lived with her children in a nearby waterlogged swamp, hiding in the tall grass, hoping the armed men she refers to as SPLM — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Kiir’s party — wouldn’t find them. At least five people in Giel were killed, she says, including her sister’s adult son.
She returned home only to be confronted by more armed men who took most of what little she had left. “They said ‘give us clothes or we’ll shoot you,’” she tells me. Sarah’s children, mostly naked, crowd around. A few wear scraps that are little more than rags. Her own black dress is so threadbare that it leaves little to the imagination. Worse yet are her stores of food. She hid some sorghum, but that’s all gone.
I ask what they’re eating. She gets up, walks over to a spot where a battered sheet of metal leans against an empty animal pen, and comes back with two small handfuls of dried water lily bulbs, which she places at my feet. It’s far too little to feed this family.
I ask if food is their greatest need. No, she says, gesturing toward her roof — more gaps than thatch. She needs plastic tarps to provide some protection for her children. “The rainy season,” she says, “is coming.”
Nyanet is an elderly man, though he has no idea just how old. His eyes are cloudy and haunted, his hearing poor, so my interpreter shouts my questions at him. “The soldiers come at night,” he responds.
“They have guns. They take clothes; they take food; they take cows,” he says. All the young men of the village are gone. “They killed them.”
The armed men, he tells me, also took girls and young women away.
Not far from Nyanet’s tiny home, I meet Nyango. She’s also unsure of her age. “If the SPLM comes, they take cattle. They kill people,” she explains.
She also ran to the river and lived there for months. Like the others in this tumbledown village, her family wears rags. Her children fell ill living in the mud and muck and water for so long, and still haven’t recovered.
“People have been hiding in the bush and swamps, terrified for their lives with little or no access to humanitarian assistance for months at a time. That’s been the status quo for much of the last year,” explains MSF’s Pete Buth. “Now, as people gradually leave from their hiding places, we are seeing the aftermath. Children are suffering from fungal infections on their hands and feet, their skin painful and broken as they leave the swamps and then the dirt and heat dry out the wounds.”
I look down at the nude toddler clinging to Nyango’s leg. The child’s eyes are covered in milky white mucus and flies are lining up to dine on it. I’ve seen plenty of children, eyes crawling with flies — the ultimate “African” cliché, the sight that launched a thousand funding appeals, but never have I seen so many tiny flies arranged in such an orderly fashion to sup at a child’s eyes.
Nyango keeps talking, my interpreter keeps translating, but I’m fixated on this tiny boy. A pathetic mewing sound escapes his lips and Nyango reaches down, pulls him up, and settles him on her hip.
I force my attention back to her as she explains that the men who devastated this place killed six people she knows of. Another woman in Giel suggests that 50 people died in this small village. The truth is that no one may ever know how many men, women and children from Giel, Leer and surrounding areas were slaughtered in the endless rounds of fighting since this war began.
Where the bodies are buried
Nobody seems to want to talk about where all the bodies went either. It’s an awkward question to ask and all I get are noncommittal answers or sometimes blank stares.
People are much more willing to talk about killing than to comment on corpses. But there is plenty of tangible proof of atrocities in Leer if you’re willing to look.
In the midday heat, I set out toward the edge of town following simple directions that turn out to be anything but. I walk down a dirt path that quickly fades into an open expanse, while two new paths begin on either side.
No one said anything about this.
Up ahead, a group of boys are clustered near a broken-down structure. I don’t want to attract attention so I take the path on the right, putting the building between them and me.
I’m in Leer with only quasi-approval from the representative of a government that openly threatens reporters with death, in a nation where the term “press freedom” is often a cruel joke, where journalists are arrested, disappeared, tortured, or even killed, and no one is held accountable.
As a white American, I’m probably immune to the treatment meted out to South Sudanese reporters, but I’m not eager to test the proposition. At the very least, I can be detained, my reporting cut short.
I try to maintain a low profile, but as a Caucasian in foreign clothes and a ridiculous boonie hat, it’s impossible for me to blend in here. “Khawaja! [White man!],” the boys yell. It’s what children often say on seeing me. I offer up an embarrassed half wave and keep moving. If they follow, I know this expedition’s over. But they stay put.
I’m worried now that I’ve gone too far, that I should have taken the other path. I’m in an open expanse under the relentless midday sun. In the distance, I see a group of women and decide to move toward a nearby stand of trees. Suddenly, I think I see it, the area I’ve been looking for, the area that some around here have taken to calling “the killing field.”
Killing fields: then
The world is awash in “killing fields” and I’ve visited my fair share of them. The term originally comes from the terrible autogenocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and was coined by Dith Pran, whose story was chronicled by his New York Times colleague Sydney Schanberg in a magazine article, a book, and finally an Academy-Award-winning film aptly titled The Killing Fields.
“I saw with my eyes that there are many, many killing fields… there’s all the skulls and the bones piled up, some in the wells,” Pran explained after traveling from town to town across Cambodia during his escape to Thailand in 1979.
Near Siem Reap, now a popular tourist haunt, Pran visited two sites littered with remains — each holding around four to five thousand bodies covered with a thin layer of dirt. Fertilized by death, the grass grew far taller and greener where the bodies were buried.
There’s a monument to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, a site of mass graves just outside of Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Although the Cambodian slaughter ended with the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, when I visited decades later, there were still bones jutting up from the bottom of a pit and shards of a long bone, maybe a femur, embedded in a path I took.
Then there are the skulls. A Buddhist stupa on the site is filled with thousands of them, piled high, attesting to the sheer scale of the slaughter.
Millions of Cambodians — two million, three million, no one knows how many — died at the hands of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Similarly, no one knows how many South Sudanese have been slaughtered in the current round of fighting, let alone in the civil wars that preceded it.
The war between southern rebels and the Sudanese government, which raged from 1955 to 1972, reportedly cost more than 500,000 lives. Reignited in 1983, it churned on for another 20-plus years, leaving around two million dead from violence, starvation and disease.
A rigorous survey by the U.N.’s Office of the Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, released earlier this year, estimated that last year in just one area of Unity State — 24 communities, including Leer — 7,165 persons were killed in violence and another 829 drowned while fleeing.
Add to those nearly 8,000 deaths another 1,243 people “lost” — generally thought to have been killed but without confirmation — while fleeing and 890 persons who were abducted, and you have a toll of suffering that exceeds 10,000.
To put the figures in perspective, those 8,000 dead in and around Leer are more than double the number of civilians — men, women, children — killed in the war in Afghanistan in 2015, and more than double the number of all civilians killed in the conflict in Yemen last year.
Even a low-end estimate — 50,000 South Sudanese civilian deaths in roughly two years of civil war from December 2013 through December 2015 — exceeds the numbers of civilians estimated killed in Syria over the same span. Some experts say the number of South Sudanese dead is closer to 300,000.
Killing fields: now
Leer’s “killing field” is an expanse of sun-desiccated dirt covered in a carpet of crunchy golden leaves and dried grasses. Even the weeds have been scorched and strangled by the sun, though the area is also dotted with sturdy neem trees casting welcome shade.
From the branches above me, bird calls ring out, filling the air with chaotic, incongruous melodies.
Riek Machar was born and bred in Leer. This very spot was his family compound. The big trees once cast shade on tukuls and fences. It was a garden spot. People used to picnic here. But that was a long, long time ago.
Today, a stripped and battered white four-wheel-drive SUV sits in the field. Not so far away, without tires, seats, or a windshield is one of those three-wheeled vehicles known around the world as a Lambretta or a tuck-tuck. And then there’s the clothes.
I find a desert camouflage shirt, its pattern typically called “chocolate chip.” A short way off, there’s a rumpled pair of gray pants, beyond it a soiled blue tee-shirt sporting the words “Bird Game” and graphics resembling those of the video game “Angry Birds.”
And then there’s a spinal column.
A human one.
And a pelvis. And a rib cage. A femur and another piece of a spinal column. To my left, a gleaming white skull. I turn slightly and glimpse another one. A few paces on and there’s another. And then another.
Human remains are scattered across this area.
Leer is, in fact, littered with bones. I see them everywhere. Most of the time, they’re the sun-bleached skeletal remains of animals. A few times I stop to scrutinize an orphaned bone lying amid the wreckage. But I’m no expert, so I chalk up those I can’t identify to cattle or goats.
But here, in this killing field, there’s no question. The skulls, undoubtedly picked clean by vultures and hyenas, tell the story. Or rather, these white orbs, staring blankly in the midday glare, tell part of it.
There’s a folk tale from South Sudan’s Murle tribe about a young man, tending cattle in a pasture, who comes across a strikingly handsome skull. “Oh my god, but why are you killing such beautiful people?” he asks. The next day he asks again and this time the skull responds.
“Oh my dear,” it says, “I died because of lies!”
Frightened, he returns to his village and later tells the chief and his soldiers about what happened. None of them believes him. He implores them to witness it firsthand. If you’re lying, the chief asks, what shall we do with you? And the young man promptly replies, “You have to kill me.”
He then leads the soldiers to the skull and poses his question. This time, the skull stays silent. For his lies, the soldiers insist, they must kill him and they do just that. As they are about to return to the village, a voice calls out, “This is what I told you, young man, and now you have also died as I died.”
The soldiers agree not to tell the king about the exchange. Returning to the village, they say only that the man had lied and so they killed him as ordered.
In South Sudan, soldiers murder and they get away with it, while skulls tell truths that the living are afraid to utter.
‘There might be some mistakes’
No one knows for certain whose mortal remains litter Leer’s killing field. The best guess: some of the more than 60 men and boys suspected of rebel sympathies who were locked in an unventilated shipping container by government forces last October and left to wither in Leer’s relentless heat.
According to a March report by Amnesty International, when the door was opened the next day, only one survivor, a 12-year-old boy, staggered out alive. At least some of the crumpled corpses were dumped on the edge of town in two pits where animals began devouring them. Government forces may eventually have burned some of the bodies to conceal evidence of the crime.
After visiting Leer, I took the findings of the report and my own observations to President Salva Kiir’s press secretary, Ateny Wek Ateny.
“They always copy and paste,” he said, implying that human rights organizations often just reproduced each other’s generally erroneous allegations. It was, I respond, an exceptionally rigorous investigation, relying on more than 40 interviews, including 23 eyewitnesses, that left no doubt an atrocity had taken place.
Those witness statements, he assures me, are the fatal flaw of the Amnesty report. South Sudanese can’t be trusted, since they will invariably lie to cast a pall over rival tribes. In the case of Leer, the witnesses offered up a “concocted sequence of events” to disparage Kiir and his government.
“Americans and Europeans,” he protests, “don’t understand this.”
It’s impossible, he adds, that the government could be responsible for violence in Leer blamed in part on militias, because, as he put it, “We have no militia. Militias are not part of the government.”
What about alleged involvement by uniformed SPLA? Lots of armed men, he claims, wear SPLA uniforms without being part of the army. “It is not a government policy to kill civilians,” he insists, then concedes: “There might be some mistakes.”
‘Bullets aren’t enough. We’ll use rape’
“They come at any time… They even take children and throw them into the burning homes,” says Sarah Nyanang.
Her house in Leer was destroyed last year and, more recently, armed men came in the night and took what little her family had left. “We have no blanket, no mosquito net, no fishing hook, and even now they steal from us.”
Michael lives close by. His neighbors push him forward. His eyes seem to swim with fear. His voice is like wet gravel. The armed men came one night earlier this year and beat him. He shows me a nasty looking wound fast becoming a scar on his scalp, then turns his head to reveal another extending down his jaw line. They took almost all his possessions and something far more precious, his wife.
Sarah Nyanang interjects that women abducted here may be raped by as many as 10 men. She saw a neighbor being raped in the midst of an attack. The implication is that this is what happened to Michael’s wife.
She’s still alive, he says, and is living in Thonyor, but he hasn’t seen her since the night she was taken away. He doesn’t tell me why.
When a team from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigated late last year, they found that rape and sexual slavery were one way members of youth militias who carried out attacks alongside the SPLA were paid. Among others, they interviewed a mother of four who encountered a group of soldiers and armed civilians.
“The men,” the report recounts, “proceeded to strip her naked and five soldiers raped her at the roadside in front of her children. She was then dragged into the bush by two other soldiers who raped her and left her there. When she eventually returned to the roadside, her children, aged between two and seven, were missing.”
A woman from a nearby village in Koch County told the investigators that, in October 2015, “after killing her husband, the SPLA soldiers tied her to a tree and forced her to watch as her 15-year-old daughter was raped by at least 10 soldiers. The soldiers told her, ‘You are a rebel wife so we can kill you.’”
Another mother reported “that she witnessed her 11-year old daughter and the daughter’s nine-year old friend being gang-raped by three soldiers during an attack in Koch in May 2015.”
“The magnitude of the sexual violence was pretty startling even given the extraordinarily high level throughout the conflict in South Sudan,” Jonathan Loeb of Amnesty International’s crisis response team tells me. “Many women were raped repeatedly often by multiple men, many of them were used as sex slaves, and in some cases are still missing.”
According to Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization that promotes human rights in South Sudan, “rape has gone beyond a weapon of war.”
He tells me that it’s become part of military culture.
“Sexual violence has been used as a strategy to wipe out populations from areas where they may have given support to their opponents. I think it’s the first time in the history of Africa that high-level directives have been put forth to use rape as a way to wipe out populations, the first time leaders said ‘bullets aren’t enough, we’ll use rape.’”
Apocalypse then, now, always
In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Capt. Benjamin Willard is sent on a mission that takes him deep into the heart of darkness, a compound in Cambodia from which a rogue American general is waging a private war.
“I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet,” says Willard who finds his own killing field there.
I thought about that line as I flew into Leer, looking down on the marshes and malarial swamps where so many hid from killers and rapists. Multiple people told me that Leer was one of the worst places in the world — and that’s nothing new.
In 1990, during the Sudanese civil war, Leer was bombed by the northern government’s Soviet-made Antonov aircraft. Nobody may know exactly how many died. Eight years later, Nuer militias opposed to Riek Machar raided Leer three times, looting and burning homes, destroying crops, slaughtering and stealing tens of thousands of cattle.
“Over the past months thousands of people have fled without food or belongings. They’ve been forced to hide for days in the surrounding swamps and outlying villages, living in constant fear and surviving on just water lilies and fish. Their own villages have been burned down and their grain stores have been looted,” said a representative of the World Food Program at the time.
Leer was completely razed.
In 2003, attacks on civilians by Sudanese forces and allied militia emptied Leer again. In January 2014, during the opening weeks of the current civil war, the SPLA and partner militias attacked Leer and surrounding towns.
Civilians were killed, survivors ran for the swamps, and the attackers burned to the ground some 1,556 residential structures according to satellite imagery. And then, of course, came last year’s raids.
Since American soldiers departed Vietnam in the 1970s, there have been no further massacres at My Lai. Nor have there been mass killings near Oradour-sur-Glane, France, where the Nazis slaughtered 642 civilians in June 1944. Both ruined villages have, in fact, been preserved as memorials to the dead.
And although Iraq was turned into a charnel house following the 2003 U.S. invasion and neighboring Syria has seen chemical weapons attacks in recent years, there have been no new victims of poison gas in Halabja since Saddam Hussein’s 1988 attack.
Cambodia, too, has seen none of the wholesale bloodletting of the 1970s since the Khmer Rouge was driven from power. And while periodic fears of impending genocide have lurked in the neighborhood, and Rwanda has experienced arbitrary arrests, torture and killings of government opponents and critics, it has had nothing like a repeat of 1994.
In Leer, however, those killed in the bombing of 1990, in the razing of the town of 1998, in the attacks of 2003, in the sack of the town in 2014, and in the waves of attacks of 2015, have been joined by still others unfortunate enough to call this town home.
Those in the area have been trapped by geography and circumstances beyond their control in what can only be called an inter-generational killing field.
The violence of 2015 never actually ended. It’s just continued at a somewhat reduced level. A couple of weeks before I arrived in Leer, an attack by armed men led locals to shelter at the Médecins Sans Frontières compound. On the day I arrived in town, armed youths from the rebel-held territory surrounding Leer carried out a series of attacks on government forces, killing nine.
In July, violence again flared in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. With it came reports of renewed attacks around Leer.
In late August, an SPLA-IO spokesman reported a raid by government forces on a town 25 kilometers from Leer that ended with two killed, 15 women raped and 50 cows stolen. In September, around 700 families from Leer County fled to a U.N. camp due to fighting between the SPLA and the IO.
Earlier this October, civilians were killed and families again fled to the swamps around Leer due to gun battles and artillery fire between the two forces.
No one has ever been held accountable for any of this violence, any of the atrocities, any of the deaths. And there’s little reason to believe they ever will — or even that the violence will end.
Unlike My Lai or Oradour-sur-Glane, Leer seems destined to be a perpetually active killing field, a place where bodies pile up, massacre after massacre, generation after generation — a town trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.
Almost a year after fleeing Leer, Mary Nyalony is still living out in the open on water lilies and in a state of limbo. “I’m worried because the government is still there,” she says of her ravaged hometown. When I ask about the future, she tells me that she fears “the same thing is going to happen again.”
Peace pacts and the optimism they generate come and go, but decades of history suggest that Mary Nyalony will eventually be proved right. Peace deals aren’t the same as peace. Southern Sudan has seen plenty of the former, but little of the latter.
“We need peace,” she says more than once. “If there’s no peace, all of this is just going to continue.”