Try Not to Look Away From These Terrible Killings in South Sudan
Teenage gunmen opened fire on old women in a church—but can we convince the world to care?
As a reporter, you know when you find an important story. Your focus shifts entirely to the person or people in front of you and for a fraction of time nothing else matters.
That was how I felt when I encountered Mary. She was lying outside a makeshift clinic at a camp for displaced people in South Sudan with her face pressed against the earth, trying to shade it from the high sun. A large patch of dried blood on her back was attracting flies but she lay motionless, as if she hadn't noticed them.
Around us, children were laughing, teenagers moved in groups, and smallholders sold anything from individual stock cubes to battery-powered mobile phone charging. On first sight, Mingkaman, on the western bank of the River Nile, gave the impression of a bustling village.
But then you noticed the number of people compared with the number of houses. In the last two months, close to a hundred thousand people have arrived here. While the children find it easier to forget, the majority of adults have vivid memories of the hellish ordeals they survived to get here.
Internal armed conflict between troops loyal to the South Sudanese president and those loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar, has caused widespread violence and killed some 10,000 people, according to the Crisis Group, with large numbers of civilian casualties on both sides.
“The fight has started to target anyone,” a harried French aid worker in Mingkaman said. It was mid-January at the time of reporting and rebels loyal to Machar were still in control of Bor. The sound of fighter jets rent the air.
Mary rolled onto her back and propped herself up on her elbows with visible discomfort. The doctors were overwhelmed by the number of gunshot victims arriving from Bor and they had yet to look at Mary.
She didn't know her age but had lived through at least two civil wars—including the 1991 massacre of around 2,000 civilians from her home town—and seen South Sudan, her country, make peace, become a nation and, in the last two months, fall apart.
When ragtag renegade soldiers loyal to Machar took over Bor, her town, for the second time in a month in December, she took up residence in the compound of a church with 19 other women, all of whom deemed themselves too old and frail to flee.
After a few days, Mary, a small lady who is strong despite her age, left the church compound to fetch supplies. She returned and set about cooking for the group with three others in the church's simple kitchen.
From that point onwards, Mary was less clear on the details. She recalled a large group of young men arriving, together with a herd of cattle. They entered the church gates and shouted at the women to stand up, before gunning them down with automatic weapons.
Mary described running for her life from this firing squad of men. She said were aged between 15 and 20 years old. She was shot twice whilst trying to run away—once in the buttock and once in her shoulder blade. She recalls leaving 13 of her friends there dead.
The latest conflict to hit South Sudan made headlines back in December with a massacre far bigger in number than this. Hundreds of men from the dissident Riek Machar's Nuer ethnic group were locked inside a police cell and shot dead in the capital city.
Since then, the horror stories have kept coming, and by the time Mary told me hers, the media was saturated. Editors weren’t interested. “We’ve had quite a bit from on the ground in South Sudan recently,” one said in response to her story.
Which begs the question, if teenagers gunning down 20 elderly ladies in a church isn’t newsworthy, what is?
Editors argue, and understandably so, that the average Western reader knows very little about, and has very little interest in, small and distant countries like South Sudan with which they have neither colonial nor trading links.
As a former British foreign editor put it, readers get their daily fill of blood and gore from Syria. And before Syria, it was Libya, Egypt, Iraq or Aghanistan—and there's only so much they can take.
The trick, the former editor said, is to engage the unacquainted Western reader by finding a riveting human tale.
But is that not Mary? With the bullets lodged inside her, it had taken her six days to get to the tiny field hospital. She had traveled at first on foot to reach the River Nile, and then by boat to Mingkaman’s small, muddy harbor, where thousands of people were disembarking from wooden fishing hulls every day.
On arrival in Mingkaman, she had no shelter and hadn’t eaten in days. But there was at least the prospect of medical care. I have no way of knowing whether she survives today.
Would Mary feel betrayed if she knew that no newspaper thought her story worth publishing? Indeed, who’s to judge whether a massacre is worth reporting? In an environment like this, nearly everyone you meet has a horror story. It’s the media's job to sift them to find the most important, the most compelling, and then to hope that people are willing to listen.
Perhaps it was I who failed, for not taking her testimony, capturing its intensity and honesty, and making it a compelling enough story.
‘They’re not supposed to kill old ladies’
It’s not just newspaper editors who admit to struggling when it comes to maintaining interest in regularly emerging atrocities. In the capital Juba, a communications officer for a major humanitarian actor says his organization is failing to hold the attention of donors abroad with both Central African Republic and South Sudan.
“Trying to keep donor attention focused on more than one conflict at a time is difficult,” he said, referring to the region. Currently, the United States is fighting to save the billions of dollars and years invested in South Sudan, but that may change. “The worst thing that can happen is that disillusionment turns to hand-washing,” he said.
In Juba, there are continued reports of attacks on members of Machar’s Nuer ethnic group by men loyal to the government. International journalists have been threatened for trying to report on the rumored “hit-squads,” and some were forced to flee.
In the face of this, it is imperative that we keep reporting on the atrocities—and that the general public keeps listening.
Human Rights Watch visited the town of Bor three weeks after Mary was shot and found the bodies of 11 women in terrible stages of decomposition inside the St. Andrews Episcopal Church. An additional three, they said, had already been removed by their families for burial.
A week later, an international news agency reported that the sole survivor of the St Andrews church massacre was not Mary but a blind lady who had remained there, deeply traumatized and confused. In the same report, the number of people killed at the church had jumped to forty.
Facts get distorted with time, and leaps of faith become easier to make, which is exactly why there is a need for timely reporting on the horrors of war. Human rights observers—and one day, perhaps, prosecutors and defense lawyers—need hard facts, but so do the families of victims searching to piece together the last hours of their loved ones.
When privileged with information, we all have an obligation to share what we know, to put together every piece of the jigsaw where things have gone wrong. The people of South Sudan need to be able to reconcile what happened, and hold those responsible to account.
“They’re not supposed to kill old ladies,” Mary said.