Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger: In South Sudan, the famine is official but the genocide is not

Halima Muzammil (right) fled her home in Kajo-Keji, South Sudan, with only her clothes and her children after watching her husband shot and killed by government soldiers in a country that the U.N. says is on the brink of genocide.
Halima Muzammil (right) fled her home in Kajo-Keji, South Sudan, with only her clothes and her children after watching her husband shot and killed by government soldiers in a country that the U.N. says is on the brink of genocide.

Woman after woman who has escaped here from South Sudan — a country on the brink of genocide, according to the direst warning yet from the United Nations last week — tells me about seeing her husband decapitated or shot dead in front of her.

There are more than 700,000 refugees here just across the border in northern Uganda, and after an aid worker announces that I’m an American journalist here to hear their stories, a line forms. It feels almost as though I’m hearing confession, though theirs aren’t the relevant sins.

They had no choice but to run, one after another of these widows wants me to know: “My husband fell down trying to leave” after being shot by the government soldiers who had surrounded their home, says 26-year-old Halima Muzammil, who fled Kajo-Keji with only her clothes and her children. “He died, and I don’t even know where they buried him.”

How many more people have to die before we decide that it’s a genocide? Or decide to intervene? More, apparently, though over 50,000 South Sudanese arrived here in January alone. Among those at Bidi Bidi might be the most forlorn boy I’ve ever met, 16-year-old Moses Amule, who never looks up as he speaks of watching from a hiding place while his father was slaughtered.

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“We ran to the bush, but my father went back to get some food,” he says, chewing a stick as he talks while rolling and unrolling the cuffs of his jeans. For three weeks, he and his mother and younger brother stayed in the bush near their home in Lainya County, but then she got sick and died, too, “and we decided to come to the refugee camp. Someone said, ‘Follow these people.’ 

Twenty-two-year-old Emanuel Yok was already in Uganda, studying history and economics, when his mother and father, who was a policeman in Yei, disappeared. He still doesn’t know what happened to them. Until last fall, their city was one of the most peaceful in South Sudan, but there are no safe havens now; Human Rights Watch has reported that atrocities there include such horrors as a mother and 4-year-old daughter being hacked to death and their remains thrown in the River Yei.

This young refugee gives as good an account as any of the reasons the youngest nation on earth, which won its independence from Sudan just six years ago under a peace agreement the United States helped broker, is melting down in front of our eyes — or maybe, since we prefer to avert them, safely out of sight: “I would attribute it to poor governance — there’s tribalism in South Sudan — and the leaders’ lack of political realism. There’s an economic crisis, no one to handle it and no discipline in the army.”

After a lifetime of fighting, that’s what the soldiers know how to do, and like the abused who becomes the abuser, South Sudan’s so-called leaders now copy the tactics of their former Sudanese oppressors.

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Most people I speak to here describe killings and rapes by members of the Dinka tribe in the government army, but a few report Nuer tribe attacks on civilians, too. And even the fighters once beloved for protecting their neighbors — known as “the boys in the bush” or ”the arrow boys” because they were armed only with bows — have turned on those they once defended from the child soldiers of notorious guerrilla leader Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. UNICEF has reported that like Kony, the South Sudanese government routinely forces children to take up arms.

And the conflict that started as a falling out between the Dinka president, Salva Kiir, and his ambitious Nuer former vice president, Riek Machar, in 2013 has consumed the country, with every tribe now drawn into what one South Sudanese man calls “everybody against everybody.”

The report issued last week, after a seven-month inquiry by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, cites ethnic cleansing, mass rape and deliberate starvation in a country where a famine was declared last month, and displaced farmers can’t plant their crops.

Even here, some argue that it isn’t a genocide because the violence is multi-directional. But a Ugandan official tells me that there’s another reason we can’t use that word: If we did, that would mean we had learned nothing from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where the Hutu killed some 800,000 Tutsi, hacking many of their former neighbors to death with machetes, in the span of three bloody months.

As in Rwanda, South Sudanese are fleeing to churches where they hope they’ll be protected. And just as in Rwanda, they are not safe there, either. In an interview in Kampala, Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala, of formerly peaceful Yambio, says that seven of his 22 parishes have become refuges for thousands — and in some places, tens of thousands.

Father Jacinto Nangi, a priest from the village of Ezo, shows me pictures of those who have been camping near his church.

One shows a woman whose surgical bandages were ripped off by a group of marauding arrow boys during an attack on the parish in November, and another shows the two naked girls who were briefly kidnapped in the raid, though they were able to escape when the shooting started. A third shows the dead body of one of their attackers, says Father Nangi, who according to his bishop was threatened that night that if he didn’t get out of their way, “we’re going to nail you on that tree like Jesus.”

At least as striking as the stories of violence, though, are the determination and strength of so many of the refugees — the mothers who worry about whether their children are getting enough variety in their diet (they aren’t) and the young men who ask if I know where they can find work (I don’t).

In a nearby field in the heat of the day, an older woman who has just arrived with her few belongings is already out swinging a machete to clear the plot of land that Ugandans generously offer all refugees, along with working papers and basic farming tools.

The dedication of the aid workers and of the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is heroic, too; they also live in tents in this brutal heat, use a communal latrine and work day after day amid wave after wave of the crimson dust you can taste every time a truck goes by.

On the other end of the moral spectrum, Salva Kiir, the country’s cowboy president whose troops now rape nuns and kill children, still proudly wears the cowboy hat that was a gift from former President George W. Bush, who worked intensely on the Sudan peace process.

Former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, without whom the original peace agreement in 2005 would not have happened, is not hopeful that it could happen again without John Garang, the South Sudanese rebel who died in a helicopter crash three weeks after becoming his new country’s first vice president in 2011.

“In my lifetime, it’s hard to think of a more consequential death,” Danforth says in a phone interview. “He made the peace agreement possible, and he would have made the future of Sudan — North and South — at least possible.”

Even with Garang, what they accomplished a dozen years ago was “really hard” and “really a big deal,” Danforth says, “and for five years, a lot of lives were saved.” But “all of that is gone, and now this woebegone, orphan country …” Without finishing the sentence, he does finish the thought.

If there’s to be any hope of saving the South Sudanese people from those who are running what’s left of their country, our new president will need to be more engaged than his predecessor, who said all the right words about genocide but waited until it was too late to push for an arms embargo.

The rest of us have said more than once that we’d never stand by and let this happen again, either, but we are doing just that. “The world is busy with itself,” says Bishop Kussala. Which is no excuse.

Kansas City Star opinion writer Melinda Henneberger recently traveled to Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda with the Sudan Relief Fund, which has built and supports hospitals, schools and orphanages there, and trains nurses and teachers.

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