JUBA, Dec 24 – Recovering from four gunshot wounds on a mattress in a UN base in South Sudan’s capital Juba, Simon recounts how he survived what he says was a brutal massacre carried out by government forces.
Simon, who would only give his first name for fear of reprisals, says he was arrested with scores of other men in the wake of an outbreak of fighting between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his rival Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked in July.
The detainees, he said, were herded into a police station before government forces loyal to Kiir began firing at them through the windows, picking off the men one by one. He said he huddled in a corner and then hid under the corpses.
Simon estimated that 250 men were brought in, and that only 12 managed to escape. They fled 48 hours later when the building, situated in one of Juba’s busiest areas, was left unguarded.
“It was horrible, because to survive you had to cover yourself with the bodies of dead people, and during the two days, the bodies started to smell really bad. I don’t want to talk much about it,” he said, his lip still quivering with fear.
“We remained only 12 people. The rest were killed off,” said Gatwech, another survivor and witness to the alleged massacre, who was also nursing several wounds and recounted similar details.
The two men said they were targeted as members of the Nuer tribe, to which Machar belongs, and that the soldiers who carried out the killings were ethnic Dinka, the majority tribe, to which President Kiir belongs.
The testimonies cannot be independently verified because the few journalists and aid workers in the city have found their movements severely restricted.
AFP tried to visit the police station, situated in the Gudele neighbourhood, but was turned away by men in uniform and plainclothes forces. But the stench of death in the area was overpowering, with flies swarming around. A curtain and the walls of the building were also riddled with holes.
The government denied it is behind any ethnic violence.
“This is not a tribal problem,” South Sudan’s army spokesman Phillip Aguer told AFP, denying any soldiers in uniform were committing atrocities.
“That is not true. There are criminals in Juba that have been killing people and they were there before,” he said.
But testimonies from several other witnesses paint a picture of a brutal pattern of ethnically motivated violence, including killings and rape, since the fighting erupted on December 15.
There have also been reports of similar violence in areas north of Juba now held by rebels opposed to the president, including an attack last week on a United Nations base by ethnic Nuer youths at Akobo in Jonglei state that left two Indian peacekeepers dead.
The UN has said it fears the Dinka civilians who were sheltering in the base may also have been killed.
Aid worker James Marial Achak, who managed to escape the area and reach Juba, said the attackers “tricked them into assembling the Dinka, then they killed the two Indians and shot the others.”
Across South Sudan, an estimated 45,000 civilians have sought protection from the tiny UN force based there, while hundreds of thousands of others are believed to have fled to the bush or areas they consider safe.
Another ethnic Nuer man, whom AFP will only name as Riek and who was also sheltering at a UN base in Juba, said he fled his position in South Sudan’s presidential guard on Sunday after witnessing a week of killings and rapes and fearing his comrades would eventually turn on him.
“There are soldiers doing this and militia of Dinka boys given guns,” he said, alleging that weapons were being distributed to Dinka youth from the president’s office.
Riek said that violent house-to-house checks were being carried out in Nuer neighbourhoods, and that anyone not answering the question “In choli” — meaning “What is your name?” in the Dinka language — would be dragged outside their home, tied up and shot.
The victims included women and children, he said.
Allegations of a cover-up
Juba has been mostly calm for several days, although a tour of some areas revealed lines of abandoned homes, with shoes and other belongings strewn on the streets.
Uniformed and plainclothes men with guns, knives tucked into their pockets or machete handles poking out from their shirts could be seen on the streets.
A foreign aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the soldiers also appeared to be covering up evidence of raids against Nuer districts of the city.
“They tell troops to pick up the bullets as the international community is coming,” said the aid source, who spoke of having seen bodies with their hands tied and with bullet wounds to the back of the head.
The aid worker said bodies were being collected, driven out of the city and dumped. Riek said they were being burned or thrown in the river.
Another ethnic Nuer man sheltering with the UN said government soldiers killed his sister-in-law and his one-year old and six-year-old nieces by smashing a tank through their home.
“I believe there was someone in the tank showing people, as it wasn’t every house,” he said, recounting how he and his brother managed to flee while the mother and children were crushed.
Another man fleeing the violence, Bang Teny, said he knew of 10 fellow Nuer people who had been murdered over the past week, adding that troops were identifying them by their distinctive tribal facial scars.
Teny said he fled South Sudan for Canada at the height of the country’s war for independence from Sudan, and had returned nine months ago to resettle — only to find himself fleeing again for his life.
“Once you’re picked up, you’re never seen again,” he said.