(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing

    The bomb was as enormous as the flecks of torn skin smudging the ground are miniscule. Entire overcrowded buses were blown up, every passenger killed. No one in the vicinity was spared: shopkeepers at the side of the road selling khat; office managers; children fooling around or running errands for parents; a medical student about to graduate; mothers; fathers; sisters; brothers. 


    At approximately 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, a truck bomb was detonated in the middle of the traffic in Mogadishu's Hodan district, next to the landmark Safari hotel, frequented by politicians and other Somali movers and shakers.    


    Later in the day, a second explosion was reported in the city's Madina district.


    When the Hodan bomb went off, near the busy K5 roundabout, Somalis on social media reported it as the loudest explosion they'd ever heard – a feat in itself in a city that's been used to violence for more than two decades. 


    The bodycount started in the dozens, but soon started to climb, hitting 85, then more than 100. Now the death toll is officially up to 276 people.


    It is expected to reach more than 300, said Mohamed Moalim, permanent secretary in the government’s Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. Hundreds more have been injured.


    "We still have a number of bodies not identified, hundreds of families wanting to identify loved ones, but it’s happening slowly because of the size of the situation,” he told IRIN via Skype. Many of the bodies are charred beyond recognition. 


    "When you see the area and location, you will [understand the extent of the damage]," said Farah Bashir, managing director of Galayr Consultancy, referring to the bustling commercial district, with many shops, hotels, and businesses.


    He wasn't at the office when the explosion happened, but he heard the blast and arrived to find complete destruction, with shattered buildings and people trapped under rubble.


    "The blood of the victims, burned pieces of human bodies,” said Bashir. “No doors, windows, curtains, walls – all [destoyed] and demolished.”


    The city’s two largest hospitals, Medina and Turkish-supported Digfer, are entirely overwhelmed. There aren't nearly enough doctors and nurses to tend to everyone. Medical students are volunteering, but supplies are low.


    "We need food, water, emergency equipment, beds, sheets, antibiotics," said Moalim. The UN and international NGOs are mobilising, but none were immediately on the ground, he noted.


    African Union troops, known as AMISOM, have been providing security and services in the clean-up, and the Turkish government is sending ambulance planes expected to land today.


    Hassan Istiila/IRIN
    Aftermath of the bombing


    Al-Shabab on the march?


    As of yet, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but it bears all the hallmarks of the jihadist group al-Shabab, at war with successive governments and their international backers since 2006.


    They have staged repeated attacks in Mogadishu, but nothing close to the scale of Saturday’s carnage. Previously the worst attack was in June when 30 people died in the bombing of a popular pizza restaurant.


    “They won’t claim responsibility because of the massive civilian deaths, but this was definitely an al-Shabab operation,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group.


    “Why they’ve done it is because they had the opportunity to do it,” he told IRIN.


    The security forces have suffered a series of setbacks over the last few months. They have withdrawn from the key Lower Shabelle region as a result of al-Shabab attacks, and there are rising tensions and low morale within the fledgling Somali National Army.


    Last week, defense minister Abdirashid Abdullahi Mohamed and army chief General Mohamed Ahmed Jimale both submitted their resignations amid reports of rivalry between the two men.


    The Somali army is being retrained and built up so it can take over security once AMISOM troops start withdrawing next year, but reforms have been slow.


    The recent military setbacks have allowed al-Shabab “to gain a corridor to infiltrate Mogadishu,” said Abdi. “This is a serious lapse in security, or collusion.”


    The truck carrying the explosives was believed to have been waived through the numerous checkpoints along the Afgooye road into the city, although the government says it was being followed before it detonated.


    The attack has generated universal revulsion, with Mogadishu residents taking to the streets to demonstrate their outrage. Hundreds more have lined up to donate blood. 


    "I'm feeling very sad," said Bashir. "You can't identify and you can't know and you can't analyse the loss of [so many] innocent people who were just doing business around the area." 


    Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has declared three days of mourning.


    The shock of Saturday’s attack has been likened to the impact of al-Shabab’s 2009 bombing of a medical school graduation that killed 19 people, which was widely condemned and hurt the group’s standing inside Somalia.


    “We’re beginning to see a groundswell of public resentment, but whether this will translate into support for the government is hard to tell,” said Abdi.


    Farmajo was elected in February by a landslide, but has struggled to bridge the deep divide between the central government and the six federal states over powers and authority, which is hobbling his administration.


    The divisions have been exacerbated by the Gulf crisis between the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition, versus a diplomatically isolated Qatar.


    Farmajo is seen to side with Qatar, while the cash-strapped Somali states have chosen Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – who are looking for bases in Somalia for their military intervention in neighbouring Yemen.


    Al-Shabab may have been trying to take advantage of the government’s weakness, but it is unclear how things will now play out. “This [attack] could throw the government a lifeline in terms of public support, but it could tip the other way if it’s mishandled,” said Abdi.



    Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing
  • Somalia’s impossible fight against cholera

    Ahmed Hussein’s perfectly white teeth seem too big for his mouth; his upper arms look like they belong to a little boy, not a 23-year-old man.

    Propped up on an iron bed, Hussein laughs and says he always was slim. But he is clearly malnourished. Hussein arrived at Mogadishu’s Bandir Hospital a day earlier with his mother and two sisters, all suffering from acute watery diarrhoea: a tell-tale sign of cholera. A nurse at the hospital told IRIN she believed the whole family got sick from the same water source. 

    This is Somalia’s worst cholera outbreak in five years. So far, 71,663 cases have been counted, including more than 1,098 deaths, according to Doctor Ghulam Popal, the World Health Organization representative. In July, when Hussein was admitted, 5,840 cases of acute watery diarrhoea were reported at Bandir Hospital alone.

    Cholera is an acute disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. Waterborne, it thrives in unsanitary conditions.

    After nearly three decades of continuous conflict, Somalia has a barely existent government with no public health system and 800,000 people driven into unsanitary settlements by drought and insecurity – perfect conditions for cholera to thrive.

    “[The] WASH infrastructure in Somalia is totally collapsed due to the absence of the government,” explained Hassan Ahmed Ali, a Water Sanitation and Hygiene expert with the Norwegian Refugee Council, a development agency.

    Unknown scale

    The extent of Somalia’s cholera crisis is likely to be a good deal worse than the official numbers suggest.

    There are no health clinics or hospitals for 400,000 displaced people clumped in settlements along the two main arterial roads that feed into Mogadishu.

    Ali of the NRC believes many people, not counted in the statistics, will have died before they could reach treatment. Neither are the cases counted in the swathe of territory controlled by the jihadist group al-Shabab, which is battling the government.

    Compounding the effects of the war, three consecutive seasons of drought have served to tip Somalia into an even deeper food crisis. More than 6.2 million people – over half the population – need aid. That vulnerability increases their susceptibility to cholera.

    Rules and regulations

    “Unless the systems are strengthened, we can only save lives. Long-term social well-being cannot be achieved,” said Mahboob Ahmed Bajwa, the head of WASH for the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF.

    “Systems” refers both to the federal government’s loose relationship with the decentralised states, and the country’s generally pitiful infrastructure.

    National institutions are weak. In the absence of government, all water supply is privatised and unregulated. These profit-driven companies do not overly concern themselves with cleanliness or quality, despite the obvious risks.

    Doctor Lul Mohamed, head of paediatrics at Bandir Hospital, points to the problem of open defecation, and to the lack of controls that allows what toilets are available to be built right next to wells.

    The Ministry of Energy and Water Sources is creating new regulations to tackle contamination. But the bill has to go to parliament and will take at least three months to pass into law, according to Omar Shurie, an advisor to the ministry.

    Besides the infrastructural deficiencies, recruiting qualified health workers and paying them regularly is yet another of the seemingly endless tasks on Somalia’s to-do list. Doctor Mohamed, for example, does not receive a government salary. She earns money lecturing at a university in the city, only working at Bandir out of a sense of duty.

    Stronger response

    Despite the magnitude of the current food crisis and the cholera outbreak, the response of the humanitarian community and the generosity of the Somali diaspora have built a better ability to cope compared to previous disasters.

    “Aid works, and it is critical that we continue providing this support throughout the remainder of 2017” 

    In 2011, drought led to a famine in which 250,000 people died from hunger and related diseases, including cholera. 

    “The drought in 2016/17 was worse than the previous one [in 2011] but the impact was [not as severe] due to improved overall capacity to respond,” said Doctor Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the WHO’s Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response.

    “Similarly, the cholera outbreak could have been worse if appropriate preparedness and response interventions had not been implemented.”

    According to Thomas Lay, humanitarian director of Save the Children: “This collective effort has resulted in a positively different situation than we saw at the same point in the 2011 drought.

    “Aid works, and it is critical that we continue providing this support throughout the remainder of 2017.” 

    What lies ahead?

    Over the past few weeks, the trend in acute watery diarrhoea and cholera has been declining, with some regions having no new cases. 

    Doctor Abubakar is confident: “The risk of another wave of cholera outbreak is high, but the preparedness and response capacities have been scaled up.”

    However, there is little ressembling a long-term silver lining here.

    The WHO has warned that although the current rains have brought drought relief, the ensuing floods are now expected to increase the number of cholera cases.

    Two-year-old Mohamed Yusuf is lifeless, but not dead. His brown eyes are glazed and unfocused, rolled back into bony sockets. His mother brought him to Bandir a day ago with acute watery diarrhoea. Now he’s hooked up to an IV line and rehydrating.

    Her son splayed across her lap, Mohamed’s mother looks more angry than sad, batting flies off his angular face. He is getting better, but the endless war and cycle of drought mean the conditions that caused his illness are unlikely to improve anytime soon.


    TOP PHOTO: Cholera treatment centre, CREDIT: Catherine Mumbi Trocaire/CAFOD

    Somalia’s impossible fight against cholera
  • What can save Mali?

    Hamidou Barry has come to Bamako to find his son. His village of Ikerena, in the rural heart of Mali, is a long way from the capital, but this is where he’s been told that men detained by the security forces are taken.


    Barry rented a room in the home of a very distant relative. The city is expensive: He’s running out of money and he still hasn’t made contact with anyone who can shed light on the whereabouts of his son, also called Hamidou.


    Witnesses told Barry that Hamidou, 38, was arrested in mid-December at the hospital in Douentza where he had taken his friend for treatment. For some reason the police took an interest in the two Fulani men. They found a sermon by Fulani Islamist extremist Hamadoun Koufa on Hamidou’s phone, but Barry insists that does not make his son a jihadist.


    Koufa is a marabout (preacher) from the central Malian town of Niafunke. He is also a protégé of the veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali, who heads Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-linked militant group.

    Dialogue instead of more foreign troops might yield an answer
    What can save Mali?
    Rebels with a cause?

    The connection between the two men is just one of a web of overlapping conflicts and shifting alliances the Malian government is struggling to contain, even with generous Western military support.


    Koufa fought in northern Mali with Ansar Dine and allied jihadist groups in 2012, rapidly overrunning the region’s main towns. He then led his men south. That advance, threatening Bamako, triggered a French and African Union intervention that scattered his forces.


    Koufa re-emerged in 2015 as the head of the newly-founded Macina Liberation Front (FLM), a movement that seeks the revival of the 19th century Macina Empire, a Fulani-led Islamic state based in the central Mopti and Segou regions of present-day Mali.


    FLM recruitment has stoked and exploited community tensions, especially between Fulani pastoralists and Bambara farmers over land and access to pasture. The Bambara have turned to government-backed Dozo self-defence militia, and there is now an unbroken tempo of tit-for-tat killings of civilians, along with more formal executions of government officials by the FLM.


    Mali, Africa

    Central Mali has taken over from the north as the country’s most lethal region.


    “It’s a toxic mix of intercommunal violence, jihadist activities, and abuses by government forces together fuelling this vicious circle,” said Héni Nsaibia, an analyst at Menastream, a risk consultancy firm that covers the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel.


    But the violence is not just narrowly sectarian. A Human Rights Watch report documenting testimonies earlier this year from both communities included the account of a Fulani youth leader who pointed out: “We, the Peuhl [Fulani], were the jihadists’ first victims… we’ve also lost imams, mayors, and chiefs at the hands of the jihadists, but no one talks about that.”


    Both sides have condemned the government’s failure to provide justice for the killings and to hold its own security forces accountable.


    A Bambara leader was quoted by HRW as saying: “Since 2015, so many of our people have been gunned down in their farms, at home, or on their way to market. We have reported this to local and Bamako authorities, but what we hear are excuses for why they don’t investigate – the rain, the danger, insufficient vehicles. But in the end, there is no justice and the killings keep happening.”

    Hearts and minds

    When the government does act, it is heavy handed. HRW has recorded a number of arbitrary arrests by the security forces, especially around Douentza, where Hamidou was picked up.


    When IRIN last spoke to Barry, he had run out of money and was returning home, without his son.


    Abuses fuel FLM recruitment. It has adopted AQIM’s playbook of taking advantage of a weak state by embedding within the local community, listening to their problems, and fashioning its message accordingly.


    "Hamadoun Koufa came [to Mopti] preaching about the government. He said he would help, not the government," explained Amadou Thiam, a Fulani opposition politician.


    “In many villages, the jihadists appear to be replacing the state actors responsible for addressing banditry; for responding to common crime, marital and family disputes; and for ensuring community reconciliation,” said Corinne Dufka, HRW’s West Africa director.


    “The messages they preach in community meetings, against corruption, state neglect, and at times abusive community elders, is appearing to resonate.”


    The government’s presence doesn’t extend much beyond Segou, three hours from Bamako. Even without the challenge of insurgency, successive southern-based Malian governments have failed to stamp their authority in the north, where the population is relatively small and conditions extremely harsh.

    Neglected north

    The Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic group, span the Sahara Desert. They are the largest ethnic group in northeast Mali. Fiercely independent, they have historically been influential in the spread of Islam in the Sahel.

    Tuareg militants control the informal trade networks, from migration to drugs and contraband cigarettes, on which the region’s economy depends.


    Africa's Sahel Region

    Northern Mali has been a stronghold for jihadists since 2003, when Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, fleeing a government clampdown, escaped across the border. Key to the militants’ survival was a tacit agreement with the Malian military and state officials that largely left them alone.

    In 2012 they made common cause with the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The rebellion relaunched longstanding separatist demands for the secession of the neglected north.

    But soon after the independence of “Azawad” was proclaimed, the MNLA was under attack by Ansar Dine and a coalition of jihadist fighters, determined to impose an extreme version of shariah law in the north.

    The French military won back the region for the government. Operation Serval, an air and ground mission, was launched at the request of Bamako as the jihadists rolled south. France continues to fight in Mali as part of a regional anti-terror drive called Operation Barkhane.

    Underlining that investment, Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected French president, made Mali his first official visit outside Europe, earlier this month.

    The West’s concern is the transnational threat of jihadism. Some Malian groups have links with Boko Haram in Nigeria, and AQIM last year launched attacks on Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Neighbouring Senegal is concerned it could be next.

    In what the International Crisis Group has described as a “security traffic jam”, more external military intervention is envisaged, from the G-5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) and/or the G-3 (Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali).

    But military force alone cannot put Mali together again. The north is now splintered as competing groups emerge – some narrowly ethnic, others backing the jihadists. The government has fallen back on an old model of corrupt payoffs and the use of local proxies to manage the conflict. What is needed, though, is better governance.

    View from Timbuktu

    The 700-year-old, mud-built Djinguereber mosque in Timbuktu is a tourist must-see. Inside, the light refracts between its adobe pillars. It’s cool and airy and the acoustics are just how you’d imagine talking under water might sound. In the desert sky above this iconic building a UN military drone buzzes.

    Within minutes of new arrivals at the mosque, a man has spread out a small blanket and set up piles of worn postcards and jewelry. He explains that no tourists have visited this famed site in five years. He looks hopeful, if only for a moment.

    Timbuktu was held by the Tuareg-dominated Ansar Dine for several months in 2012. They imposed a stringent, alien version of Islamic law in what is a traditionally moderate country. Centuries-old Sufi shrines and Islamic manuscripts, cultural treasures on which Timbuktu’s fame is based, were destroyed.


    The Great Mosque of Djenné

    Although the town was recaptured in January 2013, the only visitors to Timbuktu these days are UN soldiers and a smattering of aid workers and government officials. In the vast northern desert beyond the city, jihadist groups hold sway.

    Timbuktu’s urbanites find the jihadist presence unsettling. But in the conservative rural areas there is far greater acceptance, a local NGO worker, who asked not to be named, told IRIN.

    Timbuktu remains unsafe. On 15 May, there was a rocket attack on the airport; earlier this month a UN police base came under fire, as did a Malian army checkpoint. The raids occur despite the presence of Burkinabe and Swedish contingents of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali.

    The scruffy Malian soldiers tasked with jointly securing the city with the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSMA, seem marooned, vulnerable and disconnected from any notion of nation-building. They don’t always show up for the nightly joint patrols they are supposed to undertake.

    A broader conflict

    MINUSMA is a 13,817-strong, $933 million operation.

    Among its contributors are European countries that have brought a level of sophistication – including drones, special forces, and intelligence cells – few other UN missions possess.

    But it is also the UN’s most dangerous mission, with 118 peacekeepers killed since 2013.

    It hasn’t been hard for the jihadists to portray MINUSMA and the European intervention as a neo-colonial plot, propping up a corrupt regime as they steal the country’s raw materials. But the West’s strategic interests clearly go beyond countering extremism to include policing the migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean.


    January to March 2017 Displacement in Mali | UNHCR

    From north to south, Mali’s state institutions are barely functioning or entirely broken. For months, earlier this year, public schools and hospitals were closed because teachers and health workers were on strike.

    “It’s difficult to say what really works in Mali today,” wrote Abdelkader Abderrahmane, an international consultant on African peace and security issues, in an email to IRIN.

    Kamissa Camara, a researcher based in Washington DC and specialising in Africa's Sahel region, said she doubts that any Malian children, save the ones living near Bamako, have gone to school for a straight year since 2012.

    The jihadist “threat narrative has obscured a proper assessment of the Malian government’s performance and its ability to deliver basic public services and create jobs,” Camara wrote in a piece for the Africa Research Institute.

    Both Abderrahmane and Camara think that corruption has eroded popular support for successive administrations, and added to the resilience of Mali’s overlapping conflicts.

    Peace deal

    For the past two years there has been a shaky framework for peace called the Algiers Accord, which has been unhurriedly implemented.

    The two principal signatories are a coalition of Tuareg rebels known as the Coordination of the Azawad Movements, or CMA, and ostensibly pro-government armed rivals grouped in what is called the Platform.

    The jihadists were not included in the agreement and have tried to wreck it. The most dramatic example was a bomb explosion in Gao in January that targeted a joint patrol of rebel fighters (the first patrol of its kind, 18 months after the accord was signed). The attack, which reportedly killed 80 people, stalled the initiative.

    In March, the extremists created their own coalition, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM). It fuses AQIM, Ansar Dine, and FLM, and is led by Ag Ghali. It excludes a small faction that has sided with the so-called Islamic State.

    Simply throwing more troops at the jihadists does not seem to be the answer.

    But there could now be a new twist in the five-year conflict.

    A Conference of National Understanding, held between the government and non-jihadist armed groups in the north, had been heading the way of other stalled provisions of the 2015 peace agreement. But after a series of boycotts, it delivered a key recommendation at its close on 2 April that has jolted Mali’s political class: the idea that the government should talk to Malian jihadists, specifically Ag Ghali and Koufa.

    After initially appearing to welcome the suggestion, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has since backtracked. France has adamantly rejected it. “We are engaged in a fight. It is a fight without ambiguity against terrorism… And so there is only one way; there are not two,” France’s then-foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on a visit to Mali in April.


    There are also political and legal obstacles to talking with people linked to al-Qaeda. Ag Ghali is on a US terrorist list for a start, which would complicate any potential amnesty deal. Nobody knows what concessions he would seek to extract, how reliable an interlocutor he would be, and how talks might impact on an international coalition that has shed much blood fighting in the north. Domestically, dialogue could also become hostage to Mali’s elections due next year.


    But it is "worth a try”, noted well-regarded Sahelian analyst Alex Thurston in a recent blog: “A peace process that makes no room for Ag Ghali is one that will be disrupted, perhaps fatally, by regular jihadist attacks.”


    That’s not to say, he added, that the Malian government “could magically find common ground with Ag Ghali, but it is to say that opening a channel of dialogue could bear fruit.”


  • From war to want: South Sudanese find less violence but grim conditions in Uganda

    For leverage, Helen grips the rungs on the side of the rusting hospital bed with her toes. “Sindika!” encourages Aisha Ayikoriu. “Sindika! Sindika!” In Luganda, the Bantu language widely spoken in Uganda, Sindika means “push”.

    Built in the early 1990s to serve 10,000 local Ugandans, Ocea Centre Two is now the biggest of four clinics serving Rhino, a settlement of some 85,000 South Sudanese refugees. 

    As the UN makes repeated statements about ethnic cleansing and budding genocide in South Sudan, Uganda can barely open camps fast enough to accommodate the influx of refugees. An average of 2,500 have been arriving every day since July, with that figure as high as 7,000 earlier this month. A massive settlement for 100,000 has just opened in Moyo district in the tip of the north. With dry season offensives expected to begin any day now, it could be overflowing before mid-January.

    In its most recent update, on 19 December, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says 584,573 South Sudanese refugees have arrived in Uganda since the civil war broke out in December 2013. Almost 400,000 of them have come since July, fleeing an upsurge in fighting and indiscriminate bloodletting in the southern Equatoria region. 

    Related stories:

    South Sudan refugee influx overwhelms Ugandan reception centres

    South Sudan: "This fighting will continue to our children"

    The genocidal logic of South Sudan's "gun class"

    The lack of resources for the refugees is evident. There isn’t enough water, let alone sanitary pads for women, and schools for children. It may be safer in Uganda, but the conditions here are inhumane.

    At Ocea Centre Two, there are two beds for women in labour. On the other side of the green fabric that serves as a curtain are five mothers with newborns. They share cots and use cloths to cushion themselves and their little ones on the concrete floor. Mothers fuss over the babies. Though the situation is grim, the scene isn’t sad.

    The “inpatient” unit is 14 beds in a tent. It is the only clinic at Rhino equipped to do minor surgical procedures. The beds in the tent are always full and often overrun, with patients sharing beds or staying on the floor. 

    For any major operations, patients must be sent to the nearest hospital, 72 nauseatingly bumpy kilometres to the west, in Arua, the closest main town. There is only one ambulance available. Vincent Debo, a clinical officer, looks embarrassed when he shares these statistics. 

    Frontline Equatoria

    The fight that has ruined the world’s newest nation turned three on 15 December. South Sudan itself is just five, having celebrated its independence in July 2011.

    The conflict is an ethnically tinged power wrangle between the SPLA (government forces made up mostly of President Salva Kiir’s Dinka tribe) and the SPLA-IO (opposition forces – initially mostly Nuer people loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, but now increasingly mixed with members of South Sudan’s 63 other tribes).  

    Equatoria had remained a bastion of relative calm while war over resources and power infected the rest of the country, but the seat of the conflict has shifted. A failed, internationally-brokered August 2015 peace agreement positioned IO troops alongside the SPLA in these states, priming the place for a bloodbath. In July, fighting broke out in the capital Juba, located in the south, in the middle of the Equatoria region. A chase down country for the ousted Machar was followed by massacres that have yet to stop. 


    South Sudan refugee flows to Uganda since July 2016

    Refugees from Equatoria say they left because staying at home was untenable. If it weren’t for the gunshots every night, the bodies in the streets, the families burned alive in their homes, and the women gang raped by the side of the road, they would have stayed. 

    “Fear made me come here,” Peter Dada, originally from Laniya in central Equatoria, tells IRIN at Rhino settlement. “There is killing, continuously. No compromise.”

    Dada says if the government soldiers see you, they kill you. If IO soldiers see you, expect the same. He blames the SPLA alone though for the massive levels of rape, saying: “That one is being done by the government soldiers.” 

    Most refugees say both sides are complicit in the sexual assault that has reached “epic” levels in South Sudan. 

    It is less violent across the border, but the living conditions are dreadful.


    The largest encampment in Uganda opened on 3 August, at Bidi Bidi. A small village a few months ago, it is now the world’s second largest refugee settlement, with a population of more than 260,000. Like Rhino, it is spread out across unforgiving terrain.

    The majority of the refugees at Bidi Bidi and Rhino are from a mixture of South Sudan’s smaller, marginalised tribes, like the Kakwa and the Acholi. In the northeast of Uganda, the settlement at Adjumani hosts another 60,000 South Sudanese, but they are mostly of Kiir’s Dinka tribe.

    Of the 100,000 school-age children in Bidi Bidi, only 10,000 attend classes. There is just one primary school.

    Robert Baryamwesiga, Bidi Bidi’s camp commandant, says the biggest challenge is water. There are 70 boreholes on the sprawling 250-square-kilometre property. Sixty-five percent of the water is trucked in from the Nile. Each refugee has about eight litres a day for drinking, washing, cooking, and bathing. The World Health Organization recommends that 15 litres a day is needed for survival: drinking and cooking.

    "Every day, more refugees were arriving than new boreholes could be drilled to supply them water,” said Harmen van den Berg, a hydrogeologist with UNHCR.

    Jean-Luc Anglade, the country representative for Médecins Sans Frontières in Uganda, explained that a substantial amount of money is being spent exploring the groundwater in Bidi Bidi. Normally, a hydrogeology survey is completed before a plot of land is selected for a refugee settlement. In this case, it’s ongoing, after the camp is already full. “The water supply is too low in terms of quality/quantity delivered despite lots of efforts from partners,” Anglade told IRIN by email.

    The water situation at Rhino isn’t any better.

    Grace Ropani says it takes two or three people to “farm” the water. Pumping from the boreholes is exhausting, and can take two hours.

    Ropani’s grandmother was macheted to death on 5 August. She didn’t see it happen; her neighbours gave her the news. “Here, we don’t hear the sound of guns,” she says of life in Rhino camp. Unlike others, Ropani isn’t concerned about the food supply, but she does need soap and salt, and she says the women need sanitary pads and underwear. 

    Yasmin Abdayy was elected by the Rhino refugee community to be an unpaid watchman for Oxfam’s water tank 171. As a truck pumps 20,000 litres into the tank, Abdayy keeps an eye on the line forming at the spouts. Everything is orderly, except the boys who dangle the truck’s dribbling hose into their containers to get every drop.

    According to Abdayy’s calculations, each family gets two jerry cans’ full, about 40 litres, each day. Going by the WHO standards of 15 litres per person as the basic emergency level, a family of five would needs 75 litres to survive. Abdayy says there is just half the water needed. What he really wants is simply a notebook and a pen to keep track of the situation, so he can do his job correctly.

    Food is also an increasingly acute concern.

    In August, the World Food Programme cut rations by 50 percent for all refugees who had been in Uganda before July 2015. Now, the organisation faces a funding shortfall of $62 million for all refugee operations in the country for the next six months. If this is not met, WFP will be forced to cut the quota for new arrivals as well. Even though they are allegedly getting the requisite amount of food, the majority of newly arrived refugees, including Abdayy and Dada in Rhino settlement, speak of hunger and say they don’t have enough to eat. 

    It is 1pm, and neither Abdayy nor his five children have eaten. “The food is finished,” he says, adding that his family won’t eat that day unless he can find a way to do some small paid labor, or perhaps make a trade. Other refugees spoke of exchanging supplies like pots for food.  

    Some aid organisations attribute the lack of schools, health services, food, and water to the scale of the influx. But Shoshon Tama-Sweet, Africa and Middle East programme manager with Medical Teams International (MTI), finds that rationale lacking.

    “They [UN and NGOs] prepared for 700,000 refugees before the Mosul offensive [in Iraq],” he told IRIN. “South Sudan has been at war since 2013. The refugees started flooding Uganda in July. They used surprise as an explanation for lack of preparation. Now, it's December. They still can't be surprised. We're running to stand still.”

    Speaking again to the relativism other aid staffers apply to explain conditions, Tama-Sweet said: “You can't say: 'Well, they wouldn't have water in South Sudan either.' In South Sudan, they had community coping mechanisms, they knew the land. This isn't the same thing."


    Back at Ocea Centre Two in Rhino settlement, Ayikoriu, the midwife, is giving instructions.

    Helen is 25. This is her first child. She purses her lips and screws up her eyes in painful effort, but she doesn’t make much noise.

    She hasn’t taken any pain medication. Lili Aya, the birth attendant, and Ayikoriu shift Helen into the most comfortable position; first draping her arm over her back and moving her onto her side, then holding her neck and massaging her breasts and belly. Helen’s only cover is a limp plaid blanket. It’s a physical process; the women are comfortable with each other. 

    Beads of sweat form on Helen’s lips. The room smells vaguely of hay. Ayikoriu advises her patient to push like she’s trying to go to the bathroom. “She’s putting her effort here,” Ayikoriu says, indicating her neck. “I’m telling her to push down.” 

    Ayikoriu ties a rubber glove around Helen’s arm. She’s found they make perfect tourniquets. She gives Helen an intravenous drip of glucose for energy, and some oxytocin to speed up her slowing contractions. 

    Now, Helen is not contracting at all. A clinical officer calls the ambulance. It’s time to take Helen to the hospital. Ayikoriu is not worried about Helen’s health, but she is concerned the baby will suffocate. The ambulance is already on its way to the hospital with someone else. It will be hours before it can come back for Helen.

    (TOP PHOTO: Mother and newborn asleep on the floor of Ocea Center Two, Rhino settlement, Uganda. CREDIT: Amanda Sperber/IRIN)


    South Sudan: From war to want
  • South Sudan: “This fighting will continue to our children”

    David Salah sits on the South Sudan side of the Kaya river. A wooden bridge separates him from Busia, a border crossing in Uganda. He wears a black-and-red jersey and black shorts. His smile is friendly enough, but he keeps a well-worn AK-47 by his side.


    Salah spent most of his early life as a student in Uganda, where he acquired the excellent English he speaks. In 2003, he moved back home to South Sudan. Since then, he has worked as a farmer in the fertile southern Equatoria region.


    This is not the future he had in mind. Salah wanted to return to Uganda and study for a Bachelor of Business Administration at Makerere University. But, he says, the government would not sponsor him to go.


    Salah believes the South Sudanese government keeps scholarships only for the Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the country. It is the community to which President Salva Kiir belongs, as do the majority of senior figures within his administration.


    Like many non-Dinka in South Sudan, Salah thinks the government is solely dedicated to keeping the Dinka people in power. Kiir is backed by the influential Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders and supported by military chief-of-staff General Paul Malong Awan.


    To the bush


    Salah is a Kakwa, a relatively small ethnic group that straddles southwestern South Sudan, northwestern Uganda, and northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.


    Amanda Sperber/IRIN
    Captain Salah's bridge

    Last year, he joined the rebel SPLA-IO, a movement associated with the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Nuer. But the insurgency is also attracting the loyalty of existing community-based militia in the Equatoria region and beyond – anyone to challenge the Dinka’s perceived hold on national power and resources.


    Salah is a captain in the SPLA-IO. Asked how he thinks fighting will bring about the political resolution he wants, he laughs and says something about how this is the only way to bring about change in this part of the world.  


    Salah's comrade-in-arms, Samuel Denyag, was a policeman in the capital, Juba, where he says he saw ethnic chauvinism first-hand. Denyag claims his Dinka commanders fixed the books, adding dozens of ghost names to the payroll, and then shared out the proceeds among just the Dinka cops.


    When South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013, over a contest for power between Kiir and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar, Denyag headed home to western Equatoria. He joined the Arrow Boys, a broad militia originally formed to defend the community against attacks by Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.


    The LRA are gone. Now there are new threats. Local anger has long been stoked by the encroachment of heavily armed Dinka cattle herders onto farmland, and the disappearance of young men in the government’s heavy-handed counter-insurgency operations.


    Rebellion spreads


    As armed groups bubbled up in western Equatoria in 2015, some Arrow Boy factions threw in with SPLA-IO. Denyag was one of them.


    Some of these emerging armed groups looked to be absorbed into the national army under an agreement negotiated in 2015 to end the civil war. But the accord didn’t last. Although Machar finally returned to Juba to join a government of national unity in April this year, three months later he was fleeing for his life, heading south through Equatoria and over the Congolese border.


    Fighting followed in his wake. Yei, in southern Equatoria, was previously thought of as one of the safest places in South Sudan. But Human Rights Watch reported in October “numerous cases” of abuse by the army against civilians as they hunted for SPLA-IO supporters.


    IRIN was unable to get comment from the government.


    Among the most brutal of the government’s forces are the all-Dinka Mathiang Anyoor militia, created by Malong. They were instrumental in the purging of Nuer neighbourhoods in Juba in 2013.


    Lona Saima
    Amanda Sperber
    Lona Saima



    The violence has spurred opposition, increasingly united in a sense of victimhood. It has also generated a cycle of revenge. In October, armed gunmen attacked a bus on the Yei-Juba road, separated the 21 Dinka from the other passengers, and shot them.


    “The history of mass atrocities suggests that ethnic violence is normally a political tool waged for – often petty – political purposes. South Sudan is no different,” researcher Alan Boswell told IRIN. “It’s a political war for a new state that never fully formed, but is now being fought over as it collapses.”


    The brutality under way in Equatoria has forced 246,000 South Sudanese to flee to northwest Uganda in six months. Tens of thousands of them – if not more – have crossed Captain Salah’s rickety bridge.


    “These atrocities are not an abuse of power per se, but rather the desperation of the weak lacking true state power,” said Boswell. “This is ethnic cleansing as desperation, not strength.”


    Lona Saima walked for seven days with her family from Yei to reach safety. In early December, she’d just been trucked from the South Sudanese border to Kuluba Transit Centre in Uganda.


    “If they [the Dinka] get you, they will slaughter you like a chicken,” she told IRIN. “They want to kill anyone because they don’t trust you… they think you are hiding rebels.”


    Saima has tuberculosis and hasn’t been able to access medicine for two months, since war shut the hospital and supply lines down. Her body aches.


    At least 85 percent of the people in the heaving camps are women and children. The men have stayed to fight and to protect their property.


    Amanda Sperber/IRIN
    No shortage of guns in South Sudan

    Otto John Adema bucks the trend. An HIV-positive preacher with 12 children, he arrived from Torit, in southeastern South Sudan, in August. He sits against the mud brick house he built in Bidi Bidi camp, holding his baby boy.


    He saw three civilians shot, but doesn’t know if it was the SPLA or the rebels who did the killing. He is sure, though, that it was five SPLA-IO raping a woman in the street with a stick.


    Ethnic killings have been a feature of South Sudan’s civil war since it began. Kem Ryan, who was the head of operations for the relief and protection section of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, has plenty of evidence.


    “I have hundreds of photos from the three years of war in South Sudan of people killed, mostly civilians, many bound and executed,” he told IRIN. The violence forced 200,000 people from their homes in 2015.




    The UN didn’t use the terms “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide” then, but now they do.


    On 11 November, Adam Dieng, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, said South Sudan risked “outright ethnic war” and genocide. The last time he was in the country was in 2014.


    The UN Human Rights Commission said in statement on 30 November: “there is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing under way in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages.”


    No one knows how many people have been killed in South Sudan’s civil war. There are estimates of up to 300,000, but the phrase “tens of thousands” is normally used in news reports.


    “The UN is the only actor in South Sudan with the capacity to collect and verify death tolls and they chose not to,” said International Crisis Group’s South Sudan senior analyst, Casie Copeland.


    “Death tolls are important for our humanity, to raise awareness and as empirical evidence of how the war evolves.”


    Richard Batili also guards the bridge on the Kaya river. He sees no end in sight to this conflict. “What is going to happen will be unacceptable,” he told IRIN. “This fighting will continue to our children.”



    TOP PHOTO: Bidi Bidi is the fastest growung refugee camp in northwest Uganda CREDIT: EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

    South Sudan: “This fighting will continue to our children”

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