The conflict in South Sudan that began in December 2013 after clashes between the forces of President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his then Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, quickly took on strong ethnic dimensions and has seen thousands of civilians killed, many others injured and the mass displacement of communities by different warring factions. At present, in addition to the 2.6 million South Sudanese who had fled the country by May 2018 (the third largest refugee population in the world), an estimated 1.9 million are internally displaced inside the country. Though the conflict has primarily pitted Dinka against Nuer, other communities have also been deeply affected – including the Shilluk minority who, having suffered decades of displacement in previous conflicts, have been uprooted again by the latest round of violence.

Mary (not her real name) is from the minority Shilluk community and was running a small business in Malakal, one of South Sudan’s largest cities, when the conflict broke out in 2013. Shilluk have lived in Malakal for hundreds of years, and their kingdom once had a navy operating up and down the White Nile. During the colonial era, the British made Malakal an administrative centre, and people from larger communities such as Nuer and Dinka moved there in growing numbers.

During the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), there was extensive fighting in Shilluk areas and many were displaced into Ethiopia and northern Sudan. Mary’s family fled to Khartoum, where she grew up in an informal displacement camp on the city’s outskirts. Inside Sudan they were not given refugee status and the Sudanese government limited humanitarian access to the sites. As a result, Mary grew up in extreme poverty.

After Mary’s father died, her mother was responsible for providing for her four children alone and took on one of the few businesses available to widowed women. She began to illicitly brew merissa, a local alcohol, for sale – a dangerous activity under Sudan’s sharia law. Mary remembers her mother being assaulted and robbed by Sudanese authorities. Her work only just fed the family, and Mary was unable to go to school. But she helped her mother and learned the trade. After a peace agreement was signed in 2005, Mary’s family returned to Malakal where Mary, joyous to return home after so many years, launched her own home-brew business.

Early signs of problems ahead

Despite the official declaration of peace, conflict and uncertainty continued to threaten Malakal’s population. On some occasions, Mary had to take shelter when different armed groups fought in Malakal. More worrying were the increasingly vocal claims of the neighbouring Dinka Padang community that they had the right to control Malakal.

Mary remembers when Sudanese President Omar Bashir and now-South Sudanese President Salva Kiir came to Malakal together in 2008 as part of the peace agreement. A fight broke out over whether Shilluk or Dinka would lead the parade, which was seen as a demonstration of who controlled Malakal. ‘This is the first time I felt afraid. I knew then that these people were not coming here to live with us peacefully they wanted to push us off the land.’

Subsequently, a Shilluk rebel group led by Johnson Olony, a former trader from just outside Malakal, took up arms against the government, claiming that he was challenging his community’s political marginalization and attempts by others to occupy Shilluk land. Many Shilluk joined him, believing they needed to fight for their rights in the new southern Sudan. Nevertheless, by no means all Shilluk were rebels or their supporters – some were in political opposition and others were senior government officials.

In 2012, just a year before the civil war began, Olony’s group made peace with the government in Juba. ‘When this peace came we believed things would improve’, says Mary. ‘We were tired of the security treating Shilluk like we are all rebels or criminals. Some even harassed my business. One day soldiers came and took all of my merissa and when I complained they said, “We are taking this so you do not give it to the rebels.” My children went hungry that day, but what could I do?’

Outbreak of civil war in South Sudan

When, on 15 December 2013, fighting broke out in Juba, government officials issued calls for calm and reassurances that peace would soon be restored. Yet soon the violence had spread to others areas of the country, and by Christmas Malakal was in a state of siege. Control of the city switched between the government and rebels six times in the first six months of the war. During this time forces associated with Dinka and Shilluk remained loyal to the government, while many of the Nuer forces in the city revolted due to the killings of Nuer civilians in Juba.

During periods when the government was in control of the city, they undertook house-to-house searches for Nuer youth – presumed on the basis of ethnicity alone to be rebel supporters. While the Nuer-led opposition was in control of the city they did house-to-house searches for Dinka youth – presumed to be government supporters. Both were killed. During this period, says Mary, ‘we thought this was a war between Dinka and Nuer and their leaders. We have nothing to do with that so we cannot be targeted.’ Yet Shilluk officials were subsequently attacked by Dinka soldiers, and Nuer rebels also killed some Shilluk civilians.

Government officials suggested that soldiers may have attacked Shilluk officials because some rebelled previously and they believed it would happen again. But Mary believes this was the beginning of an effort to use the war as an opportunity to remove the Shilluk community from their historic land. ‘We were on the side of the government so that could not be the reason – this is when we began to see that they had another objective besides fighting Nuer.’

Internal displacement 

In 2013, the large UN peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), had bases across the country. When fighting started, civilians fled the predations of the government and rebel groups to areas they believed would be safe, including the UN compound in Malakal. Within two weeks, 12,000 civilians were sheltering there. Thousands of civilians had also sought refuge in different churches across the city. An additional 3,000 people took shelter in the Malakal Teaching Hospital. The assumption was that these places would be protected from attack – yet in the ensuing violence, countless civilians were killed as they sought sanctuary there. Elderly people who could not run were killed in their homes.

‘We were all moving, looking for a safe place,’ says Mary. ‘We thought we could go to a church or the UN and it would be safe. But they can kill you anywhere.’ Women and girls were frequently sexually assaulted; some women and girls, having been kidnapped by government or rebel forces, were never seen again. Two of Mary’s cousins disappeared during this time.

Once the government regained control of Malakal in April 2014, conflict in the city reduced but most Shilluk civilians did not believe it was safe to live outside the UN base. The only significant grouping of Shilluk not in the base was the armed group that was still part of the government’s army in the city.

Shilluk armed groups go to war 

Though military leaders from the Shilluk community did not rebel, their loyalty to the government was complicated by the emergence of a Dinka Padang militia. Dinka Padang civilians were armed at the beginning of the war to help protect oil operations and to defend areas against Nuer rebels. As the front-lines stabilized these forces remained armed, and the government was reluctant to disarm or demobilize them while the national war was still ongoing.

This created an environment in which they could pursue their objective to ensure Malakal became a Dinka city. By 2015, an increasing number of provocations against Shilluk civilians and members of the security forces were taking place. Because many of the Dinka militia were given army uniforms, there was confusion about who was responsible and no serious efforts were made to rein in the militia. In May 2015, following an attack on his deputy, the Shilluk General Olony defected to the opposition, prompting fighting in and around Malakal.

A Dinka takeover of Malakal

Soon after, an August 2015 peace agreement raised hopes life would return to normal. Mary says, ‘we were so happy that day. We danced and sang into the night.’ But the celebration was premature. The government signed the agreement under duress and many officials were not committed to its implementation. Under pressure from Dinka hardliners to ensure their communities remained empowered and protected during the transitional government, the President decreed the existing ten states would be turned into twenty-eight.

According to the new structure, Malakal was located in ‘Eastern Nile State’. The state’s boundaries included Malakal and almost all Dinka Padang land. Malakal had effectively been annexed. Once the new state was established, Dinka officials decreed that their Shilluk counterparts should move to the new ‘Western Nile State’ capital. Some of these officials had lived their entire lives in Malakal and had never been to the areas now in Western Nile. During this period, the permissive environment for the Dinka Padang militia and its supporters that had existed since 2014 was matched by official government actions in support of turning Malakal into a Dinka city.

Many Shilluk saw this as an abrogation of the peace agreement and it contributed to its collapse in 2016. There has been no peace since.

Nowhere safe

Recognizing it was the long-term protector of thousands of civilians, the UN built fences and set up sentry points to protect its base’s perimeter. The civilian population lived under 24-hour armed guard. Some civilians left the base during daylight hours, primarily out of economic necessity, but many felt too scared to leave at all.

Living at the UN base, families had to make decisions about how to handle continuing threats against Shilluk civilians many of which have gendered dimensions. ‘Sometimes when we have to go out of UNMISS it is better for us as women to go’, says Mary. ‘If the soldiers see a Shilluk man sometimes they can kill him without thinking. With women, the soldiers can abuse or rape but they do not kill us. So it is better for us to go, at least we will live.’

Not long after UNMISS turned into a site of internal displacement, the base was divided into three areas: one each for Shilluk, Nuer and Dinka. Though the communities were kept apart – reportedly at their own request and for their own protection – altercations broke out at regular intervals between different communities (and occasionally within communities). Most of these did not involve firearms and were quickly halted by UN peacekeepers.

But February 2016 was different: days of tensions had left the city and the base on high alert. On the night of 17 February, armed men in SPLA uniform – accounts differ as to whether they were Dinka Padang militia or their sympathisers in the SPLA – entered the site. In less than a day they killed 30 people, injured 120 and burned down most of the Shilluk and Nuer sections of the base. Humanitarian facilities serving these communities were also destroyed. Peacekeepers failed to halt the rampage.

‘I ran here during the fighting of 2013 with very little,’ Mary says. ‘Then they came inside to attack us and I had to run again. All these small things I had managed to get after I came to the UN, my pans to cook for my children and things to sleep on, they were all destroyed. They want to make it so we cannot live here.’

Displacement without end

Mary and thousands of other Shilluk civilians say they do not want to be forced to leave Malakal, even if their only choice is to remain under UN protection. Being unable to leave the UN base, however, makes life exceptionally difficult: ‘It is very crowded in here and it not healthy for the children. The UN does not like me to do my work because they do not want people drinking, so I have no money and it is not always safe.’ And like other victims of the conflict, too, Mary must contend with the trauma of her own experiences of violence and the death, displacement or disappearance of family and friends.

This situation is made even harder by the uncertainty about when this fighting will end: the last war fought here, when the country was still part of Sudan, lasted 22 years and many fear this conflict could be equally long. But leaving the UN base and relocating to a refugee camp or Sudan is not regarded as an option for many Shilluk, who believe that if they leave Malakal the Dinka Padang will block their return, even if a peace agreement is signed – hence the importance of staying put. ‘I had to leave during the last war,’ Mary explains, ‘and I do not want to leave my home again. If we leave they will never let us come back.’ For now she, along with thousands of others, can only wait anxiously as the conflict drags on indefinitely. In the meantime, she teaches her children about Shilluk history, cultural traditions and the religious ceremonies that have been practised in Malakal for hundreds of years – laying the foundation, she hopes, for their eventual return.

Photo: A Shilluk woman at an IDP camp near Aburoc, South Sudan. Credit: Ilvy Njiokiktjien / Cordaid.