“THE BODIES ARE all gone, eaten by the dogs. And the bones have been collected,” declares Bartholomew (25), as he drives us slowly through the streets of Malakal city, in Upper Nile State, South Sudan.
I’m too busy wrestling with mental images of packs of domesticated dogs feeding off human remains to ask him who collected the bones. I can only assume it was the government troops who have recently retaken this once-busy city after a bloody battle with opposition forces.
Malakal is no longer busy. It is like a ghost town (or “a town of ghosts”, as Bartholomew more aptly puts it). I visited Malakal frequently over a number of days, and, excluding the soldiers, I saw only a handful of people moving around on its streets.
The exact number of civilian deaths is unknown
The city changed hands twice within a couple of weeks during the fighting. Those of its usual 130,000 residents who escaped the tribal-based mass killings of civilians that followed each side’s victory, have either fled to the bush or taken refuge in an ad hoc camp at a UN base a couple of miles distant. The exact number of civilian deaths during the past month or so is unknown, but it was many hundreds.
Bodies were left where they fell, to be consumed by the dogs – hence Bartholomew explaining to me where they have gone – leaving one to fervently hope that each person was indeed dead before the packs moved in.
Bartholomew was extremely fortunate not to have been killed himself.
In mid-December, when the fighting started and tribal tensions rose as a consequence, he took to spending his nights in the local GOAL office, imagining he might protect it from looters. An armed mob broke into the building on December 26 and easily overpowered him. Luckily they were from his tribe, or he would have been killed on the spot. As it was, he was merely ordered to leave, and made his way on foot to the camp at the UN base. Bartholomew has been there ever since, one of around 30,000 people living in makeshift shelters without adequate water, food, sanitation or medical care.
Many are still missing
Bartholomew, whose father is long dead, eventually tracked his mother down at the camp. She too had escaped on foot from their home city, but his eight-year-old sister Sara cannot be found. The mother and daughter became separated as they ran, and the little girl has not been seen for weeks. This is a common story amongst the camp’s residents. Such was the general melee as people scrambled to leave the city, family members often ran in different directions. Some made their way to other camps, or spent days hiding in the bush before eventually reuniting with relatives at the UN base. But many more have simply disappeared, presumed killed by marauding mobs of tribal bigots.
There is an air of deep despair about the people living at the camp. The ground is hard as concrete, daily temperatures hover at around 40c, and a constant wind raises choking clouds of dust that swirl around and blanket everything. It will be even worse when the rains come in March/April. The place will then become a swamp, and diseases will run riot.
But it is more than the fact that this is a terrible place to live that has its newly-arrived inhabitants so depressed. The camp dwellers are deeply traumatised by what they have witnessed and suffered. And to make matters worse, they cannot imagine a future beyond the camp that does not involve more of the same violence.
Rumours are rife that opposition forces are gathering in large numbers to the north-east and south-west, preparing for another assault on the city. Some have crossed the nearby River Nile, it is said, and are already engaging government forces.
Fighting is continuing
There is strong evidence to support these rumours. One can often hear shelling from about 10m distant. And on one of our visits to Malakal, Bartholomew and I dropped in at the local hospital, to speak with a tiny number of civilians who have taken refuge there. All the while we were at the hospital, a steady stream of wounded government soldiers arrived, the worst injured of whom had obviously been shot in the stomach. Fighting is definitely continuing nearby.
For the displaced people at the UN base, Malakal is home, and they yearn to go back there, if only to escape the daily hell of the camp. But they are afraid to return. They know the city is of vital strategic importance to both sides. It is situated on the Nile, and whoever holds it has complete control over shipments of oil from the oilfields further upriver. Their hometown has become the prize, and they the disposable pawns, in a power-struggle beyond their control.
“I hate fighting,” Bartholomew tells me, as we are about to take our leave from the hospital. He is warily eyeing another batch of heavily-armed soldiers, just arrived in a pick-up truck with an injured comrade lying prone in the back. “It is always people like us who suffer.” No doubt he is thinking of his little sister, and what might have become of her.
On our way back to the camp, he points to the remains of four bodies burning in a shallow pit by the side of the road. “These are freshly killed people,” he says, “They have to burn them now, because the dogs have followed the people to the camp.”
“There are many dangerous dogs roaming about,” he concludes.
I am not certain he is still talking about the packs of canines.
David Adams is a media officer with GOAL