Press Release

Ghost Nation: An ethnic-cleansing campaign by the government threatens to empty South Sudan

By Nick Turse,

Refugees from South Sudan arrive in Elegu, northern Uganda(Photo: UNHCR/Will Swanson)
Refugees from South Sudan arrive in Elegu, northern Uganda(Photo: UNHCR/Will Swanson)

June 27, 2017(Nyamilepedia) —– In his heart, Simon Yakida knew he was digging his own grave.

A few days earlier, clashes between government troops and rebel forces near Bamurye, Yakida’s village in South Sudan, had left three soldiers dead. Now the local military commander stood before him, gesturing at one of the bodies. He told Yakida, “Killing you is payback for this soldier.”

Bamurye, a farming community whose residents live in mud-and-thatch huts called tukuls, lies in the southern part of the country. To feed his two wives and nine children, Yakida, a thirty-two-year-old with close-cropped hair and a wiry frame, grew cassava, maize, and sorghum. The work had always been hard, but his life was peaceful. In recent months, however, the soldiers in the local barracks had grown increasingly abusive—­detaining and mistreating ­civilians and accusing them of supporting the antigovernment rebels. In February, the killings began: Three young men were murdered by soldiers in retaliation for recent battlefield losses. Most in the village, including Yakida’s family, had already fled to Uganda; Yakida was on his way when the troops arrested him.

A child carrying water-filled jerricans at the Laufori refugee collection point, on the border of Uganda and South Sudan. All photographs by Natalia Jidovanu

The soldiers watched as Yakida carved out a knee-deep hole. The commander ordered him to roll the corpse into the pit and cover it with soil. Famished, thirsty, and exhausted, Yakida complied. Once the work was done, the soldiers tied him to a wooden pole, the remnants of a rudimentary hut.

“Where is the headman of the village?” the commander barked. “Where is Abu Sala?”

Abu Sala is what people in Bamurye called Alex Kajoba, a night watchman at the local medical dispensary who was known for advocating on behalf of villagers who had been detained at the barracks. It wasn’t a question but a threat; both men knew exactly where Abu Sala was and why he wouldn’t be coming to Yakida’s aid.


What I discovered is far different: a coordinated campaign of atrocity and terror by Kiir’s forces that refutes the government’s narrative. For more than a month I traveled by foot, motorcycle, car, truck, motorboat, ferry, and prop plane through South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda, visiting backland border crossings, refugee collection points, and formal and informal settlements.

I spoke with more than 250 refugees and internally displaced people—from villages spanning some 300 miles, from Arapi in the east to Yambio in the west. Multiple eyewitnesses described attacks by S.P.L.A. soldiers on twenty-six communities, resulting in no fewer than 141 deaths and possibly close to 400. Individual witnesses from nine other villages told me of another twenty-eight killings. Survivors also offered harrowing accounts of rape, torture, assault, mutilation, looting, the destruction of homes, and other crimes of war. These attacks, in addition to news reports of atrocities elsewhere in the Equatorias, reveal a systematic effort carried out by government forces to empty the southern part of South Sudan.

Since the U.S. election, attacks on civilians have dramatically increased, leading some analysts to suggest that the Kiir regime is emboldened by what it sees as the Trump Administration’s hands-off policy. In fact, Kiir said in a speech this February, it was “no secret we had a strong feeling that the previous U.S. administration might have sought a regime change agenda…. We know that the new U.S. administration will take a different direction on South Sudan.”

The price of America’s neglect is now being borne by South Sudanese in villages like Bamurye. The Equatorias, I found, are the site of an ethnic-cleansing campaign that threatens to extinguish the entire region. But as the international community wrings its hands and the Trump Administration warns that “the parties must cease hostilities [and] engage in meaningful and inclusive dialogue,” more than 15,000 refugees cross the southern border each week. Given the scale of the government’s atrocities, how much time is left before a stillborn state is transformed into a ghost nation?


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