Govt soldiers locked more than 50 men into a shipping container in South Sudan. All but one boy died
The dead still speak in his dreams. They ask if he remembers their time together in the container. And they tell him not to forget.
The 13-year-old boy sits on a mat in a darkened hut not far from Leer Town in South Sudan, his skeletal knees pressed against his ears, and tells the story of what happened to him and more than 50 other men one day late last year. That morning—he wasn’t sure if it was Oct. 22 or 23—South Sudanese government soldiers rounded up the boy and 10 men as they grazed their cows. The soldiers moved them to a new military garrison that had been thrown up on the grounds of a Catholic mission abandoned the month before, part of an ongoing and bloody civil war between government and opposition forces.
Wielding electrical cables as whips, the soldiers herded the men into an old shipping container once used to store mission supplies. Then they slammed the door. “The container was so hot,” remembers the boy, tears streaming down his narrow face. “When nobody was checking on us, then we knew we were going to be killed.”
Three times the soldiers returned, and three times they shoved more men into the container until there were at least 53 sharing the 8-by-20-ft. space. “It was so full, you could not change your position,” says the boy. “If you were standing up, you could not sit down, and if you were sitting down, you could not stand up.”
There was no air, and the heat inside the container was unbearable. Some of the men shouted for water. They pounded on the metal walls. No one answered. The boy, crouched on the floor near the door, was too terrified to do either. The men near him had no choice but to urinate on his head; some vomited. When they passed out, they collapsed on him. When they died, they were left where they fell.
On the afternoon of the next day, the soldiers threw open the container’s door. “They saw that all the people were dead,” says Sara, who was watching from a hiding place in a nearby hut. “All the men were piled on top of each other, and their bodies had changed color.” Her husband and son-in-law were among the dead. Then Sara, who asked that her full name not be used because of concerns for her safety, saw the soldiers pull the stunned boy out from among the corpses. He was the only one left alive.
The boy is not being named, to protect his identity. Other than a brief interview with a humanitarian agency in the immediate aftermath, this is the first time he has spoken publicly about his ordeal, though the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and the African Union have all reported on the incident and on the fact that there was one survivor. The boy is an eyewitness in a horrifying case that, should it ever go to a war-crimes tribunal, could help make the difference between a nation sundered by atrocity and one able to transcend wounds inflicted by a brutal civil war.
“Without accountability, the current peace process is doomed to implode under the weight of impunity for both human-rights abuses and mass corruption,” says John Prendergast, a former director of African affairs at the National Security Council and co-founder of the Enough Project, a U.S.-based policy group focused on ending genocide and crimes against humanity.
When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, hopes were high that the world’s newest country could break free from a long history of ethnic violence. Soon after Sudan’s independence from the U.K. in 1956, the oil-rich and largely Christian southerners launched a struggle to break away from the country’s Islamist—leaning northern leadership. A series of devastating civil wars defined by brutal ethnic repression finally seized the world’s attention, culminating in an internationally brokered peace deal paving the way for a referendum on independence in 2011.
“These are people that have been captured and they have been sold. And they have been tortured, and they have been raped and murdered. And they believe they have a right for independence now,” George Clooney, one of the self-determination movement’s most vocal champions, told CNN in the months before the vote. “We felt like this was a chance to be able to stop a war before it starts.” The South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly for a nation of their own, confident that they could put the fighting of the past five decades behind them. At the time, South Sudan’s independence was heralded as a landmark achievement for human rights and an example of how to stop genocide with diplomacy.
Instead, on Dec. 15, 2013, a long—standing political dispute within the ruling party erupted into armed confrontation, pitting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against those aligned with his ousted Vice President, Riek Machar. The conflict, colored by ethnic rivalries—Kiir belongs to South Sudan’s politically dominant Dinka tribe, Machar to the Nuer minority—ravaged the capital of Juba before it spread to Machar’s northern strongholds. The conflict has been characterized by scorched-earth tactics, ferocious massacres, systematic gang rapes, recruitment of child soldiers and even forced cannibalism. Both sides have been accused of war crimes.
U.N. officials say 50,000 lives have been lost in the fighting; other estimates put the number in the hundreds of thousands, citing the multiplying effects of hunger and disease on populations with no access to food or medical care. More than 2.3 million South Sudanese have fled their homes, and 2.8 million—nearly a quarter of the population—are at risk of famine. More than half of school-age children are out of school.
In August the two sides signed a peace deal that enables Machar to resume his position as Vice President, forming a transitional government with Kiir that will pave the way for new elections within three years. The accord also calls for the establishment of a special tribunal to investigate war crimes and hold the perpetrators accountable, but it has not yet been set up. Despite the signing of the accords last summer, the rapes, murders and attacks on civilian populations continue “unabated, and with full impunity,” according to a U.N. report released in March.
The container massacre, which was mentioned specifically in the report, was no exception. “This is one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war—yet it has been more or less off the international radar,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said in a statement when the report came out.
For months, as the fighting continued, Machar delayed his return from exile, citing concerns about his security. Under pressure from the U.S. and the other nations that drafted the peace deal, he finally arrived in Juba on April 26. Once the new transitional government is in place—and assuming there are no further breakdowns—South Sudan can seek international funding to start rebuilding, a process that is meant to include investigating and trying war crimes with the special tribunal.
That might seem a secondary concern at a moment when the people of South Sudan are struggling simply to survive, but Prendergast argues that without the push for justice, the country will remain trapped in a cycle of violence and retribution, turning the world’s newest nation into its latest failed state.
When the soldiers realized that the boy was still alive, they gave him food and tea and offered him water for washing. After a brief interrogation, they released him. They even gave him 15 of his 16 cows back, a symbol of reconciliation in a pastoral culture where livestock represent a family’s entire accumulated wealth. The boy doesn’t know how he survived the container, and he doesn’t know why the soldiers let him go. What he does know is that he will never forget what happened.
Leer, with its port on the nearby White Nile, was once a vibrant market town, selling everything from solar panels to generators, grains and cheap Chinese fabrics. It was home to some 60,000 residents who depended on the rich soil of the region’s seasonal swamps to grow their crops and graze the long-horned cattle that are the cornerstone of the rural economy. It is also Machar’s hometown and a stronghold for the forces that backed him when he was ousted from power. Government troops launched a violent offensive in Leer last spring, sending residents fleeing to the swamps for safety.
Fifteen-year-old Gatchang Gathak, dressed in plaid Timberland boxers and a dirty gray singlet, describes how soldiers descended on his family compound at dawn, looting their food supplies, stealing their livestock and burning their thatched mud huts to the ground. His family ran for a nearby stream and hid chin-deep in the swampy vegetation. The soldiers sprayed the water with bullets in an attempt to finish them off. He and his family hid among the reeds for days, subsisting on water-lily roots and river snails.
“If the government soldiers find a woman, they will rape her,” says Gathak. “If they find a man, they will kill him.” His family now lives near rebel-controlled Thonyor, a ramshackle settlement that sprang up across the front line from Leer when fighting broke out and residents fled.
The government considers anyone who lives in the opposition-controlled territory around Leer to be a rebel. Most would agree. “We have no arms. We are not fighting. But we are all rebels. We just don’t support the government,” says Peter Jany, the deputy secretary of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, which serves as an unofficial liaison between the opposition government and international humanitarian-relief agencies. While some Leer residents have started to trickle back into town, most say they are too afraid of the government’s forces to return. “How can I be with a government that kills us and rapes us?” asks one former Leer resident.
Save for a few military posts and a heavy contingent of soldiers and government—aligned militia around the deputy governor’s residence, Leer looks like a ghost town, its vast market ransacked and empty but for a few stands selling tiny plastic bags of oil, salt and soap. Once thriving neighborhoods are littered with bullet-riddled vehicles and, in some areas, human remains.
The continuous fighting has kept people on the move, unable to plant crops, for more than two years. Michael, a young father who asked that his full name not be used out of fears for his safety, points to a bare patch of land on the outskirts of Leer that was once his home. All that is left are several rings of blackened mud bricks, the remnants of a stand of thatched huts that housed his extended family. He describes his fields of sorghum and his modest herds of cows and goats. The earth is fertile, ready to be plowed.
But Michael and his family choose to stay in congested Thonyor, where they are dependent on paltry food handouts from humanitarian organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). There is no point in planting, Michael says, if he doesn’t know if he will be around to harvest. “Why would we start over when we don’t know if peace is ever going to come? So for now we stay where we know it is safe. When there is peace for good, then we will come back and rebuild and farm again.”
The inability to farm has precipitated a catastrophic hunger crisis in a country that should be a breadbasket of Africa. One in five children in South Sudan’s Unity state, where Leer is the second largest town, is severely malnourished, leading to physical stunting and delayed mental development, according to the Scotland-based humanitarian agency International Rescue Corps (IRC), which has several programs in South Sudan. Even the capital, Juba, is experiencing unprecedented rates of childhood malnutrition.
Humanitarian agencies call the near famine in South Sudan a “man-made disaster” caused by the war, not by drought. People are so desperate for food, says Erna Rijnierse, a doctor at the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Leer, that mothers are coming to the clinic’s emergency feeding program for severely malnourished children with a change of clothes. They swap out their outfits and return to the line in the hopes of getting another dose of the peanut-paste infant supplement called Plumpy’nut for themselves.
“People usually double-dip so they can sell the Plumpy’nut in the market, but I’m not even seeing it in the shops,” says Rijnierse. “That is not a reassuring sign.” In a culture where young men cannot marry without cattle to cover a dowry, she’s seen families reduced to slaughtering their milk cows. “That’s like eating your wedding gown.”
At a recent ICRC food-registration drive in Thonyor, some 20,000 people gather before dawn to reserve places in line and stay there all day in the blazing sun. One woman tries to pass off a bundle of rags as a fake baby, in order to register another mouth. Those around her laugh when the obvious ploy is discovered, but they also acknowledge that everyone is so desperate, they will try anything to get more food.
Down the line, 28-year-old Nyadiet Manyang waits with her four children. Her husband was killed in an attack on her village nearly a year ago. Armed men returned a few months later to loot what was left. “They even took our spoons,” she says. Manyang, visibly pregnant, recounts how she was abducted by the soldiers, raped and then forced to cook one of her cows for them. When asked why she is willing to share her story publicly, despite the stigma around rape, she laughs bitterly and gestures at the women in line around her. Rape, she says, has become too common. The other women nod in agreement. “What happened to my sister, it happened to all of us,” says 25-year-old Nyawuok Chan, a newborn at her breast.
One researcher surveyed 15 villages in Leer County about incidents of violence. Almost every household said it had had at least one male family member shot, and most women reported being raped. It helps explain why Dashakti Reddy, a researcher for IRC who studies gender-based violence, says rape has become “endemic” in South Sudan, even as it has become harder to establish who is responsible for the attacks. The U.N. report suggests that government troops are allowed to loot and rape in lieu of wages, while in Leer, at least, Amnesty International accuses local tribal militias aligned with the government.
Simon Chuol, the government-appointed deputy governor of the town of Leer, denies that the government works with local militias and blames instead roving bands of drunken young rebels high on the power of newly acquired weapons. “It’s useless to speculate,” says Rijnierse. The reality is that everyone is armed, and everyone is at risk. “It used to be you would go steal a cow from your neighbor with a spear. Now you do it with an RPG.”
The graveyard of peace
After the boy left the mission compound, Sara kept watching from her hiding place. Once it grew dark, soldiers loaded the bodies—including those of her husband and son-in-law—into waiting trucks and drove off. Friends tell her the bodies were dumped in old excavation pits about a kilometer outside town, a detail backed up by multiple witness accounts and the Amnesty report. By the time the victims’ relatives got access to the site days later, says Sara, hyenas and vultures had strewn the decomposing bodies over a wide area. She didn’t want to go look. “If I saw my husband’s clothes there, I would not feel good,” she says.
Five months after the incident, the ravaged skulls, spines and femurs of at least six bodies still lie out in the open, on the side of the road and just a few hundred meters from a newly opened U.N. peacekeeping base. According to a forensic report commissioned by Amnesty, the timeline of decay on the remains is consistent with the date of the container massacre. When asked why the bones hadn’t been collected and buried, Sara says most of the victims’ families were too scared of the soldiers to go back, even long after they had stopped guarding the site.
The red shipping container in the boy’s description has been taken over as a place to play for the children of several displaced families who moved into the missionary compound when the soldiers left in January. Inside it is bare and appears to have been cleaned relatively recently. After just a minute during the hottest part of the day, the heat was oppressive. Even to a lone visitor, with the door partly open, the air felt suffocating.
The commissioner of Leer County, Wol Yach, was in Juba when the massacre happened. Yach, a soft-spoken Nuer who has recently been promoted to state minister for infrastructure, says he started hearing rumors of people dying in a container in Leer a few days after the incident took place, but he was never able to pin down the source. “People tell me it happened, and sometimes I have to believe them, but the acting commissioner and commander in charge say it didn’t happen.” Neither could be reached for comment. “If it did happen,” muses Yach, “maybe it was a mistake. Maybe the intention was not to kill them, but the soldiers didn’t know they were putting the men in a container without air.”
Sara finds that hard to believe. She says that each time the soldiers opened the container, it was clear that the men inside were dying.
International monitoring groups have accused opposition forces of committing gross human-rights abuses elsewhere in the country, including an attack on a hospital in Malakal in February 2014 and a massacre at a mosque in Bentiu that killed nearly 300. But they hold the government responsible for killings in Leer. In a terse assessment dated Dec. 18, 2015, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), an international body tasked by the African Union to oversee the cease-fire, wrote: “About 50 people suffocated in a container on about 22 October. The investigation was protracted. Attribution of responsibility: Government Forces.” The report notes that shipping containers have often been used as makeshift prisons.
South Sudan presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny calls the allegations “exceedingly far-fetched” and instead theorizes that opposition forces may have locked up the men to implicate the government and thwart the peace process. Rebels from Leer say the idea is ludicrous, pointing out that the whole compound was under government control. Though Ateny adds that a military investigation is under way, government defense spokesman Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang says that to his knowledge, there has been no military inquiry into the incident so far.
That doesn’t surprise JMEC chair Festus Mogae, who says none of the alleged war crimes that took place since the beginning of the conflict have been investigated. Both sides, he says, have committed offenses punishable by international law. “There can be no peace if crimes are committed with impunity. They have to be properly investigated and those responsible held to account. Otherwise we are open to the cycles of revenge.”
But it is not clear that the new unity government plans to make justice a priority. Presidential spokesman Ateny says that the two parties did not negotiate the peace but that the accord, including the provision for a special hybrid court to try war crimes, was “imposed” upon them by an international community threatening sanctions. Rather than open themselves up to public and potentially damaging accusations, senior leaders on both sides will be tempted to defer the establishment of such a court indefinitely, says Prender-gast of the Enough Project.
That’s where the U.S. and the international community that midwifed South Sudan into existence could step in with additional pressure. Citing a recent U.N. Security Council report that found clear evidence that most of the violations of international humanitarian and human-rights law had been committed with the knowledge of senior leaders on both sides, Prendergast says it is vital that both Machar and Kiir be held to account. “Command-and-control responsibility for mass atrocities [goes] all the way to the very top of both the government and rebel militaries. The onus is on the U.N. Security Council to act on that evidence by holding accountable those leaders on both sides.” If the court is obstructed, he says, the next step should be targeted financial sanctions and travel bans on those who are getting in its way.
The boy has already spent six months in perpetual fear that Leer’s delicate equilibrium could collapse at any minute, unleashing even greater savagery. The only thing he wants more than revenge, he says, is peace. He wants to go to school. He wants to become a teacher, so he can help his country prosper. “I want South Sudan to be a better place for everybody,” he says. “We need peace in South Sudan.” But to get lasting peace, South Sudan may need justice first. —With reporting by Lynsey Addario/Thonyor.