Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo September 19, 2019

Forced Out: Measuring the Scale of the Conflict in South Sudan


Stealing South Sudan: Civil war, land grabs and displacement. Image by Carolyn Thompson. Sudan, 2017.

Thousands of people have been forced off their properties in South Sudan—and often the perpetrators...

A refugee camp in northern Uganda where some fo the 2.3 million South Sudanese refugees are living. Image by Carolyn Thompson. Uganda, 2019.
A refugee camp in northern Uganda where some fo the 2.3 million South Sudanese refugees are living. Image by Carolyn Thompson. Uganda, 2019.

View the full interactive experience on the Al Jazeera website

1. The Sound of Gunfire

It was a quiet Sunday morning in January 2017, in the southern South Sudanese town of Mondikolok and some people were on their way to church, while others stayed home and packed suitcases, preparing for a long journey.

Chaplain Logonda was in his mud-walled house and getting ready to leave when he heard the sound of gunfire and rushed outside.

"I saw the government soldiers. They were coming and four of them lined up," he said. 

They were in uniform, about 30 feet from where he stood.

"They started saying, 'You don't run'," he said.

Mondikolok, in Kajo Keji county, is close to Uganda, to its south and further from Juba, the South Sudanese capital, to its north. 

In southern South Sudan, citizens are often mistaken for opposition fighters and Logonda, a former county school inspector, knew better than to listen to the soldiers' orders. 

"I had to run," he said.

Logonda ran behind his house, away from the main road and the village market, where he knew he would likely find more government soldiers. He went toward the narrow, beaten pathways through the bushes that lead into farmers' fields, over to the forest, and on to neighbouring villages. As he was running, the soldiers shot their guns.

"So, on my process of running, I was falling, they were shooting, I was falling, they were shooting," he said.

"So, on my process of running, I was falling, they were shooting, I was falling, they were shooting," said Chaplain Logonda. 

He dove into the bushes, tearing off his shirt to blend further into the bush and soil. He was barefoot, having been inside his house and running without time to prepare. He turned his phone off, fearing it would make a sound and give his location away.

As he lay among the grass, he heard a woman scream, "I'm off, I'm finished." 

Then, gunshots.

"I had to lie down flat on the ground," he said more than a year later, sitting on a blue plastic chair outside his home in the Palorinya refugee camp, in northern Uganda. 

Logonda pulled up his sleeve, revealing the scars from when he rolled over rocks and away from the bullets. There were more on his legs and ankles.

He said he was laying in the dirt, watching the soldiers advance, hoping they would miss him when he saw one of them set the bushes on fire.

"I had to roll myself to escape," he said. "But fortunately enough, they did not see me. They advanced ahead."

South Sudan, the world's newest country, has been in civil conflict for more than five years. 

After decades of struggle against Sudanese leadership based in Khartoum, the South Sudanese voted for independence from Sudan in 2011. But in December 2013, fighting broke out when President Salva Kiir accused his deputy Riek Machar of planning a coup. It quickly descended into ethnically-motivated violence.

Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group, the largest in South Sudan, while Machar represents the second-largest, the Nuer. During December 2013 and ensuing months in 2014, hundreds of thousands of Nuer - as well as some other ethnic groups, such as the Shilluk, who were seen as siding with the Nuer - fled the country or crowded into United Nations or NGO-controlled protection camps inside the country. Most of those people have been unable to return home.

An attempt at a peace deal between the two leaders brought Machar back to South Sudan in March 2016, delayed after negotiations over weapons and conditions of merging the government and "in opposition" armies, called the SPLA (now renamed the SSPDF) and SPLA-IO respectively.

In July 2016, a few months after Machar returned, the peace agreement broke down again with fighting beginning at the statehouse in the capital Juba and spreading across the city. It triggered a fresh wave of violence, with the fighting pushing further south into a lush and fertile region comprising three provinces known as the Equatorias, where Machar and his troops passed through while fleeing into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This led to nearly a million people from that region crossing the border into Uganda, registering as refugees. It is estimated that more than 383,000 people have died in the conflict, according to a report from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

A new peace deal signed in September last year has raised hopes that the more than four million displaced can finally return home. The negotiations, often stalling, have been delayed again, with a final peace agreement implementation that was expected in May now at least another six months away. A meeting between Machar and Kiir in Juba this September is sparking hopes the agreement will soon be implemented. The leaders are under pressure to meet a November deadline. And within the way of legal recourse or international support, analysts worry unresolved land disputes will sow the seeds of the next war.

Since the collapse of the peace deal in 2016 alone, more than a million people are said to have fled across the border, escaping rape, murder, destruction of property, and occupation of land.

Al Jazeera used a mobile phone survey, satellite imagery, submitted photos and public data to try to confirm these reports and shed light on the scale of the conflict.

We called more than 35,000 numbers by random dialling on the Zain mobile network in South Sudan. The survey was distributed by a company called Viamo. Of those calls, more than 2,900 people listened to the introduction and selected a language, and 405 people completed the entire 14-question survey, which was designed in consultation with South Sudan land rights experts and statisticians.

We prerecorded questions in six languages: English, Arabic, Dinka, Nuer, Bari and Madi, and participants could respond to those multiple-choice questions by pressing number keys on their phones. In a few cases, open ended-questions allowed people to record an answer, which was later transcribed.

All the translations were verified by two different translators, to ensure accuracy, and the survey was tested several times before the collected results were considered useable. The survey included questions on demographics, displacement, destruction, and plans to return.

When Logonda felt safe enough, after the soldiers had left, he rose from the burned patch of bushes and walked back to his house. He gathered a few items, including his bicycle, and began the 40km journey south to cross the Ugandan border.

But back in Mondikolok, known for its prominent red-roofed hexagonal church, six people were dead, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and several citizens interviewed by Al Jazeera. 

A catechist was shot on his way to church to help lead the worship. A woman, shot and left for dead in burning grass. An elderly man, disabled, unable to run, shot where he was left by fleeing friends and family.

Just a few days earlier, Logonda had been up late at night. He had been disturbed by an unusual noise coming from the main road.

David Deng, a human rights lawyer and land rights researcher who has been working on South Sudan since 2008 and is based in neighbouring Uganda, said before 2016, population displacement could often be attributed to many parties, but that changed after the breakdown of the peace agreement.

"From 2016 to 2017, I think the dynamic shifted and the government very much got the upper hand militarily, which they have retained to this day and, for the most part, they tend to be the ones who are military aggressors."

Logonda is now teaching at an overcrowded makeshift school in a crowded refugee settlement in Uganda.

Students pile onto crooked wooden tables and sit on the floor to study. He doubts many have hopes of graduating. He lives in a mud hut in an open field on a corner of the camp, where his daughter plays with pieces of rubbish she finds in the streets. He can barely afford to feed his family and the teacher, who prides himself on his education, had to pull two of his daughters out of school.

"When South Sudan attained independence, we were happy," he said. "We thought we were going to have everlasting peace. Now after five years' time, the reverse came true. People fled their homes … people were forced into exile."


2. The Spread of War

Joseph Lugala Wani was one of South Sudan's millionaires. Back in 2014 or 2015, the businessman from South Sudan's Kajo Keji region could earn up to nine million South Sudanese pounds each month (worth about $1.9m at the time, according to a calculation using UN data on the parallel exchange rate): combined income from the guesthouse, restaurant and shops he owned, where he sold spare parts for bicycles, cars and other items. After he had paid his many staff and covered expenses, he would be left with between 7,000 and 15,000 South Sudanese pounds of profit, between $1,500 and $3,200 each month.

When his Naya Guesthouse opened in Wudu in 2012, the town celebrated. It had bright blue walls, a red roof, 16 hotel rooms, 10 shops. It created jobs. Important government officials travelling through town would often stay there.

But as the war spread south through the country, wealthy businessmen became targets. Wani says he was threatened - people thought he was funding the opposition movement.

One day in 2016, not long after the fighting had begun and spread south, he was warned they were coming to arrest him. He rushed to pack his truck with possessions - spare parts he could sell, nice clothes, some of his favourite books - and he drove across the border to Uganda. He thought he'd cross back again when things calmed down.

It has now been three years. And much of what he left behind has been destroyed.

"I was told they put in tyres in the rooms for the house to get burned quickly," Wani said.

People who visited Wudu in December 2017 told him the hotel was still standing, though the residents of Wudu town had long-since fled. A month later, he learned the building was in ruins - looted and burned.

Nearly half the people Al Jazeera surveyed, 196 people, said they were certain their properties had been looted, damaged or destroyed. Of that half, one-third said they witnessed the destruction of their properties themselves. Another 40 percent said that a friend or relative told them.

"Often, what you'll have is an armed group will move in, they'll fight with combatants in a particular area, then on their way out or afterwards they'll go destroy the infrastructure and the place as a means of sort of undermining communities that they perceive to be allied with their enemies," Deng said. "In rural areas, this can involve burning huts to the ground as a way of undermining that base of support."

Those who ventured back to Wudu in January and February of 2017 returned to the refugee camps in Uganda with photos of the destruction. The Naya's red roof had caved in; debris covered the ground; a row of four rooms and a toilet were all burned - found with tyres inside and scorch marks on the walls.

Al Jazeera obtained copies of these photos from multiple sources, including those who took the images themselves. We are not naming the photographers or those who travelled home in order to protect their identities for their safety.

Al Jazeera matched those photos to satellite imagery, which we obtained through publicly available Google images as well as through a paid subscription service provided to Al Jazeera by African Defence Review, called TerraServer.

The imagery, which was taken by several satellites and together reveal snapshots every few weeks at different resolution levels, shows the building identified as Naya Guesthouse, located using the coordinates of nearby schools and landmarks, as well as descriptions of several refugees.

In the same satellite images, the town's market stalls appear burned and destroyed. Most of the thatched-roof houses circling the town are no longer visible. 

"What we know is that all things are destroyed. The building is burned," Wani said. "It is the government. It's the government targeting the civilians."

While satellite images can help verify accounts of property destruction, they are unable to determine whether the destruction was deliberate or caused by natural fires, feeding on the overgrown bush in abandoned towns and villages - bush that ordinarily would have been routinely cleared by residents.

Wani's own home, in a village a few kilometres south of Wudu, just barely escaped destruction. Nearly every other thatched-roof house there is down to rubble, according to satellite imagery. Wani says he had built a barrier of plants that protected his home from succumbing to the fire, but that recent travellers to his village told him the windows and doors are gone, all scrap metal removed, and the inside was looted.

Wani blames the government soldiers.

"We blame the government, of course. We blame the government because they wanted to push us out," he said. "Otherwise, if we were to remain there, these houses would not have gotten burned."

"We blame the government because they wanted to push us out. Otherwise, if we were to remain there, these houses would not have gotten burned," said Wani.

The army denies responsibility.

South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuei, told Al Jazeera burned homes were a "normal consequence" of war.

"Fire is a normal thing here in South Sudan," he said. "If you have decided to vacate your village completely and the fire comes from somewhere and if there is no one there to protect your house from fire then, definitely, the fire will burn it. Yes, they left because of fighting, but the fact that their houses were burned - the houses were not burned by anybody."

"Is this the only place where destruction is happening because of war? Are you seeing what is happening in Syria now? This is the natural consequence of any war."

Wani now lives in a modest two-bedroom house in northern Uganda. He is what they call an urban refugee. He is renting the house from a friend and lives in a town just beside the border with South Sudan and opposite the Diocese of Kajo Keji. But he has not paid rent in months, relying on his friend's generosity with a lack of other options.

The house cannot fit his family, so several of his children sleep with friends down the road. Little of his lucrative businesses remains and there is scant work to sustain his family, but he is afraid of travelling back home, of starting his life over from scratch.

"I don't think it will be possible for me to go and build that house again because it cost me a lot of money," he said, adding that it is not possible to estimate the cost. He would first have to hire a consultant, then price out the cost to replace the fire-damaged walls, the missing metal window bars and doors, and the collapsed red roof. 

Wani was a tall, bulky man. He wore his weight with pride, which in South Sudan can serve as an indication of wealth. But today, much of that evidence has wasted away, disappearing with his skipped meals and cutting out of beef and other costly foods, choices to spread his money further in feeding his nine daughters.

Since he was able to pack up before he left in 2016, Wani brought a few of his nicer suits to wear to church and special occasions. But now, after losing so much weight, it shames him to wear them. "I look like a skeleton," he says. The suit stays tucked inside the closet at home, a reminder of the time when he was a millionaire.

Around his neck is a beige beaded string, with a silver cross at the end. He got it in Uganda, just after arriving from South Sudan. He says it wasn't because he had fled that he sought the necklace, but then he took it to be blessed by the priest. Since that time, he hasn't taken it off. It sits there through showers, through sweat as he tends to his struggling garden, and lays next to his heart while he sleeps. It's a comfort, he says. His reminder of hope.

The TV in their house is permanently off. There is no money to power it. Where they used to watch the news on BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, or later the local Ugandan networks, they now entertain themselves with the sounds of rain on the tin roof and the noise of chickens wandering in the yard. He can't watch football anymore either - the matches of his favourite team, Inter Milan, from the time he had an Italian friend, pass unnoticed now.

Back when he had money, he would use his rare time off to go to town and sit under a tree in the market with his friends. He would take a Fanta soda or a tea, steeped in milk and flavoured with ginger, and talk about the world.

But today, he doesn't want to face his friends in the market, knowing he can't afford to sit with them. Instead, he stays at home, reading books, often the Bible. He is even reluctant to mention that he used to spend money on such frivolous things as tea and soda (he never drank alcohol or smoked anyways); his priorities today are school fees and food.

"Peace comes when there is security, when there is freedom," he said. "This one, we call it a tribal war. It is not a just war."

3. Land Grabbing

It had been four years since Mary Nyanong Jiath had been to her home in Malakal, in South Sudan's north-west. 

Just days after hostilities erupted in December 2013 between troops loyal to President Kiir and his deputy Machar, the fighting reached the large northern town on the bank of the White Nile River near the border with Sudan. Mary took her children and her elderly mother and fled, empty-handed.

For those four years, she lived in a sprawling and muddy camp just outside the Malakal UN compound, no more than a 20-minute drive from what was once home. But in January 2018, the former bishop of Malakal died and Mary, a devout Catholic, travelled back to the town for the funeral with hundreds of others from the camp.

Mary's house, with its two furnished rooms and two shops stacked high with general goods - coffee beans and cooking oil, ginger and sweets - was not far from the church. Could they maybe stop there, she asked her travel companions. Could she see the home she left behind? So many had been destroyed. What about hers?

The car pulled up outside Mary's house. It was still standing. She began walking towards it, then stopped. Coming out of the house was a man and some children. The man was wearing an army uniform, three stars on his epaulettes - a captain in the government army.

One in five of the people surveyed by Al Jazeera, 84 out of 405, said they were certain that someone was living illegally on their property. Those people were fairly evenly split across the country, with a majority concentrated in the areas along the White Nile River. More than a quarter of those 84 people blamed their displacement on government soldiers.

Before the war came to Malakal, it was the second-largest town in South Sudan. It had a university and a stadium and a hospital and banks and churches and mosques and a fish market and a busy high road.

Now, it is stripped bare for scrap, many of its thousands of residents living in the same nearby Protection of Civilians (POC) site - a displacement settlement guarded by the United Nations - that Mary fled to when Malakal was first attacked.

Standing outside her home in January 2018, Mary greeted the captain and his children. They didn't respond. Mary climbed back in the car and left.

"Malakal is destroyed," she told Al Jazeera a few months later, sitting on a stool in the middle of the scrap metal house she built in the POC site. "There are no homes, schools, shops, ministries. The hospital is destroyed. Even if my house is safe, I can't be happy."

Land rights researcher Deng said he has also heard reports of occupation from across the country - a natural consequence of a conflict with such high levels of displacement.

"That can be any number of situations, from a neighbour who has seen their neighbour leave and doesn't think they're going to be back any time soon and sees an opportunity now to take that plot, to military personnel who may be stationed in a particular area and they see the neighbourhood totally vacant, so they move in to grab people's plots," he said. 

"You can have issues of people who are displaced from elsewhere in South Sudan. They come to this location they don't see anyone in this particular place so they just move in. And sometimes in some situations, it's the sort of thing where a person is just there because they have nowhere else to go and when the owner comes back they say they'll be happy to leave."

But Deng also said in some cases the occupation can be an intentional, collective decision made to go in and take the land.

Information Minister Makuei told Al Jazeera in January that anybody whose land had been grabbed "has the right to claim it" back, but added: "There is nobody whose lands have been grabbed. This is all nonsense created by people who want to create a story."

Taban Lo Liyong, a celebrated South Sudanese poet and professor of literature at the University of Juba, said it will be crucial for the peace agreement to include land rights - something that many members of the international community pushing the peace agreement forward do not understand.

"Some of these things are spiritual, and when they are ignored we then can have problems," he said.

"The land is where we are born. The land is where the dead are buried. The land is part and parcel of our livelihood. It is our mother. Our land is our mother. Whether it is dry or not, whether it is rich or not, it is still our place. Everybody has their own land. Why don't they take care of their own land and leave us with ours?"

The UN hopes that in the wake of the peace deal, civilians will begin leaving these POC sites. But all those recently contacted by Al Jazeera said they weren't ready.

Some, like Mary, don't know whether they will find their home the way they left it - and unoccupied - if they do.

"The Malakal POC remains heavily congested with a population of over 29,000 individuals," said Garth Smith, deputy county director of the Danish Refugee Council in South Sudan, through an emailed response in March.

"This community is choosing to remain in the POC site for a number of reasons including concerns over the security and stability of the area, personal fears of safety outside the site, access to services and the fact that a large number of homes in Malakal Town, where a significant portion of the POC population came from, are currently being occupied by other displaced communities."

As the peace agreement discussions were under way, the UN helped relocate some people out of its POC sites - but only those that were willing to leave. 

"What I do know is that in South Sudan there are areas where houses are being taken over by other groups," David Shearer, head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), told Al Jazeera in May 2018.

"People have property rights, quite legitimate property rights, and one of the biggest struggles we're going to have as we try and move people out of POC sites and back into their homes again is proving that those property rights exist and ensuring that the authorities act to take those people who have taken those houses over and allow the original inhabitants to go back. Until that happens, these people are not going to leave those camps."

4. Unable to Go Home

Last September, at a meeting in Addis Ababa, President Salva Kiir and his deputy-turned-rebel leader Riek Machar signed a peace agreement, ending nearly five years of civil war.

Two weeks later, residents of the POC site at Malakal joined government soldiers in a "peace walk" around their largely empty town.

Across the border to the south, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni floated the idea that South Sudanese refugees like Logonda and Wani might soon leave: "We hope that with the UN support in regards to food and basic essentials, the refugees could return home by January and take advantage of the rains that start in March in order to grow some food."

While there have been small numbers of returnees reported, none of the refugees Al Jazeera contacted was ready to go back. Reports from those who have travelled into Kajo Keji to check on the situation, as well as poet Lo Liyong who returned to a village for the funeral of well-known South Sudanese journalist Alfred Taban in May, found swaths of empty villages and untended fields.

Land rights researcher Deng said that in his experience, most displaced populations want to return home. But that is complicated by the prevalence of property destruction and land occupation in this conflict - something he said the government has not yet addressed.

"Now, how do you again go back and start from zero?" said businessman Wani, adding that he doubted the government would provide support were they ever able to return in the case of a fully implemented peace agreement.

Among the people surveyed, more than half, 224 people, said they would return home were the fighting to stop. Among those who said they had been displaced by government soldiers, or who were certain their properties were destroyed, that percentage was even higher.

"Definitely, there has not been the kind of decision from the government to combat this in a serious way that one would need to see in order to enable a return process," Deng said.

"The fact that it's been allowed to go on for so long, and the longer that it happens the more entrenched it will become, it really contributes to the kind of problems that we're seeing around displacement and the difficulty of getting people to leave the POCs and to return from refugee camps."

The peace deal, already criticised by analysts such as Alan Boswell for its similarities to failed earlier pacts, makes no reference to land rights or compensation. "Going home", for many, will mean returning to properties that have been looted, occupied or destroyed - often without effective assistance or restitution.

"There's a major gap in humanitarian structures on this," says Lucy Hovil, senior research associate for the International Refugee Rights Initiative. "The definition of repatriation is basically dumping people over a border with three months of rations, and there's almost no mechanism in place to ensure that they can get their piece of land back ... When people return, they're going to be on their own. That's the precedent and that is the harsh reality."

The result is refugees becoming displaced within their own country, "because they still can't go home."

"People don't think about the longer-term consequences and the cyclical nature of conflict. This is sowing the seeds of the next round of conflict."

When asked by Al Jazeera in January 2019 whether the government had any policy to assist refugees returning home whose houses had been destroyed, Information Minister Makuei replied, "nothing."

He said refugees went to Uganda for political or economic reasons. "Do they mean to tell us they will not come back unless their houses are rebuilt?" he asked.

"The land policy has nothing to do with the peace agreement," he said. "The refugees who are returning home, their lands are there and they will come and occupy their land."

Some 2.3 million South Sudanese were living as refugees as of August 2019, according to the UN refugee agency. Another 1.9 million were internally displaced, with nearly 200,000 in the UN's POC sites, such as the camp at Malakal.

Deng said when the government targets land, houses and other property, it's really a way of targeting people seen as supporting the opposition or other armed groups that oppose their leadership.

"By failing to distinguish between civilian and combatant, they're really just shoring up support for the armed groups and when they go in with such a heavy hand, in the end, it just ends up turning the whole community against whoever it is that's attacking. You end up with a situation where the government may have won the war, but they have failed to win the hearts and minds of the people."

Since the peace deal was signed, fighting continues in some parts of South Sudan. A group of international monitors assessing the implementation of the pact were threatened and assaulted by government security agents. Few refugees have returned.

Last October, at a peace celebration in front of a crowd of thousands, Salva Kiir apologized to the South Sudanese for five years of war.

"It was a complete betrayal of our people and their liberation struggle and this is what has warranted my apology to the people of South Sudan," he said. "This war was not your war."

All routes were to be opened, he said, for humanitarian supplies, for trade. "More importantly, it will allow internally displaced persons to return home."

"Peace has come at last and it is here to stay."

When Wani hears Kiir speak such words, he just laughs and shakes his head. He spent much of his life - more than 30 years - in refugee camps in Uganda before South Sudan gained its independence. Now, just eight years after that historic independence vote, he's living in exile once again.

"We didn't intend to come this way, but we were forced out by the government soldiers," he said. While living in Uganda, registered as refugees, he's lost his mother, his father, and one of his nine daughters.

Gladis Blessed, who was eight years old, developed a disease that Wani first thought was malaria. He took her to the hospital, but they couldn't find a cure. He took her on a long journey to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he tried to get her better treatment. She didn't survive. He now believes someone must have poisoned her. His mother died of old age. His father had tuberculosis; He stopped eating, couldn't walk, and he died because they couldn't afford the drugs to save him.

In South Sudan, the dead should be buried in their homeland - it is an important cultural practice. But with the conflict, it was impossible for his mother and daughter. They buried the two together, side-by-side, in a Ugandan cemetery. When his father died four months later, friends were able to return his body home to Kajo Keji, and laid him to rest on the family land.

"Me I'm 50 years old, what if I die today?" he says. "My kids will not know about [South] Sudan. These kids will not go back to South Sudan."

To view the full interactive article, click here


teal halftone illustration of a family carrying luggage and walking


Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees
yellow halftone illustration of two people standing back to back


Land Rights

Land Rights

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues