News / Africa

Bor Residents Rush to Bury Dead Amid South Sudan Fighting

FILE - Dead bodies covered in plastic lie in front of a burnt out marketplace in Bor, South Sudan.
FILE - Dead bodies covered in plastic lie in front of a burnt out marketplace in Bor, South Sudan.
Hannah McNeish
Fighting between rebels and the government is still raging in South Sudan, where a political crisis in late December lit the fuse to an explosion of violence that first split the army, and now has turned whole communities against one another.  In some towns - which have changed hands several times - the few remaining residents are trying to bury the many dead littering the streets.  

The only sound in the streets of Bor, the capital of South Sudan's long-troubled Jonglei state, is silence.

The odd scavenging child picks through the rubble of what was once the market. But even the smallest bag of flour has been taken, and the vultures sometimes caw as they circle overhead.

On the other side of town, the silence is punctured by diggers, churning up the earth for mass burial sites.

Michael Mayen, a lawyer who returned and was horrified at the mutilated, burnt or fast decomposing bodies strewn across the town, has spent more than two weeks collecting what he says were some 2,000 bodies.

"I decided to come to know exactly the people who were killed," he said. "Was it innocent people or soldiers?  When I came here I saw most of the vulnerable people were killed.  Ladies, kids and disabled people was killed."
 
The fighting began in December when a power struggle between South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar triggered a gunbattle between presidential guards in the capital, Juba. It quickly stirred to life old militias, as well as general ethnic tensions stemming from a decades-long civil war which eventually won South Sudan its independence.

This new war is internal, drawn often along ethnic lines and sparing few civilians.

Reverend Thomas Kur returned to the St. Andrews Episcopal Church in the center of Bor and found six female priests shot dead, the younger women raped and butchered.  He is struggling to come to terms with the senseless violence.

Like Mayen, Kur would like to honor the dead - many of whom he says are still lying in the small huts that dot the town and outlying villages.  

"There's no funerals!  Who's there? The whole town is deserted, who can make the funerals?  I've been used to being in the place of the burials like this morning, where that mass grave of 134 are buried, and one is still being dug, so that to put the other people who are still being collected in the towns," Kur said.
 
Some people, like Mary Aru, have crept back from the bush to try to salvage what remains of their ransacked or razed homes.  She has only come away with one suitcase.

She says, "The whole house was destroyed. They stole the beds, everything. The only thing we found were a few pieces of cloth."
 
Organizations like Human Rights Watch are urging teams from the United Nations and African Union to gather evidence of the dead now to ensure that the mass abuses and killings on both sides are not simply buried and forgotten.

Mayen says that it pains him to see bodies being burnt along with the rubbish. He is trying to photograph and document as many of the bodies as he can -- but some have been lying under the sweltering sun for up to two months and have been picked at by dogs or birds.

Local officials say they are carrying out house-to-house searches but a lack of vehicles and manpower mean they have only gone a few kilometers outside Bor - of which only half has been checked.

With rebels still operating in about half of Jonglei's counties, and heavy fighting reported in other states, collecting the dead is a process that will likely haunt many towns in the weeks to come.

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