Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/AP
Women and children stand next to their tented shelters in the grounds of a church where thousands have sought refuge during the recent fighting in Malakal, Upper Nile State, in South Sudan Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014.

South Sudan Army recaptures key towns. What next for the rebels?

Oil-rich Bor is considered a key staging ground for any rebel attack on the capital, Juba. The capture of Bor and Malakal could weaken the rebels' hand at cease-fire talks.

In recent days, the small, strategic cities of Bor and Malakal in South Sudan have been retaken by government forces amid heavy fighting. Their seizure could weaken rebel leader Riek Machar's bid to control the world's newest nation as peace negotiations inch forward in neighboring Ethiopia between government and rebel representatives. 

Malakal is the capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile state. Bor lies in South Sudan’s largest state, Jonglei. It is the last major town on the road to Juba and is considered a key staging area for any rebel attack on Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The two places have changed hands several times since Dec. 15, when fighting broke out in South Sudan. The conflict has been unsparing toward civilians and families caught in the crossfire and has opened up a dangerous rift between the largest ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka. 

In Malakal, gunfire could still be heard on Tuesday amid burned-out houses and looted shops. A convoy of Sudan Liberation People's Army (SPLA) troops moved through mostly empty streets toward a government headquarters near the White Nile River. Jeeps passed a dusty market where five women struggled to move a body lying on a makeshift stretcher.

Yet conditions here, severe as they are, do not compare to the devastation in Bor, where the SPLA took reporters after its recapture. The city once housed 30,000 inhabitants. In the past month it has been turned into a shattered zone of twisted metal, and blackened and bombed-out structures. Power is intermittent. Banks and shops lie looted and razed. 

In Juba, President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, told reporters Tuesday that he would pardon Machar, his former vice-president and an ethnic Nuer, provided the rebel leader agreed to a ceasefire. Negotiations have been deadlocked over a rebel precondition for the release of 11 political prisoners. 

In Malakal, few people yet dare to return home. Thousands have sought refuge at a UN base a few miles outside town. Others are hiding in mosques and churches. At the local Catholic church, men, women, and children are living in the middle of the compound. People move in a constant stream inside the walls, but few dare to venture outside onto the street. At night they sleep in an open courtyard.

"During the first attack we had 150 people staying," says one sister. "Over the last two weeks, thousands of people have arrived," she says.

One of them, Regina James, came seven days ago, toting nine children: "I saw the rebels killing and looting as they passed on their way to Malakal," Ms. James says. "They wanted mobile phones and money. Two men who didn’t have any money to spare were shot. The bodies are still there." 

In the presence of Army media officials, locals have either little to say or are avowedly anti-rebel. But down a narrow side street, one young man who gives his name only as Michael offers a dissenting view. "The rebels looted, raped, and killed, but so did the [government] soldiers," he says. 

In Bor, one young SPLA soldier who gives his name as Daniel Bior said he was just a boy when he lost his father in the war for independence from Sudan. He claims to be from Bor. 

Separated from his mother, Mr. Bior, an ethnic Dinka, walked hundreds of miles across the East African plains to refugee camps in next door Kenya. With thousands of others, he became one of Sudan's so- called ”lost boys” who were eventually resettled and educated abroad, in his case, in the United States.

Only last month, he says, he had returned home to an independent South Sudan. "I was at home with my family to celebrate Christmas when the rebels attacked the capital. Two days later I joined [the SPLA] to help defend my country," he says. 

In early January his platoon was given the orders to march towards his hometown after rebels loyal to Machar captured it. 

The governor of Jonglei, John Kong, accused the rebels of mindless destruction. Speaking to reporters on the SPLA-organized visit, he questioned how Machar could sell himself as a potential president after the mayhem he has caused.

"It pains me to see how shops have been looted and houses destroyed...part of [Bor's] history has been destroyed," said Mr. Kong. "Nothing is left intact...these are criminals who are not interested in political reform."

After Bor changed hands four times since Dec. 15, Army spokesperson Philip Aguer on Jan. 20 said that, "We have defeated the forces loyal to Riek Machar. As of 1 pm today our soldiers are in control of Malakal." The Associated Press reports that the SPLA retook Bor with Ugandan military assistance. 

The SPLA commander who took Bor, Lt. Gen. Robert Mabor, says that Bor is his hometown. "I grew up on these streets. It makes me sad to see how the rebels have destroyed this place," he says to reporters. He says that SPLA forces defeated between 15,000–20,000 armed rebels, adding that "It was a shameful battle because we were fighting our countrymen. South Sudanese lives were lost, many of them civilians." 

In Malakal, which has received less international attention, one local man, Richard Opout, says that, "calm has returned since the soldiers took control but we all know that the rebels are not far away. They can come back anytime."

At the Malakal teaching hospital, a bed-ridden young man who gives his name as Puot Niehl says he is originally from Ethiopia, but is in South Sudan to finish his studies. He was shot in the leg, endured an amputation,  and says he has no idea why he got shot in the first place.

"My family doesn’t even know I’m here," Mr. Niehl says. "Now all I want is to go back." 

Another patient suffering serious gunshot wounds, Bidit Ruech, says she never saw who shot her. She wants to go home but is afraid. "I'm not sure the government can guarantee our safety. Until I know it is safe I will stay in the church." 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to South Sudan Army recaptures key towns. What next for the rebels?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today