Four years on, a harrowing sense of déjà vu in South Sudan

Since civil war broke out 18 months ago, activists say that repressive government tactics — last seen when South Sudan was fighting for independence from Sudan — are making a comeback. 

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir walks with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (L) at Khartoum Airport November 4, 2014.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The old white building in the sprawling military barracks on the outskirts of Juba is a grim symbol of a painful past. 

Known as the "White House,” the structure was the most notorious of the so-called ghost houses, illegal detention sites used by Sudan's rulers to detain southern intellectuals and suspected dissidents.

“Whoever goes there cannot come back again,” says human rights activist Edmund Yakani, who estimates at least 79 people vanished within the White House during Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s three decades in office. A Human Rights Watch report puts the number in the hundreds.

These and other violations of human and civil rights spurred South Sudanese to vote overwhelmingly to secede from Sudan, which had concentrated political and economic power in the north and allotted limited resources to the south, despite its oil reserves. 

And so on July 9, 2011, after two wars covering nearly a half-century, South Sudan finally gained its independence — led by President Salva Kiir, a man from the Dinka tribe, and hailed as a reconciler and a peacemaker. It was a chance to start anew.

But four years on, many say that things are reverting back to the days of Khartoum's rule as South Sudan's government grows more authoritarian. Activists say ghost houses are once again being used as detention sites, along with forced disappearances and crackdowns on journalists and killings of civilians. 

This comes against the grim backdrop of a civil war that erupted in 2013 and pits followers of the President Kiir against allies of his former Vice President Riek Machar, from the rival Nuer tribe. More than 50,000 people have been killed, and over 2 million displaced – a tragic turn of events for Africa’s youngest nation. 

“We fought against the White House, but still the White House is activated by our government,” says Mr. Yakani. “You have Sudan and South Sudan, but both countries are operating with one system.”

Illegal detentions on the rise

The time of independence in 2011 was full of euphoria, remembers Peter Mayen, the chairman of the opposition People’s Liberal Party.

“After we had gone through what we had gone through for so many years we actually expected to have a real, democratic society,” he says. People of all political and ethnic backgrounds would buy each other drinks at celebrations. 

“That’s why it’s very unfortunate today that the current regime is actually trying to be doing what the Khartoum was doing: dictatorship system, breaking the rule of law, violations of constitutions.”

Mr. Mayen has firsthand knowledge: After calling for more government accountability in early April, he says he was kidnapped, held for seven days in a ghost house, and severely beaten. He suspects the culprits were members of the feared National Security Services (NSS), who operate under President Kiir.

“If it was any criminal they would ask for money,” he says, pointing out that they did not ask for a ransom. “What they asked for was for me to shut up. That’s it.”

The Presidency has denied any involvement in Mayen's abduction. 

A Human Rights Watch investigation found that dozens of citizens have been detained without trial over the last year, sometimes for months at a time. Yakani, the rights activist, says three religious leaders have disappeared, while at least other two activists fled the country.

National security

Yakani also blames the NSS. Many of the agents had worked in Sudan’s notorious spy agency—the National Intelligence and Security Services —before the north and south split.

“The way the national security operates here is the same way they operate in Khartoum,” Yakani says. “The way that the ghost houses operate is the same as Sudan.”

Any perceived dissent is increasingly curtailed by the NSS, who have harassed journalists and activists alike. Newspapers editions have been confiscated for simply publishing a photo of rebel leader Mr. Machar more prominently than one of the president. The Nation Mirror's print edition was suspended in February after erroneously printing news that rebels had captured a town.

The international NGO and aid community is also under scrutiny. In June, the government expelled the United Nations’s top humanitarian official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, for his comments on the country’s deepening crisis. The move shocked many longtime observers, including Mukesh Kapila, who held the same post as Lanzer in then-united Sudan – and was also expelled for accusing Mr. Bashir’s government of committing crimes in Darfur. 

“In Khartoum I expected it. What do you expect from a regime that is in a sense lawless itself?” Mr. Kapila says. “But for that to happen in Juba was deeply sad.”

Shattered hopes

Kiir’s side is not the only one to blame; the government grew increasingly authoritarian before the war when Machar was still vice president. But abuses in the civil war—committed by both government and rebels—have achieved new levels of brutality, the UN reports. Rebels have shot patients in hospital beds. Government forces have slit the throats of little girls.

“There’s no question [this fighting] is more brutal, more wanton,” says one western diplomat with experience in the Sudans during the previous and current wars.

More South Sudanese are fleeing the country now than at any point during the previous civil wars. 150,000 people are living under international protection in UN camps and the number is growing fast.

And there is no end in sight. On Wednesday Machar called on President Kiir to resign along with his government or risk sparking a revolution, adding fuel to an already deadly fire. 

“South Sudan has shattered my hopes,” says Eric Reeves, an anti-Khartoum activist who supported independence. “I had thought [Salva Kiir] wanted to do the right thing,” he says. “It is saying, for me, a great to deal to tell you I don’t have much faith in that belief in Salva [anymore].”

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