Internally displaced people gather by a water collection point in a United Nations site outside South Sudan’s capital city Juba in January. South Sudan’s civil war has killed tens of thousands and driven out some 1.8 million people.
There is a certain peace that comes with being surrounded by a bunch of men with big guns.
As much as you want to run or fight or scream, there’s not much you can do — except whatever they say.
On a Friday afternoon in April, I was sitting in a restaurant in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, trying to convince two government officials to issue me press credentials so I could report there. I had tried and failed to do this over the phone from my home base in Nairobi, and so my bosses and I made the decision that an in-person appeal would be best.
I flew to Juba, and this was the moment of truth. The two government officials and I made small talk for a while, and then I sheepishly said, “So…”
One of them grinned.
“We’ll give you the credential. You can come pick it up on Monday,” he said.
We were mid-celebration, in the middle of our beers, when half-a-dozen men with guns showed up. They were in plain clothes, carrying assault rifles.
“I need you to come with me quietly,” one of the men said.
“I’m not coming with you; I don’t even know who you are,” I protested.
“National security,” he said, as the guys with guns stepped closer.
I looked at the government officials still sitting at my table and they looked as shocked as I was. I knew then that I was going with these guys wherever they wanted to take me.
So we walked down a dark hallway, out a back door, into the hot afternoon and an alley crawling with more men with weapons. They were all young, some of them in military uniforms. They looked like teenagers hanging in the alley behind a movie theater. But as they saw us coming out, they all clutched their old AK-47s and moved toward me.
When I prepare for assignments like these, I think through the risks. In this case, the South Sudanese media authority was not pleased with my previous coverage of the dire refugee situation in neighboring Uganda, so they did not want to grant me a press pass before coming to their country. But sometimes as a journalist, you have to insist and show up anyway. You have to try. You have to tell an unsympathetic government official, “Look, I’m here in search of an explanation for one of the worst conflicts in the world and I want you to let me tell these stories.”
When I ran through that scenario, I thought the worst case would be that the official would laugh. He would tell me, “You’re not welcome in South Sudan” — and I’d be escorted to the airport to catch the next plane out.
Just a few minutes earlier, in the restaurant, everything seemed to be turning out much better than I’d expected.
But now, the young men with guns forced me onto the back of a pickup truck. I was on my back, caged in by two benches above me. The bed was soaked in gasoline. I could smell it. I could feel it soaking through my shirt. I could feel the vibration of the engine in my body and I could see the tops of buildings zoom past.
Every once in a while, the guys with weapons, who were sitting on the benches above me, took a peek at me. I tried to keep track of the turns we were making and tried to look for landmarks. But it felt like we were driving in circles. We accelerated. I felt the bed of the truck turn hot, and suddenly, the top of buildings disappeared.
I tried to keep my mind from going to dark places. But it did anyway. Maybe these guys were driving me to some field somewhere, where I’d be forced to kneel and I’d feel the muzzle of one those weapons on the back of my head.
A burgeoning humanitarian crisis
In July 2011, South Sudan became the darling of the international community. With a referendum, it ended the longest-running war on the African continent and the 10 southern states of Sudan formed their own independent country.
On the streets of Juba, there was elation. The two biggest tribes split leadership: Salva Kiir, a Dinka, won the presidency and Riek Machar, a Nuer, was his vice president.
The hope was that the South Sudanese, who had for so long suffered under the oppressive regime of Khartoum, could finally build their own country — in peace.
But that was not to be. In 2013, Kiir accused Machar of organizing a coup. He fired him, and a civil war erupted.
In the summer of 2015, the international community helped broker a deal that called for a ceasefire and for Machar to come back to Juba and resume his vice presidency.
By the spring of 2016, Machar had returned, but by summer, a fresh war broke out. Machar was injured and close to death as he was carried across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eventually, with the help of the United Nations, he went into exile in South Africa, where he still lives.
Families wait for a food aid delivery at Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee camp in February. Bidi Bidi is home to more than 270,000 people who’ve fled South Sudan’s civil war and is the biggest refugee camp in the world.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Since then, the conflict has spread, sparking famine and a mass exodus. More than 50,000 have been killed since 2013. This year, precipitated by war, South Sudan surpassed Syria to become the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world. There are now some 1.8 million South Sudanese refugees. Salva Kiir remains in power.
‘You’re an Arab’
After the truck stopped, the men escorted me into a two-story building. The power was out so they pointed at me with flashlights, accusing me of being a spy.
“You’re an Arab,” one of them told me.
The South Sudanese won their independence after a bloody fight with the Arab north. I knew the implication, and it scared me.
I told them I was Latino, born in Nicaragua, raised in the U.S.
“You’re an Arab and you don’t even know it,” the man responded.
He took me out of the office and up some stairs, where I saw some men gathered behind iron bars. It was the first time I realized I was in a prison.
The place was hot and the air felt completely still. I could see only what the officer pointed at with his flashlight — fragments of tile floor, dirty walls, a wooden door. I could smell sweat mixing with the gasoline on my shirt and I could hear the clatter of the prisoners as they clamored to get a look at me. The officer barked at them to get back in their cells and they scattered in seconds.
My heart was racing. Before I knew it, the officer was pushing me into a cell toward the back of the prison.
“There’s some water,” he said, closing the door.
And then everything went black, as if my eyes had suddenly closed. I felt my way to the ground and touched the concrete with my palms. It was warm. Somehow the sun had worked its way through steel and concrete and onto this floor. I ran my hands across the water bottles but they felt gritty, like they had been dragged through dirt.
In the distance, I could hear tracked vehicles, probably tanks, moving across the terrain and every once in a while, a helicopter zooming past. Just outside my cell, I could hear the prisoners talking and playing dominoes.
If there is one thing darkness does, it lights up your mind. I thought of Miami, where I was raised. I thought of my wife and my little girls. I thought about all of the brutality that this government had inflicted on civilians.
Three days, I thought. That’s how long I’ve heard humans can survive without water and there’s no way they’d let me die in here.
‘I think we made a mistake’
One of the defining characteristics of the South Sudanese conflict is its brutality. A few months ago, I flew to Uganda and drove up to the border with South Sudan. Thousands of people crossed over each day, fleeing the violence.
Each one brought harrowing stories: They saw women being gang-raped. They described government soldiers going door to door and killing civilians because of their tribe. One woman told me that as she fled her village, she saw the bodies of her neighbors thrown near a ditch.
The violence is systematic and widespread. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and a monitor set up by East African states have all documented government atrocities.
A report by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan documented the torching of an entire village. Satellite images had tipped off investigators to the events taking place, and when they finally made into Yei, just southwest of Juba, they found a breakdown of humanity.
In one case, they found that government soldiers had disrupted a funeral. According to residents, the soldiers claimed the deceased was a rebel. They assaulted mourners and when a man and woman suggested the man was just old and died of natural causes, soldiers took them outside. The woman was raped before both of them were shot dead.
Not far away, investigators found that pro-government militias had tied up six civilians, threw them inside a hut and set it on fire.
South Sudanese people in Unity State wait to receive medical treatment at a village clinic on Feb. 17.
UNICEF/Modola/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The South Sudanese government has refuted reporting from refugee camps and these official investigations, saying the refugees fleeing the conflict are lying and the president has ordered soldiers who perpetrate atrocities to be punished. But a panel of experts commissioned by the United Nations Security Council found that the government’s inability or unwillingness to prevent or punish abuses is “a key driver of the war.”
The panel of experts also found that as the conflict drags on, it has taken an increasingly tribal dimension. Last December, the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan warned that the country was in a process of “ethnic cleansing … using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages.”
At a refugee camp in Uganda, a South Sudanese Nuer man named John told me that in his village, government soldiers walked door to door. If you didn’t speak Dinka, the language of the ruling tribe, you were killed.
“It was the national soldiers, the ones who started this,” he said. “Slaughtering people, shooting people, tying people.”
He told me he remembered independence day in 2011 vividly. People, he said, walked for hours to get to Juba to celebrate the birth of a new nation.
But underneath that mango tree, in the middle of that refugee camp, he was doubting all that joy. He was questioning whether the people of South Sudan were better off now than they had been under brutal Sudanese rule.
“I think we made a mistake,” he said.
A shared dinner, a sense of familiarity
At some point, the prisoners outside my cell went completely quiet, but the helicopters and tracked vehicles kept going all night. No one came to check on me. I felt completely alone trying to find comfort on a bare concrete floor and trying to quiet my mind.
At some point, I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw a sliver of light sneaking in through a tiny hole near the ceiling. A couple of prisoners came by to peer through a tiny window in the door. They asked if I was OK, and one of them came back a few minutes later.
Soldiers cheer at a ceremony marking the 34th anniversary of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, attended by President Salva Kiir, in Juba on May 18.
“Don’t tell anyone we spoke to you,” he said.
It was hours after I saw that sliver of light that a soldier opened the door to my cell. Honestly, I was scared. Who else was the government keeping in this place? What would they do to me?
I walked out cautiously, but into brightness. The prison was all concrete. There were prisoners sleeping along the hallways. Dozens of plastic bottles filled with dirty water were neatly stacked in every corner.
Just outside my cell, an old man was lying on a frail mat. He stood up with a bowl in his hand. He looked sad, skinny; but offered me some posha, corn flour that has been boiled into a kind of dough.
The last 15 hours had been miserable and isolating, but all of sudden, I felt like I was stepping into humanity. The prisoners stopped by, introducing themselves one by one. They shared tips — you’re free to use the shower shoes outside the toilet; don’t talk to the man three doors down in solitary. They offered to wash my gasoline-soaked shirt. At one point, the guards gave me back some of my money and told me I could order anything I wanted from the market.
I ordered bread, Cokes, shawarmas — enough for everyone. It was delivered within hours by one of the prison officials. The other prisoners and I shared dinner on the floor. Some of them told me they had been held for two years, others for three. They said that they had never been charged and that they had never appeared before a judge.
George Livio was one of them — a South Sudanese journalist for a United Nations-funded news outlet who reported on corruption. He’d been held since August 2014. Every morning, he woke up thinking this was the day he would finally be released. But by now, he had missed watching his three young children grow up.
Justine Wanawila was another prisoner — a former Catholic priest. He said authorities accused him of feeding rebels. They threw him on a plane and brought him to Juba. On a couple of mornings while I was there, he led the prisoners in praying the rosary.
I listened from my cell and told him it reminded me of my grandmother. I thanked him for the familiarity.
“You came to South Sudan to report on what the government is doing to innocent people,” he told me. “You can still do that from here.”
‘We all want peace’
When NPR informed the U.S. embassy of my detention in Juba, the embassy sent consular officers to come check on me daily. It was a relief to be walked out of the prison and into another building and to know that my family, my country, my place of work knew where I was.
But every time I made that walk, a South Sudanese officer would pull me into his office after the U.S. officials had left. He was a lean, angular guy, and he sat on his chair thumbing through a Bill Nye book. Sometimes he would just stare at me for minutes at a time. I wouldn’t break eye contact because I wanted to show him that I had nothing to hide.
He asked questions — “Is it fair that your country is slaughtering civilians? Is it fair that they keep prisoners in secret prisons?” — but every time I tried to talk, he’d interrupt with warnings and boasts about how South Sudan could kill me and my family if it wanted us dead.
I remember when he said that, another officer in military fatigues was in his office. He smiled. It was gentle, but also clear that he found this whole scene a little entertaining.
“Eyder,” he said. “Have you ever been a soldier?”
He wanted to know what life was like in New York City, how kids went to school. He wanted to know what life would be like if you didn’t have to be on the run. Most South Sudanese have had to flee multiple times in their lives. Some of the refugees I spoke with in Uganda could remember hiding in the bush with their parents when they were attacked by Sudanese troops. Now they had fled with their own kids.
Before we could talk, the first officer sent me off. The next day, he called me back to his office and he shouted that the United States was undermining the independence of South Sudan. He was agitated, belligerent.
I lowered my voice and I told him that he had to listen to me.
A person, I told him, is not a country, and also, he didn’t know me. I told him I was a child of war, born during the civil war in Nicaragua. Like so many of his people, my family fled. We found peace and a home in the United States.
It’s not a perfect country, I told him, but it was instrumental in supporting South Sudanese independence — and it was also, right now, paying for more than half the food that is being dropped out of airplanes in famine-hit areas.
His demeanor changed. His voice became softer.
“Eyder,” he said. “When you go back to your country, I want you to tell your people that we all want peace.”
He pointed out the window. He said in that direction was the first paved road most South Sudanese had ever seen.
“We’re trying to build a country,” he said.
This war, this killing, he said, is necessary to emerge a stronger country.
At that moment, I had no doubt he believed it. I nodded. But I also suspected that to the millions of South Sudanese who have been forced from their homes and to those who have lost children, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, those words would sound hollow.
I was released from jail without charges on May 1, four days after I was picked up. George Livio, the United Nations journalist, was released without charges on May 26, after two years and nine months.
A government official drove me to the airport for my deportation to Kenya.
“You are welcome in South Sudan,” he said. “This was all a misunderstanding.”
South Sudan is the biggest tragedy unfolding on the continent today. It’s not a story you just let go. I told him that maybe someday, I would test that invitation.