Emmanuel Murye had just been ordained as the new Episcopal Bishop for Kajo Keji when the county descended into war.
On 20 January, according to Murye, the rebels assassinated Oliver Jole, a well-known civilian official in Liwolo town in the county’s west, accusing him of being a government collaborator. Over the next week, the IO attacked government forces near Mondikolok in the northeast, and hijacked a vehicle on the road to Juba. In response, government forces mobilised and clashed along the Juba road with the rebels, who then withdrew to the forests.
After the battle, according to Murye, the government forces returned to Mondikolok, turning their guns on the civilians and killing five including a religious teacher, an elderly disabled man, a passed-out drunk with bullets sprayed into his back, and a woman who the soldiers raped, shot in the vagina, and set on fire. They also killed a sixth person, a member of the IO.
“That was very terrifying to the people of Kajo Keji,” said Murye, who oversaw the burial of those killed at Mondikolok. “They are saying six people were killed, and now you start to fear: Who will be the seventh? Whose child, whose parent will be killed?”
Kajo Keji quickly emptied. Even Murye left, piling furniture, books, and files into trucks and relocating his entire diocese to Uganda.
This mass depopulation inadvertently benefited the rebels. Without civilians, towns had no functioning markets, leaving the government with few supplies and little ability to extend its reach beyond its garrisons. But the rebels, who had already survived in the bush for months or years, could fill the empty countryside.
The next month was chaos. Clashes erupted in Lire, Kajo Keji town, Loopo, Jalimo, and at Jale and Bamure near the Ugandan border.
See our map on the control of key towns and details of human rights abuses. Hover on each incident to learn more:
For the rebels, the turning point was at Jokat, a forest hamlet on the main road linking Kajo Keji town to the west of the county where they ambushed a government convoy, killing soldiers, taking weapons, and stealing vehicles. Since then, the government has never penetrated any further west. The government still holds four garrisons in the east, but the rebels roam the rest.
In what is effectively a bloody stalemate, the rebels lay ambushes on government convoys along the roadways, confining the SPLA’s permanent presence to its garrisons. But the rebels are also unable to fully protect their areas. Two weeks before IRIN’s visit, after clashing with rebel forces who withdrew to the bush, government forces ransacked the town of Loopo and rampaged through Jalimo before returning to their bases unscathed. When the fighting stopped and the dead were buried, the front lines had not changed.
Still, such a situation counts as a relative success for the rebels. In the last year, faced with better equipped government forces, they’ve lost key towns in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states in the northeast. Machar himself sits under house arrest in South Africa. But in Kajo Keji, the rebels have gained ground, with a presence now in all five payams of the county.
Part of the rebels’ success is their improved organisation in Equatoria. What started as a collection of local self-defence militias has come to resemble a more integrated fighting force.
Lokujo’s unit comprises troops from across Central Equatoria, as well as Nuer fighters who moved south with the war. They have radio communications with rebels in other states, and during IRIN’s visit Lokujo coordinated operations with troops in Eastern Equatoria. A specialised intelligence unit moves around the area, sometimes crossing between South Sudan and Uganda (Lokujo did not allow IRIN to interview or photograph members of this unit).
Another key to the rebels’ gains is their support among Kajo Keji’s civilians. In Logo IDP camp in the west of the county, Agnes Kiden, a mother of seven, said she felt safer with the rebels in control.
Kiden fled to Logo after men she said were Dinka soldiers killed her husband and three-year-old daughter, before raping and killing her sister-in-law. “The IO boys, they are the ones helping us for now, because when I compare what they do with what the government used to do, it’s a big difference,” she said in an interview inside her hut of sticks and plastic sheeting.
“The government forces could kill, rape, steal, a lot of atrocities, but these ones [of IO], I can sleep even in a place like this one and nobody can come.”
With this acceptance comes food for the IO. Some wealthier local businessman buy it in bulk for the rebels, including a lorry-full of grain trucked in from Uganda during IRIN’s visit. But the insurgents mostly rely on smaller donations from regular civilians. Civilians said they were willing to share their food with the rebels simply because the IO asked them nicely, whereas government soldiers demanded it or just took it by force.
However, the rebels do lack one key resource: weapons. The international community has refused to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan as a nation, which would be designed to block weapons to the government and rebels alike. Instead, regional governments and the West have acted in concert to prevent weapons flows to the rebels only.
Earlier in the war, Machar’s side received a trickle of arms from the government of Sudan, but this has since been blocked by the United States, which in turn has promised sanctions relief to the Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir, partly in exchange for cutting off the trade.
Uganda has also effectively prevented any weapons from flowing through its long border with South Sudan to the rebels, though numerous UN reports accuse Kampala of providing weapons to Kiir’s government. That leaves the rebels in Equatoria with only the guns they took with them when they defected, or which they steal on the battlefield, a point of pride among soldiers.
“They are buying for us,” Lokujo joked about the government’s arms purchases. “Instead of making development, they are using our resources to buy weapons. So, these weapons, we have the right to use them.”
Lokujo’s confidence belies the gravity of their lack of arms. The rebels have so little ammunition that, under Lokujo’s orders, any soldier who wastes bullets receives a lashing across the back. The rebels’ inability to defend Loopo and Jalimo in mid-April, when government troops burned homes and shot civilians, is further proof that they are outgunned and cannot adequately protect civilians.
Interviews with dozens of Kajo Keji residents, both inside and outside the county, describe atrocities in Kajo Keji that indicate a pattern of collective punishment: After fighting with rebels, government forces target civilians who they accuse of being linked to the IO.
IRIN can report 22 civilians killed by the SPLA in Kajo Keji in 2016 and 2017. This compared to one – the assassination of Oliver Jole – by the rebels in the county.
But the seeming predictability of government retribution on civilians after IO attacks raises questions about the culpability of the under-equipped rebels, who are willing to attack the government forces despite knowing it is non-combatants who will bear the brunt afterwards.
“Sometimes the IO do a small attack on the government, then run away,” said one refugee in Uganda who did not want to use her name because she feared reprisals since her husband was in the IO. “Immediately, the soldiers don’t find the IO, but they find the civilians, and they are the ones to suffer.”