SIHANET Update on Wau State

SIHA wishes to provide an update on the current situation in Wau State, which has in the past months experienced continuous outbreaks of violence and unrest. What is likely to have started as a local protest is increasingly becoming a mobilization of greater significance, with militia groups conducting larger operations. The Government has countered these uprisings by using militia groups to support regular SPLA soldiers, which is likely to lead to further tensions and corresponding violence. Displacement of people in the vicinity of Wau, in addition to significant displacement taking place in Raja, is set to continue. The situation in and around Wau currently remains unstable, due to reports of unrest, looting, killings torture, sexual violence and ethnic tensions and has further caused large movements and displacement in and around Wau.

Multiple layers of historical ethnic and political tensions between the Fertit, a collection of local tribal groups of Western Bahr el Ghazal and the Dinka ethnic group, which have not been addressed, are currently dominating the political and military tensions in the new born country. These long lasting underlying tensions in addition to the wider civil conflict, which flared again in 2013, further polarized communities in Wau State along ethnic and political lines. By early 2015, opposition forces including Nuer and Fertit armed groups established a presence in Western Bahr el Ghazal.  In May and June, they attacked the towns of Bazia and Farajallah, south and southwest of Wau, residents reported, then clashed repeatedly with the government forces into early 2016, despite the signing of the peace agreement in August 2015.

South Sudan’s army has conducted heavy-handed military operations to root out rebels while at the same time denying opposition forces were formally present in the area. Since beginning of the year 2016, many have been displaced and fallen victim to lootings and arbitrary arrest, torture and killings. In January, over 2000 people had already been displaced following clashes between government and opposition forces, resulting in the burning of houses and alleged aerial bombardment. The following events took place in and around Wau Town from February to June 2016.

On February 17th, a group of SPLA soldiers returning from Besselia on Raja Road launched several attacks on SPLM-IO loyal rebels, belonging to the Fertit ethnic group. Upon reaching Lokloko area several sources reported having been beaten by SPLA soldiers and two Motorcyclist-Taxis were reportedly shot dead and their motorcycles looted after their killings. In addition, further reports accuse the SPLA soldiers of looting and destroying goods from street vendors working along Raja Road.

Following the above incidents on Wednesday 17th February, gun fire was reported throughout the night until Thursday morning, when the situation escalated. Youth groups belonging to the Dinka Ethnic group, walked the streets of Wau, armed with sticks, knives, axes, spears and machetes. At the end of the day 15 persons were admitted to hospitals with severe injuries. Later at night civilians grouped with armed forces and attacked several houses in Hai Falata, Bafra, Calbario and Fahal, reportedly burning 18 houses to ashes, leaving three police men shot dead at Hai Falata Police Station and leaving 14 civilians injured. Continuous gun fire was reported throughout the night until the morning of Friday, leaving Wau paralyzed, with little movements on the streets, consequently markets and schools remained closed. Reports of looting and killings persisted throughout Friday. The total number of killings by Friday 19th February reached 26 persons, with 11 dead bodies having been brought to Wau Hospital, of which all where belonging to the Fertit ethnic group.

The state governor, of Wau Elias Waya Nyipuoch who was  in Juba during the days of unrest, returned on Friday 19th February to meet with tribal chiefs in order to find a solution and discuss the way forward, as the unrest was on the edge of turning into major ethnic tensions. Few days after the chaotic scene taking place in and around Wau dozens of youth were arrested, as reported by Sudan Tribune on 24th February.

On March 21st a meeting organized by a Fact Finding Committee chaired by a Minister was sent to Wau. This committee consisted of   SPLM representatives, Parliamentarians, the former police general and various members of different CSOs in Wau. The committee members met with victims and witnesses and with the army, and sought to reconcile communities. Although this committee is yet to submit its findings to President Kirr, the abuses and cases of violence have continued to progress.  On the same day, a young teacher living in the Hai Khamsin neighborhood, near a checkpoint, said that soldiers came to his house on March 21, beat him and looted his belongings.

On March 24th, a 21-year-old moto-taxi driver said he was asked by a soldier to drive him to Grinti. When they arrived at the barracks, the soldier accused him of being a rebel and detained him. He said he was held for four days and tortured, then released without charge. The soldiers did not return his motorbike. The same day, the burned remains of a motorcycle taxi driver, hands tied behind his back, were found behind the Catholic Church. Witnesses said the men who killed him had detained him in a compound near the church occupied by soldiers, though it could not be confirmed whether the men were soldiers.

On 7th April military helicopters were seen at Wau Airport after reports of clashes between government soldiers and armed opposition forces as several eyewitnesses told Radio Tamazuj. The SPLA-IO forces had accused the government forces of attacking their positions in Wau County, but SPLA spokesman Lul Ruai denied the accusation, after initially admitting he had no information about the clashes. He also denied the presence of any military aircrafts at Wau airport. Contrary to the government’s statements of the previous day, South Sudan’s government has deployed attack helicopters and heavy artillery to Wau town as clashes continue between the army and SPLA-IO rebels in the area and in Western Equatoria state.

On 18th April, a grenade detonated in a hotel in Hai Daraja in Wau town killing one person and injuring four others. Governor of the proposed Wau state Elias Waya said in Sunday mass at Saint Bakhita Church on Sunday that an SPLA lieutenant threw two grenades at a group of people which resulted in the killing of one person and injured four others who were taken to Wau hospital.   On 21st April, the UNMISS Coordinator in Wau has called on the government to put an end to the atrocities committed against civilians in Wau. On 25th April the governor of Wau State has confirmed the death of one soldier, who was killed in clashes between government and opposition forces on the outskirts of Wau town.

In May more than 90,000 displaced people who fled clashes between government and opposition forces in Wau were facing shortages of food, according to Relief and Rehabilitation Commission in Wau. Yunis Filberto, Director of Relief and Rehabilitation Commission in Wau, said they have registered 96,000 people who were forced to flee their homes in Bagari in Wau during clashes between government and opposition forces. He pointed out that those displaced people are living in dire conditions amid shortages of food.UNOCHA further reported on cases of increased sexual and gender-based violence and killing of civilians, including children.”

On May 17thStray bullets shot by security personnel celebrating SPLA Day in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal State wounded at least nine people who sought treatment at Wau Teaching Hospital on Monday. According to the medical director of Wau Teaching Hospital, Edmund Sebit Ramadan, five women and four men were admitted after being hit by stray bullets. He further said about three cases were in critical condition and that they needed surgery.On the same evening, a citizen was killed by gunmen inside his house in Busari south of Wau town in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal state A family member said unknown gunmen broke into the house and shot him dead, while authorities did not manage to follow the perpetrators.

On the morning of Saturday 24th June the group of rebels tried to overrun Bussere town, located 4km away from Wau town. On Wednesday morning a group of well-armed men overran Raja town, which left several people dead, and forced thousands of civilians to flee to the bushes. The numbers of causalities have not yet confirmed.

On the following Wednesday two soldiers on motorcycles were shot dead by unknown gunmen, leaving the military barracks on their way coming to Wau town. The incident raised fears among residents and renewed pre-existing tensions.  Sources also confirmed a separate case in which a driver of the Wau town mayor exchanged fire with an SPLA officer resulting in the death of the soldier. The cause of for this altercation remains unclear. Several eyewitnesses in Wau town have confirmed the occurrence of two separate incidents. Deng Mawien, a resident of Hai Kosti in Wau town, on Thursday said that there has been “tension in the town since yesterday after the killing of two SPLA soldiers on their way to the town from Busere.” He also said the situation nearly exploded previous morning when the driver of Wau town mayor shot dead an SPLA captain after a disagreement. Later, at night a teacher was shot dead in Hai Salaam by unknown gunmen, and his body was transferred to Wau hospital the following morning.

On Friday 24th June, President Salva Kiir abruptly dismissed Governor Elias Waya of Wau State, whom he had appointed just six months ago. Andrea Mayar Achor was appointed to replace General Elias Waya Nyipuoc, who had allegedly failed to control the security situation in the town and after falling out with the local command and heads of the organized forces in the area, resulting into a security vacuum.  Meanwhile, multiple sources reported hearing gunfire on Friday evening in Wau.

A source in Wau town told Radio Tamazuj at around 11pm that an unknown number of soldiers, well-armed with sticks, clubs and rifles marched to a Fertit area and went from house to house. On 25th June shops of traders in Souk Jou were looted. A Sudanese trader was killed in the street and his motorcycle stolen, he said. Some other civilians have been killed as well, including a young man, a three year old girl and a woman. Some civilians say that SPLA soldiers robbed them as they were going to UNMISS for protection. According to a UN staff in Wau, speaking this morning, more than 1000 civilians sought protection at the UNMISS gate. On June 27 authorities imposed a curfew in Wau town after the recent clashes which left an unknown number of people dead and thousands more displaced. In a press statement released to the media on Monday 27 June, after the first security meeting since the Saturday’s clashes, the state police commissioner, Chol Thuc, also said the situation is now normal and that those who fled the town during the clashes should now return to their homes.

SIHA urges the new governor of Wau to undertake all measures necessary to restabilizeWau and surrounding regions while at the same time, carefully involving tribal leaders to avoid further uprising ethnic tensions and unrest.

Security forces abuses must be investigated together with all killings that took place in the recent weeks. To ensure that citizens’ rights are respected and residents of Wau and its surroundings are not subject to looting and willful destroying of property and assets.

SIHA urges the new governor of Wau State to ensure that the right to free expression is respected and encourages him to actively take up the dialogue with civil society in a peaceful manner.

Further to this, immediate access by the humanitarian bodies to civilians both in side Wau and those stranded outside must be granted.  Safe return of the displaced to their respective areas with police forces to provide protection and security should be provided.

The government must take initiative and lead in organizing community dialogues. Government from both levels state and national must work on prioritizing peace and reconciliation programs.

Humanitarian agencies must recognise the increased vulnerability of women and children to sexual and gender-based violence and direct their programming to increase their protection while simultaneously providing services and assistance to victims.

[vii] Confidential Sources
[viii] Ibid.