A priest tells of the bloodshed in Malakal, South Sudan, and of a daring escape from its cathedral.
“The first attack was not so bad.”
Father Peter sits with his back straight, his hands held in his lap. He is far thinner than before, but the same quiet dignity shines through. For months I feared that he had been murdered; now I sit riveted once more by his stories and his smile.
Last year I had travelled to the northern town of Malakal in South Sudan to visit the huge refugee camps established there. I was helped by Father Peter, a tall, respectful Catholic priest stationed in the dusty, bustling town. He took me under his wing in what was a difficult and probably foolish expedition. He organised a place for me to stay, a Land Cruiser, a driver and a vital point of human reference.
Father Peter lived in a small room in the cathedral grounds, with three other priests. Together they owned only the bare essentials. I enjoyed simple but generous meals with him and his colleagues.
As a paltry thank you, I brought him a bottle of whisky and a copy of my book, Inyenzi. He sent me a message a few weeks later to tell me how much he was enjoying reading it.
On December 24 2013 the orchestrated Dinka-Nuer fighting that had started in Juba spread to Malakal and the town was overrun by Nuer rebel soldiers loyal to ousted vice-president Riek Machar.
This was the first attack of which Father Peter spoke.
The government soldiers retreated and Malakal became a Nuer rebel town. The government, embarrassed by its retreat, came back – with a vengeance. They brought fresh troops from Juba and fought street by street with AK-47s, larger machine guns mounted on vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades. The rebels were forced out of the town into the bush.
“Still, this was not so bad,” says Father Peter. It was soldiers fighting other soldiers. Civilians hid – some in the church grounds – and emerged once the worst was over. The market started up again, people returned to their homes.
But this time the government troops changed the rules, unforgivably: they targeted Nuer civilians. Those on the wrong side of the divide had their homes looted, many were simply executed. A Presbyterian pastor – a Nuer – was executed in the town square in front of a crowd. All hell broke loose. The rebels returned, far more determined this time.
“But the second attack was not so bad,” says Father Peter stoically. Still, many innocent people were killed. More civilians sought refuge in the church grounds. Nuns from the nearby hostel moved into the cathedral for protection.
He kept the big gates to the compound closed but was not afraid. This was the church. In 50 years of civil war no one had been killed on the church grounds.
Women displaced by the fighting wait for water inside a UN mission camp at Malakal. (Reuters)
The government troops were reinforced and they returned with armoured vehicles. The town was retaken. More civilian casualties resulted, more Nuer were hunted down. Now, scared Nuer inhabitants also sought refuge in the church compound. Father Peter did not refuse them. Government soldiers threatened to breach the compound and seek them out. There were tense standoffs. But the church prevailed. Many urged Father Peter to flee, but it was his duty to protect everyone who sought shelter under his faith.
Then the rebels attacked a third time. “This was not good,” he says. “This was a bad time.”
He pauses in his story and looks at the ground, perhaps remembering, perhaps trying to forget. The Nuer soldiers killed everyone in their path. Anyone who did not join their militia was shot or hacked to death. Houses were burned. They lined women up on the bank of the Nile river and executed them, their bodies falling plop-plop-plop into the river. They cut the pipes supplying water to the UN refugee compound and waited outside to shoot anyone who tried to come out to collect water from the river.
And then the rebels came for the church.
They broke the gates open and marched around the compound with their weapons, seeking out Dinka. Those they found, they shot in front of Father Peter – they murdered innocent people inside the church grounds. Father Peter looks at me in horror. It was unimaginable for this reserved priest. They wanted to burn down the cathedral – a Belgian nun went on her knees and begged them to leave it.
Eventually, perhaps bored, the soldiers withdrew. They told Father Peter they would return the next day to “finish their business”. Still, he debated what he should do. His main concern was for the safety of Bishop Emeritus Vincent Mojwok Nyiker and the remaining refugees. And their lives were clearly in danger. Early the next morning, as the sun rose, the decision was taken – they would make a run for it.
They crept out of the compound and headed for the river. They were quickly spotted by soldiers who opened fire on them. Many were struck and fell. Father Peter rushed with Bishop Nyiker into the swampland alongside the river and then swam a short distance to an island. There he lay with the bishop while the soldiers stood on the bank and fired at them. A young boy, too terrified to lie still, stood up to run and was struck, falling down next to them.
When there was a short break in the firing, Father Peter grabbed the bishop and plunged into the river, making for the far shore. The soldiers reacted immediately, firing into the water as they swam.
“This was when I decided: if today is my day, then let it be so. I was so calm. Swimming in the river with the bishop, the bullets striking the water around me.”
Unbelievably, Father Peter, Bishop Nyiker and all of the priests from the cathedral made it out of Malakal alive. They went on foot for many kilometres before being picked up by a UN patrol. He finally reached Juba, with just the clothes on his back. The town of Malakal now lies in ruins.
‘The body is still in my room’
Father Peter heard that after they had fled the church compound some Nuer Presbyterian pastors arrived looking for him. Only a few months before these pastors had sat in workshops with him discussing diversity and tolerance. Now, when they found the door to his room locked, they ordered soldiers to open fire. When the door was in pieces, they entered to see whether they had killed him. But he was gone.
“They did leave a body in my room,” he tells me. “I don’t know if they shot him there or if the victim ran in there wounded and died. I don’t know who he is. But I hear the body is still in my room. Rotting on my bed.”
It is clear that this distresses him. Not that it is his room, his bed, but that it is church property. He cannot conceive of it.
Father Peter falls silent in his story. I feel wretched but I have nothing to say. Then he looks up at me and I can see that he is more troubled at this point than he has been throughout the tale. He shakes his head with sorrow.
I feel my heart contract: What more can there be? Do I really want to hear it? My tears lie warm on my cheeks.
“I am so sorry, Andrew. I had to leave your book behind.”
Relentless, ongoing battle
Fighting between South Sudanese rebels and government troops continued this week, with both sides blaming the other for launching artillery and ground attacks.
The latest violence broke out late last year after President Salva Kiir accused his ex-deputy Riek Machar and others of attempting to launch a coup.
Now Kiir’s Dinka tribe is pitted against Machar’s Nuer. Rebel chief Riek Machar said government forces had been on “a continuous offensive”, and Defence Minister Kuol Manyang reported insurgent attacks in the oil-producing state of Upper Nile, AFP reported this week.
Government troops had been ordered “not to go and attack, but only to fight in self-defence”, said Manyang.
Since Kiir and Machar signed a deal on May 9 to halt fighting, both sides have blamed each other for launching ground attacks and artillery barrages. Manyang claimed heavily armed militia known as the White Army – who smear themselves in wood ash to ward off mosquitoes and as war-paint – had attacked government troops. – M&G Reporter