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The Gaatjaak Massacre: A Tragedy SPLA/M and Ethiopia-Dergue Regime kept Secret

By Sarah Thomas

January 17, 2013 (SSNA) -- Gaarjaak community deserves an apology from South Sudan government regarding 1984—7 massacre. On July 30th, 2011, Dr. Riek Machar, the vice president of South Sudan government, apologized to Bor Dinka after attending John Garang memorial services organized by Bor community in Juba. Dr. Machar happened to be the only high ranking official---following absent of his boss Salva Kiir Mayardit. While tribute speeches were expressed, Dr. Riek did not thought of any right tribute message to pay to his old friend and foe other than just dived in contamination grievances of 1991. The vice president made himself scapegoat to an incident which was carried out by civilians simply because attackers happens to be from the territory he controlled. In actual fact, there is nothing wrong about owing an apology; apology is a polite way of normalizing a situation that was wrongly committed. That’s why Gaatjaak would want to be owed an apology which could help heal the wounds or horrors SPLA inflicted on them during the period of 1984-7. To be very frank, one would like to state that, Dr. Machar’s apology was miscalculated and short fallen. Why? During revolutionary struggle, many ethnic groups in South Sudan were mistakenly killed by the movement. SPLA fought with many tribes including: Didinga, Acholi, Mundari, Murle, Nuer and many others. Each and every community members were discriminately killed by the movement that claims to liberate the very tribes it was massacring. Many innocence civilians were cold-bloodily murdered, properties were taken, shelters destroyed, and women were subjected to sex. The only tribe that did not fight with the SPLA was Dinka. Simply because the movement was a Dinka mafia that revenge old scores other tribes had inflicted on Dinka many centuries back.

This author believes that, vice president Machar had miscalculated an apology he owed. He would have come up with an unified apology that would have been generalized to all South Sudanese as a government official apology to all civilians whose, relatives were massacred, property were taken, limbs were mutilated, wives, daughters in addition to mothers were sexually subjected on their watchful eyes. If apology has been generalized to each and every community, in return each and ever individual community would have forgiven the government for atrocities SPLA had committed in the period of 1983-2005. The fact that Dr Riek Machar had owed an apology to Dinka Bor only is a sign of ignorant to other communities, which were bitterly destroyed more than Bor community itself. Especially Gaatjaak who were his backbone in the days he knows. Members of these communities remain wondering, why the vice president has done this, could it be that, Bor are more important politically than the rest of south Sudanese communities who were discriminately killed? Or, could it be that Garang is more important element from Bor? There is no immediate answer this writer would think of. Although on many occasions, he tries to protect his decision that “it is a right thing to do and no body can apologize to other communities because Garang is not around anymore”; well, one would like to point out that, the government is around, it can apologize for atrocities it has committed against Gaatjaak community. Or Salva Kiir is around. The massacre and summary executions were carried out on their both watchful eyes. SPLA is everybody including vice president himself...which means, any government official can influent the whole leadership to propose an apology that should be directed to all South Sudanese civilians.

In talking of atrocities, one would like to state that, the worse or the mother of all these atrocities was committed against Gaatjaak-Nuer. What is the background of this unjust war? Well, this author know ever bit of that war. When SPLA/M was formed on July 30th, 1983, the movement first target was Anyanya-two soldiers who defected in 1975 in Akobo after Nimeri government was eager to transfer them to north Sudan. For eight years, this insurgent, had stationed in Bilpam fighting with the Sudanese government in the cause of independence South Sudan in which we are now enjoying. However, former Ethiopian-dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam became dissatisfied on how Anyanya-two conducted the war. He and his dergue regime sycophants—such as General Mesfin for instant, wanted a high scale fighting that could engulf Sudan entirely so that: Eritrean and Ethiopian insurgences got no save-heaven. In that regard, Mengistu encouraged Garang to fight for united democratic-socialist (a name that itself is confusing) movement that will take over Khartoum. After Garang agreed out of his thirst for leadership, he asked for a powerful force to destroy Anyanya-two soldiers in Bilpam. Hence, on August 20, 1983, Ethiopian soldiers combine with Tiger battalion or Mulay as Anyanya-two call them before SPLA change the name to Tiger, attacked Bilpam using Helicopter gunships and many other high-techs machine-guns. After losing many of theirfighters, Anyanya-two soldiers were defeated in swampy autumn. Few of their Survivals scattered in near by Gaatjaak villages especially Gaatjaak highly-ground seasonal homesteads.

As early as 1984, relation between Gaatjaak and the SPLA became fragile. The movement creates a policy that aims of capturing former Anyanya-two Gaatjaak sons who went back to their villages after Bilpam was destroyed. One former Anyanya-two Gaatjaaks son who was looked for was Tongyik Kong Kier who went back to Lare. SPLA failed to capture him in their first attempt in Thorow; instead, SPLA captured Top Gatkuoth Kook in place of Tongyik as the way to lure Tongyik. In exaggeration, SPLA/M executes Top Gatkuoth in Bilpam without mercy of executing someone who hasn’t done anything wrong. Realistically, Tongyik became aware and understood that, he will actually be killed if SPLA soldiers happen to find him anywhere, so he remains vigilant. Within the same year 1984, a group of soldiers were sent to capture him in Lare. Tongyik did not learn their being in Lare right away until when he was attacked, they fired at him and missed; after firing back, he managed to kill one of them. That became one known factor, which contributed to deterioration of SPLA-Gaatjaak’s relation.Another incident within the same year, occurred in Nyang-Nyikual; a group of Gaatjaak civilians bought an Anyuak home-brewed beer. SPLA clash with this group because they wanted to capture G-three machine gun one civilian was carrying. Despite these clashes, SPLA began to hunt down ever Gatjaak. Students were the easy target in areas controlled by the movement especially in Itang and Gambella. Among many students who lost their life was, (Tuach Chuol Thiep), a 10 grader-student who learned Amharic and English. Tuach became the first Gatjaak student to be captured in Itang and cold bloodily kills; afterward in Bilpam. At the same token, two 8th grade students (Philip Okuony Ruot and Deng Puoch Gorouw) were cold bloodedly executed in Chatyier. Also in the same way of abduction, a group of students comprising of Paul Puot Nyoat, Dojuok Nyayul Rom, Dak Lul Beyien, Nyaak Nyareak Thiep, James Nhial Ruai and John Chuol Toang from Cieng-chany and Cieng-Nyajani respectively; were rounded up at Itang Refugee camp and taken to Bilpam for unknown reason. These students were jailed for six months without trail despite the fact that there were no proper charges against them. They got released after their fellow students claimed and report the kidnapping incident to UNHCR head office in Gambella, which later on put forth conditions such as cutting off the food aids if these detainee-students are not released immediately. This is a mind-boggling senseless act, seeing a supposedly liberation fighters turning their guns against helpless students who had no role to play in SPLA/M—Gaatjaak conflict.

Then in January 1985, SPLA soldiers were canoeing in Baro-river from Itang to Mangok or Chatyier. After reaching Majaak (an Anuak village on the side of Baro River), they saw Gaatjaak civilians fishing at the shore. The soldiers call upon these villagers in demanding of fishes they caught after all day fishing. Fishermen refuse to surrender their fishes being taken by force and began to run. Mistakenly, SPLA soldiers start firing at them until when Peter-his full name is with held for security reason, fired back at them. In some shooting exchanges, Kurial Bol was shot dead and Tongyik Theyaang was wounded at his right thigh fracturing the thighbone, he died later at night. This was the trigger of the long campaign that took painful four years. By that period of time, Gaatjaak did not have automatic guns except very few. The only guns they owned were single-shots such as Abu Gigra rifles. In the next morning, SPLA arrange heavy attack to Palkoyni cattle-camp resided by Ciengthach section of Thiang. Again, many innocence people were killed and many more were wounded; among the wounded individuals were Obul Nor and Koang Tap Biem just to name only a few. Three days later: Baziel, Dorong and Kurthony otherwise known as Bargeer-war, were attacked. Before the day Baziel, Dorong and Kurthony were attacked, Dr. Riek Machar, a political high command officer in the SPLA/M army, Thowath Pal Chai, Region 12 governor of Gambella, and Cham Othow an Anywaa who at the time was the administrator of Jiokow among others, took some sort of initiative to quell the situation before it escalated. While they rode on Baro-Sobat River, they found young people hiding in corn maize guarding the next SPLA attack that would not caught them in surprise. Riek and the team began to order them to go back to their villages, saying, “no more fighting going to take place”. According to the later sources, when they returned back to Berhane Salaam from Nyon, they found Kerubino Kuanyin Bol preparing for the next day attack, Riek, Thowath and Cham in addition to their aides, report back to Kerubino that, they met with civilians and agreed fighting will not continue, it was said Kerubino pull up his pistol and pointed it at Riek angrily saying, “Nyagaat---your parents are killing my soldiers, I must kill you”; Riek did not respond in respect to the order. Next day early in the morning, a powerful army was ordered to fight with Thiang-Ciengtaar. The battalion that fought with Thiang was, Jamuz battalion with 12, 000 strong fighters armed with all kinds of machine-guns raging from Ak-47, R. P.G rockets, 42, 46, sam-7 or just well equipped army under Kerubino Kwanyin Bol and William Nyuon Bany were deployed along the Baro at Berhane Selaam or Makuach. That war lasted after six to eight hours and the well equipped SPLA army was annihilated. Anuaks who watched the war while climbing up on trees became highly surprise, when the powerful army ran disorderly in disarray, and Anywaa began to say, “Booi, nyie Nuer mateckdish”! In that day, sixty to one hundred civilians were killed and about twenty to fifty died with dehydration later after the war. However, SPLA was decimated. Thiang later on retreated to Jiokow seeking help from Jalaba because Ethiopia that supposes to render protection swallows a saturable bribery bit. Children were drowned; old people and disables that cannot run were left in villages where they later died of thirst, hungry or eaten by hyenas. One of the very bad deaths was of Nyanchiok Jock Deng. She is a retarded disable who were left in empty village because nobody can carried her since each and every person was running just to save their lives. Her image will not vanish in one’s mind since one saw her while I was coming from Itang with my parents in empty village crawling in the house and outside trying to find assistance and nobody was around, they left her yesterday morning. It was heart breaking! We could not help her because we feared with our lives thinking we might be killed after sneaking out of Itang painfully the night before.

Within the same year in March 1985, William Nyuon attacked Koapwonyik and subsequently Liet-Nyaruach plus all surrounding villages; because they joint with their compatriots or simply because one of the Jalaba soldier by the name Tongyik Gil happen to be borne in that village. Poor judgment indeed; parents and siblings should not be subjected by the foul of one family member. There were too many Southerners who side with the north and their relatives were not held accountable for ever mistake they committed. The movement has its own secret agenda with Gaatjaak.Two SPLA commanders were to attack Jiokow and Malual respectively, but, they thought they could first looted civilian cattle in totality and use them for food. Although they indeed manage to seize some cattle, their R-PG rockets and men did not go back at the same number they were, majority of them end up in Gaatjaak hands.

In May 1985,Manjangd it was attacked at night, more innocence civilians were killed. Survivals were saved by the closeness of the river. The only section that did not fight with the SPLA among Gaatjaak was Thiang-Bar. This was due to the fact that, the area commander in Bar at the time was an educated person Frances Ngor. If not because of him, Thiang-Bar would have fought with the SPLA like the rest of Gaatjaak. According to a mutual friend, one day a soldier get drunk and fired at a calve; after the calve has died, the owner grab his single shot gun, wanted to kill the soldier who killed his calve, Frances Ngor call the meeting right away and normalize the situation. In the meeting, Ngor told civilians that, “when we brought this bullet, which he was holding in his hand, we brought it to fight Jalaba not you”! Momentarily, he took the bullet out of its cartridge and gives the cartridge to civilians as a sign of showing, bullets were brought to liberate South Sudanese civilians rather than killing them with it. After the end of the meeting, Ngor ordered punishment to criminal soldier whose hands were tied behind and made sit on his chest in open day light showing civilians that criminals has to be punished and gave a grown cow as a payback to the owner of the calf. Afterward, the situation became normal again. This calf incident occurred in the spring of 1985; then in May in the same year, Ngor was ordered by Kerubino to retreat from fighting Jalaba and instead, go to attack Gaatjaak—Cieng Nyajani section to be exact; this find intelligent educated young man refused, saying, “no point for me to do so, we are coming to bush to fight Jalaba” as soon as he finish talking, Kerubino yield at him, “I command you; this is a tilliemmat”! As they frequently used….at the end, Ngor got no choice and reverse from doing right things as he knew it, to fight with people who in his own words he came to bush to liberate rather than killing them. Unfortunately, this find hero did not make it back to his headquarters at Bar Cieng-Kaang, his precious life, end up in that unjust war. Kerubino is just a killer; a man who can kill anybody. He was the one who also kill Ruach Tang in Itang a former soldier in Sudan who brought him out when he was shot in the army on 16 May 1983 in Bor town. Few days later, he killed Duach Tietai who was Anyanya-two soldier. He kills him in the time they were in Itang somewhere between June and July whiles the formers were arguing on leadership statute.

Anyway, because of Ngor, Thiang-Bar did not fight with SPLA. The very bad treatment Thiang-Bar had experienced from the SPLA came after Ngor. The bad treatment was that, if a civilian had fired their gun anywhere in Bar, SPLA has to fire R.P.G rocket, pointing at the location civilian had fired from. In that poor judgment of firing back where sound of the gun had occurred, captain John Jock Chol’s wife by the name Nyaruot Kok Wan was badly injured and another woman by the name Mer Bol Reat who was Charan Gatluak’s wife was killed. It turned out that women they killed and injured were SPLA soldiers’ wives. In Maban the situation was totally different. Burun were maltreated. Whenever a soldier go to civilian area and find a girl they like, he will come back and take a group of soldiers with him in order to capture the girl by force. Chai and Gaatjaak were indeed maltreated and they are brothers who have lived as brethren for years.

By 1986, Nyaang and Lol-gungjang were attacked after SPLA soldiers went to the village to take goats and sheep by force, villagers did not allow their goats and sheep to be taken. Nevertheless, fighting broke out that resulted into the death of Tuach Ruey Lok, Michael Monyjiek Yiech and Thuok Wiew. In May, the same year, Lol-gungjang got attack again; an old man Yer Zuor Nyaak was killed together with many women and children including Buk: Lual Buk Gai Nhial’s wife with her two young boys. Another shameful act was the murder of two elders from Lol-Ngungjang, Ruey Kiir Jany and Kang Wal Balok by Kerubino in Nyopleaw after they have been sent from Marial by Salva Kiir; taking a letter of appeal to him in regard of a crucial case. Six SPLA soldiers rap a pregnant woman, these men did not return, their bodies were later found not very far away from Nyopleaw where Kerubino lived.

In 1987, Borgach-lol, Pokete and Tharyier Ciengwaw were attacked, as usual, innocence people were killed. Among the dead were Padiet Nuaar, Nyareat Nuaar, Nyaboth Gier, Kual Jiop Pal, Nyoach Nyayul Diew, Nyaluak Both, Nyaboth Joak, Nyakhan Lew and many others. In Thayier, Chuol Deng Gut and many more people were killed. After all killings, Tharjiath Tuong-otherwise known by many as Tharjiath Thooch a head chief from Cieng-Chany, heard the news that Garang has come to Chatyier. Tharjiath took an initiative to go to Chatyier in order for him to confront Garang face to face. He was allowed to meet Garang, in their exchange, Tharjiath ask Garang, for years now, we Gaatjaak have been fighting with your army, do you really hear about these fighting, if so, what is your plan to stop this unnecessary killings? He was talking while whipping his fingers, Garang reply by saying, “a man has never point at me in the face, take him away from me”! Tharjiath was taken away and was beating until when his bones were broken and subsequently killed by firing squad right into his mouth. This brutal killing was committed by a group of militants led by Gatwech Dedoch Nyikan.

In Thiang ciengtaar, a dozen were killed. One of the very bad massacres was when Kuach Kang an illiterate SPLA stooge, call civilian to come to Nyon and meet with him. After villagers went thinking that they were called for actual meeting, Kuach instead let them being arrested with their hands tied behind. In the evening, around 9:00PM, Kuach order soldiers to attack Dualjoik village and also ordered the killing of those he already arrested. All prisoners except one man by the name Gach Nyabak were killed. Gach escape with a gun wound on his chin. At the same token, Cieng-Jenyang man by the name Chuol Reath was capture in Lare and later kills by firing squad after he was badly tortured. His nephew who was captured with him had also tortured to death but later on release with many herds of cattle. Another damaging act by Kuach Kang was the killing of seven young men from Cieng-Nyajani who went to Gewkel village around Chatyier to collect sacks of grain, all eight men were rounded up and chained, seven were killed by firing squad and only one man whose body was covered with blood from kinsmen, and Kuach’s soldier thought, they kill all eight people; where of course only seven died.

The above summary executions were carried out by Kuach and his killers like Gatwech Didoch, Mat Duer, Lual Gatchai, Bachut Chol and many more surrogates or locum tenens.

While these young men were killed, Cieng-Nyajani did not loose rightful judgment. They did not consider the atrocity to be the act of none other than SPLA. Rightly, within 1986 sooner after these young men were murdered, their compatriots start to hunt down SPLA soldiers in every place, wanted to revenge the killing of their sons. One evening Cieng-Nyajani youth went to Chatyier wishing to surprise SPLA army if they find some in corner, mistakenly; they end up killing a young civilian boy in Lual Cieng-Mandiin a killing that was later on revenged. Couple years later, Cieng-Nyajani retaliated by killing Gatluak Rier from Cieng-waw this became the trigger of long fighting between two sections. This confrontation was a SPLA creation and end up in claiming a death toll of more than one thousand citizens of both sides.

Another fundamental problem that affected Gaatjaak community was the plantation of landmines by the SPLA that kill many civilians and their livestock. Monthly, it is definite to hear that so and so has been killed by the landmine, an act that led Gatwech Theyang Yuot to retaliate after his brother was killed by the landmine. Beside overnight massacres, cold blood executions, and landmine murdering, SPLA soldiers began to design water boarding technique, where individuals are usually submerged or plunged in Baro-Sobat River and be held until when they stop moving their bodies after drowning. In order to give the reader a clear picture of what I Sarah Thomas is talking about, I must present to you a case of one find young man by the name char. He was canoeing to Itang to collect sacks of grain his mother bought. While reaching Maker, he rowed his canoe on the far end of the shore, basically to avoid SPLA-Force at Maker. Soldiers saw him and call him to come. He has no choice other than rowing the canoe across the river. When he had arrived at the shore, soldiers told him, “Our captain has to step in the canoe to wash his face”. Then captain enter and push the canoe while stepping in and subsequently felt into the water; soldiers said “Iwaa you befell our captain” Chaar was rounded up and plunged into the dip water, underneath his canoe that soldiers turn upside down and sat on it. He stays there until when he drown. They brought him out and start vomiting with water. Afterward, soldiers went to nearby Nuer cattle camp and asked if someone could recognize him. Fortunately, his in laws who he was marrying to their young daughter was at the camp. They recognized him. Instead of letting him being taken freely, soldiers demand two cows for no reason other than claiming their captain was befell in water, which the captain himself has done intentionally. Hence, cattle were taken and Char was taken by his in laws. His clothes were…do not ask me how they were. The only reason why this young man was called is to find some to eat throw him.

Moreover, in the late 1980s, SPLA/M soldiers had invented an idea of using vehicle-landmines and hand grenades for fishing in Baro-Sobat River. These poisonous powders do not affect only fish species alone; they also can affect other organisms in the water. The overuse of these chemical substances would also cause long term vanishing of fishes. Who know may be the typhoid that kills too many Nuers mainly Gaatjaak in 1992 was caused by drinking contaminated water in Baro-Sobat River per se.

Frankly, there was no single horrible act SPLA left undone in Gaatjaak land. People are collected in villages to carry soldiers’ heavy loads. Grains and cattle are forcibly seized. Women, daughters, and mothers were taken while their husbands, children or any relative are told to just look at what soldiers were doing. It was very absurd for the liberation fighters to commit these actions and fight a bloody war with people who hosted them since the movement was incepted. At the same time, their children were recruited to fight Jalaba but later on blindfold to fight their own fathers-mothers respecting very bad philosophy that said “you should even killed your dad or mom”. One does not know where in the world such philosophy could be practiced.

Finally, the intention of this writer is to reveal untold damaging SPLA/M has done in Gaatjaak territory especially in the period of 1984-1991. The matter has been buried by both SPLA/M and then Ethiopian Dergue regime of the like of John Garang dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam; even Gaatjaak sons who swallow small bits from SPLA/M or Dergue regime sometimes deny the fact that Gaatjaak has been indeed massacred. One know for sure that if Gaatjaak such as this author wanted to advocate for an apology from South Sudan government, those whose mouths are saturated with government of South Sudan oily corrupt wealth, would not want to hear about it. This may be the fact that their eyes may have been blinded with gains in their pocket and forgot that their compatriots were badly massacred. So if Riek Machar could apologized to Dinka, how come Salva Kiir is not apologizing to Gaatjaak if they forgot to see that South Sudan government deserve to apologize to all civilians whose properties were the bread of the struggle before international community’s aid reach the needy especially Gaatjaak properties. It is within one’s intention that, if current leaders fail to apologize to Gaatjaak community, future leaders of South Sudan will find it as the right thing to do and will apologize to Gaatjaak. Just like in 18-1900s, slave owner nations did not see any point to apologize for the cause of slavery, present world leaders, find it as a strategic error to uproot mankind forcibly against their will to live a shameful life in the other part of the planet. Likewise, our future generation leaders will rule out that Gaatjaak who were the bread basket of the movement at the first place; would have not been killed, therefore, they are owed a great deal of apology. May those of them who parish in brutal actions of the SPLA is forgiven and those who breathe realize the cause of the suffering their society had gone through? Till next time!

The Author lives in Canada and holds a BA in Sociology. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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