Sudanese conflict touches Austin, AL

Published 10:51 am Friday, December 20, 2013

Mathiang Akoi of Austin spoke with his sister on the phone Sunday night and discovered she, family and friends were OK in the midst of political and potential tribal unrest, which resulted in at least 500 people killed in the Republic of South Sudan this week.



As Akoi spoke with his sister, who was in the capital city of Juba, he said he heard gunfire in the background. Earlier this week, the tension made its way to the U.S., as South Sudanese communities have differing opinions among the two native ethnicities, the Nuer and the Dinka.

Fighting in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has killed as many as 500 people and wounded 700, U.N. diplomats said Tuesday, and the United Nations fears the violence in the oil-rich East African country is “largely along ethnic lines.” But some say that’s not the case, and want to call the fighting political turmoil, such as Akoi, who is Dinka. South Sudan Dinkan President Salva Kiir has blamed the violence on a coup attempt Sunday by soldiers loyal to his former Vice President Riek Machar, who belongs to the Nuer. As many as 20,000 people have taken refuge with the U.N. mission in Juba, the president of the Security Council, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, said. Akoi said his family and friends had also fled their homes and sought refuge.

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The conflict has even flared tempers where Akoi works in Austin. He first heard from a coworker about bickering among South Sudanese in Iowa. After that, Akoi said, Nuer coworkers wouldn’t speak to him about the events in South Sudan. Akoi overheard a Nuer man, speaking in his native dialect, and thinks he heard worse.

“They were supporting war,” he said.

Akoi, a deeply faithful Christian who leads an Austin congregation of Dinka people, prayed for tensions to settle and planned to speak with management at work about any potential conflicts. He said employers will need to know about the situation, as some South Sudanese may need to leave to be with family, attend funerals and grieve.

Yet some refugees say the government under the current president, Salva Kiir, is corrupt and seeks to kill political enemies. They said there was no coup attempt, as Kiir told the nation Monday, and said instead it seems like the start of a tribal civil war. Akoi disagrees the conflict is mostly tribal and maintains it is political, but he is unsure if it began as a coup attempt.

“I don’t know whether it is a coup or not coup,” he said.

Nuer South Sudanese refugees in Albert Lea are also worried about their home country. However, only some of what is reported about the conflict is true, they said, because media in South Sudan lack access and receive mostly what the government allows, so the problem isn’t entirely clear. They say Kiir is making a power grab by killing opponent members of other tribes.

“We need to tell the world that dictator is not allowed at this time,” said refugee David Gatkuouth, 45. “We need freedom.”

There are roughly 300 to 350 South Sudanese in Austin and about 100 to 150 in Albert Lea, refugees from a 20-year civil war between the Muslim segment in northern Sudan, and the oil-rich Christian segment in the southern portion. The war halted in 2005, and South Sudan split from Sudan to became the world’s newest country in 2011. Many South Sudanese in Albert Lea and Austin, including Akoi, lived in camps in Kenya and Ethiopia before coming to America.

Six South Sudanese people spoke with the Albert Lea Tribune Wednesday and shared their views. They are Gatkuouth, Change Ruach, Peter Cham, James Chol, Lam Riang and Martha Gony. They are in frequent contact with people in South Sudan.

The South Sudanese in Albert Lea are from the Nuer tribe, who occupy the east central area of South Sudan. They said Nuer government officials have reportedly gone missing. Many are suspected dead.

Ruach, 32, said President Kiir called for a curfew on Sunday night — which was reported in the media — but what they said wasn’t reported was that members of the force scoured Juba, knocking on homes. When people came to the door, the force members could tell by dialect and markings whether the family hailed from the Nuer tribe.

If so, they killed them, they said. Some had their homes smashed by tanks and trucks, they said.

“It was not a ‘coup.’ He planted that so he could kill innocents and get rid of political rivals,” Ruach said.

Ruach said Kiir kept the media out long enough to allow time for his force to take the dead to mass graves or to rivers.

However, Akoi thinks a small group of Nuer people have been the aggressors, and the ones firing guns. He noted not all Nuer agree with each other regarding the conflict, as he spoke with a Christian Nuer pastor from Nebraska, who also denounced the violence.

Presently, there is an all-out manhunt for former Vice President Machar by the military, who Kiir fired in July. Kiir claimed Machar was behind the alleged “coup.” Machar has denied the allegations.

Ruach added, “If the international community does not act, the situation in South Sudan will get worse. Kiir will feel empowered and the war will spread.”

Chol said he would like to return to Canada so he can return to his homeland and defend it. He is afraid the country will devolve into genocide.

The violence has spread into the countryside this week, they said, as Kiir’s forces attack the Nuer people.

Gatkuouth’s brother, Ezekial, was among the missing government officials. Gatkuouth said Kiir is attempting to create a dictatorship by wiping out members of the opposing tribe. He is selecting officials from his region to be government and party officials. If nothing is done by the world, South Sudan will become another Rwanda, he said.

“If the world does not take action, why even make the International Criminal Court?” Gatkuouth asked.

Ruach said Kiir refused to allow his young government to pass election laws so it could be prepared for 2015.

Many of the government officials rounded up were sitting in coffee shops, hotels or their homes at the time, he said.

“How can they cause a coup by sitting in coffee shops and hotels, hanging out?” Ruach asked. “This proves it is not a coup.”

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon told reporters Wednesday that South Sudan was experiencing a political crisis that “urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue.”

On Tuesday the United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately. An evacuation flight left Wednesday. On Thursday, India’s U.N. Ambassador Asoke Mukerji said three U.N. peacekeepers from his country were killed when armed youths breached a U.N. compound in South Sudan.

In a BBC interview Wednesday, Machar denied any link with the current fighting and blamed it on a conflict between members of the presidential guard. He added that government troops used the incident to arrest some of his supporters Monday and that he himself escaped.

“Someone wanted to frame me,” he said. “I had to flee. They are hunting me down.”

Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin, however, insisted that Machar had orchestrated the violence in a bid to take power.

“If he wants to become president, he needs to wait for elections,” Benjamin said. “He wants to be president but in the wrong way.”

The Nuer people of Albert Lea scoff at the foreign minister’s claim.

—Tim Engstrom and the Associated Press contributed to this report.