An Unhappy New Year
The attack began with mortar fire. One moment, Nyalot Adiang Mod was standing in line in the South Sudanese fishing village of Wau Shilluk, waiting with her children for a sorghum ration.
The next, she was running, one child on her back, another close to her chest, just one person in a human wave of thousands fleeing down the west bank of the White Nile river. The shelling followed.
Those who couldn't run - the elderly, the ill - were left behind. Homes were burned, the hospital looted.
It was late January 2017, just over three years since South Sudan had descended into civil war after President Salva Kiir accused his deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup. By then, 1.4 million people had been made refugees by the conflict. Some 1.84 million more were internally displaced. By April that year, another 50,000 people from Shilluk villages all along the west bank of the White Nile would have fled the government's advance.
With Kiir a member of the Dinka tribe and Machar a Nuer, the conflict had already been widely divided along ethnic lines. The government's 2017 offensive along the White Nile, however, led to what the United Nations (UN) called "a massive displacement" of members of a third group, the Shilluk, from their traditional territory - a "direct result of widespread violations" committed by the government's forces, known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
A report by the the UN's Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said soldiers "deliberately killed civilians and extensively looted and destroyed civilian property"
Amnesty International said "whole areas of the Shilluk heartland have been ravaged".
In Aburoc, a Shilluk town in the far north where tens of thousands of the displaced settled, conditions were dire.
Most had fled empty-handed. "Over 90 per cent were lacking basic supplies such as plastic sheeting to protect them against the sun or the cold at night," said medical NGO MSF.
There was no food, no money, no good water, recalled Nyalot. She had children to feed. Staying wasn't an option. So she began winding her way south towards a large displacement camp, tracking back through the same devastated towns she had passed months earlier.
When she reached Wau Shilluk, it was deserted - except for the soldiers.
"It is all burned down," she said. "Nothing good is there. It is empty."
Nyalot's flight from Wau Shilluk took place over two years ago, but the occupation of the town after its sacking by government soldiers has continued. This is the story of what happened.
There are few witnesses willing to speak on the record about what happened in Wau Shilluk and surrounds in early 2017 - in part because those who lived there have been scattered to nearby towns and displacement camps, or as far away as neighbouring Sudan; in part because journalistic access to these remote areas of South Sudan is notoriously difficult.
The country's Media Authority exercises tight control over the entry of the foreign press to South Sudan, while the feared National Security Service filters access to UN flights headed outside of the capital Juba and mercilessly polices the activities of South Sudanese journalists.
In March 2018, we visited Wau Shilluk and a displacement camp, known as a Protection of Civilians (PoC) site, close to the nearby town of Malakal. There we conducted interviews with dozens of South Sudanese displaced by the war, and spoke with staff working for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
What follows here is a reconstruction of what is known of the events of early 2017 and the fate of Wau Shilluk, assembled from what testimony could be obtained directly and a range of publicly-available material.
Crucial to this story were reports by the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism (CTSAMM), an organisation that monitors ceasefire violations by fighters from the government SPLA, the opposition SPLA-IO, or any one of the scores of other armed groups in the country. Despite CTSAMM having the right to request access to investigate almost any part of the country, its presence is something that must often be agreed to by one or more of the groups suspected of fighting in any given place. CTSAMM's work is vital, but this bureaucratic haggling also makes it difficult to police the worst of both sides' offences.
If CTSAMM is the world's best - if imperfect - eyes on the ground, the $400 million Sentinel-2 Earth observation satellites of the European Space Administration are its eyes in space. With a field of view as wide as 290km, they pass over large swathes of the world every few days. Intended for environmental monitoring, images from the satellites can also be used to detect large events of other kinds, and as such have become an important source of information for journalists.
On 28 January 2017, one of the Sentinel-2 satellites passed over Malakal, a large, multicultural city on the east bank of the White Nile river and the capital of what was once called the Upper Nile state. The city had changed hands over a dozen times since the war began. Now, like much of the east bank, it was under government control. Moving at an height of about 700km above earth, the satellite then passed over Wau Shilluk on the west bank further upstream. Here, a Shilluk militia group aligned with the opposition had been in control before the offensive. As the satellite passed over the town, nothing appeared unusual. It would be the last time any of the Sentinel satellites would see Wau Shilluk like this. By the next satellite flyover, in February, the town would be flattened.
CTSAMM staff in Malakal report that fighting has begun across the river, on the west bank of the White Nile. Who started it isn't clear, but it is believed to be between the government and opposition-aligned forces. By late morning, Malakal itself is being shelled - though no casualties are reported. Flights to the Malakal airport are cancelled after several shells land near the runway.
January 26 - 28
CTSAMM receives reports of fighting in Warjuak, a district just over a kilometre south-west of Malakal, on the west bank of the White Nile. To the north of Malakal are reports that government troops have shelled the town of Wau Shilluk. A fishing village before the war, it has been flooded with thousands of Malakal residents fleeing violence in waves since 2013. At the time of the attack in late January, the population of both local residents and internally displaced persons (IDPs) hosted in the town is estimated at 24,000 people. According to MSF, most of the town flees. On January 27, as shelling moves closer to the town, staff from the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) are evacuated. On January 28, the market is hit by mortar fire.
Fighting on the west bank - and in Warjuak specifically - dies down, with sporadic clashes around Dolieb Hill to the south of Malakal. It is not clear what has become of Wau Shilluk since its shelling a few days earlier.
Government troops reinforce Malakal. According to CTSAMM, both sides concentrate their forces in Dolieb Hill and around the Kaldak and Canal regions, likely fighting over the southern approach to Malakal.
February 1 - 2
CTSAMM receives additional reports of government shelling of Wau Shilluk with civilian casualties. A monitoring and evaluation team is assembled and tries repeatedly to contact government commanders to clarify what is happening in Wau Shilluk. Their calls go unanswered. The IOM announces that they are suspending all actions in Wau Shilluk.
Government forces cross the White Nile in a ground advance on Wau Shilluk, causing massive displacement. Along with the remaining civilian population, MSF pulls out of Wau Shilluk. Hospital staff load their patients onto a tractor and trailer and flee north downriver, picking up wounded and sick on the way. One patient dies during the evacuation. Several elderly people who are unable to flee burn to death in their homes.
There are reports of shelling from the Akoka area towards Lul, Padiet and Fathau. Residents of Wau Shilluk who had settled here are again forced north towards Kodok and Aburoc. They will be repeatedly displaced over the next week as government forces advance along the west bank.
Reports received by CTSAMM suggest that Wau Shilluk is now under control of the government, which is shifting its focus towards securing its southern flank at Dolieb Hill for another offensive against opposition forces there. CTSAMM's monitoring and evaluation team attempts to contact government forces numerous times. They are ignored.
"Wau Shilluk - which had a population of around 20,400 internally displaced people and host community prior to the fighting - is reported to be largely deserted, with most civilians having fled north to Padiet, Pathaw, Lul and Kodok." - UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, February 3 2017
Additional CTSAMM personnel are sent to Malakal to assist with the investigation. Arrangements are finally made with government forces to visit Wau Shilluk in two days' time. Sentinel-2 passes over the town. It's a cloudy day, so it's hard to see what's happened, but burned areas of the town are apparent.
CTSAMM's monitoring and evaluation team meets with the acting SPLA commander of the area. He says his forces have been acting defensively in their maneuvres. No further information is available.
The arranged visit to Wau Shilluk is cancelled, due to alleged mortar fire by opposition forces. A subsequent visit is planned for 16 February.
Meanwhile, a commercially-chartered flight leaves Juba for Malakal, the first of an unknown number ferrying people from the capital for relocation to the area that will continue until July 20. The UN reports being told that the passengers are Dinka displaced from Yei, in the country's south. Others claim they are originally from Upper Nile and are returning home. An eyewitness will later allege that they saw a cargo plane of an estimated 150 women and children arrive at Malakal Airport on one such trip, while injured government soldiers waited to board the return flight.
A tweet from Juba-based NGO Crown The Woman indicates the airlifts from Juba to Malakal are ongoing. The NGO claims the passengers are being relocated home.
Government forces again deny CTSAMM access to Wau Shilluk. No reason is given. CTSAMM arranges to attempt a return to Wau Shilluk on 23 February. The head of the the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) David Shearer describes the lack of information as to what has happened to the tens of thousands of people in Wau Shilluk as a "real problem".
A Sentinel-2 satellite makes another pass over Wau Shilluk. The destruction caused by the shelling and subsequent ground advance into the town is immediately obvious.
The date arranged for CTSAMM's monitoring and evaluation team to access Wau Shilluk for their investigations arrives. Government forces on the ground deny the observers access to Wau Shilluk. No reason is given.
CTSAMM's monitoring team attempts to access Wau Shilluk once more and is denied by government forces on the ground. Again, no reason is given. The monitoring and evaluation team lodges a formal complaint with their parent body claiming the SPLA is denying their freedom of movement and obstructing their investigation into what happened in Wau Shilluk.
The chair of the UN's Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan describes the emptying of Wau Shilluk and the subsequent relocation of Dinka into the area as part of a pattern of "population engineering".
"The Commission has reported on a pattern of ethnic cleansing and population engineering. When the Commission visited the northern town of Malakal we saw how the redrawing of state boundary lines had helped depopulate the town of its Shilluk and Nuer inhabitants. Civil servants had been forcibly relocated out of the town on the basis of their ethnicity. The Commission has been subsequently told that a number of Dinka, who fled Yei last year and settled around the airport in Juba, were airlifted by the Government to Malakal in February this year, just after fighting emptied nearby Wau Shilluk of its Shilluk population. Aid workers estimate two thousand people, the vast majority Dinka, were transported north by the Government which asked that the new influx be given international humanitarian assistance while at the same time denying access to citizens who are starving in opposition areas." - Yasmin Sooka. Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan
It was March 2018 and the meeting room in the Malakal PoC site was boiling over.
Outside were dozens of new arrivals to the UN displacement camp, babies screaming, families baking under the 40-degree heat. Inside the meeting room, sun pounding the zinc roof, were raised voices.
We'd wanted to know about life inside the PoC site, about flights from Juba, about why the people in the room with us hadn't returned to Malakal or Wau Shilluk or wherever home had once been a year after the attacks.
But the UN-provided translator had asked the leaders representing different communities in the camp to keep their answers apolitical. They weren't happy.
"Politics began this thing," one argued. "Taking land is a political thing."
"The land is the treasure of our lives," said another.
"You can play with anything but you cannot play with land."
There were camps like this all over South Sudan.
When the civil war first broke out in December 2013, tens of thousands of people fled to what would become the UN PoC sites looking for protection. Over five years later they are still there, the camps more permanent than ever, with an estimated 193,287 civilians seeking safety in six PoC sites dotted around the country in January 2019.
The Malakal PoC site remains the third largest today, with 29,190 civilians, even as the authorities insist Malakal - once the country's second largest city - is safe enough for residents to begin returning home.
The city had been a multicultural hub for both the Shilluk and South Sudan's two largest tribal groups, the Dinka and Nuer, prior to the war.
But when government forces first attacked Malakal on Christmas Day in 2013, Nuer residents told us they were specifically targeted. Dinka residents were likewise singled out when the city fell to the opposition, back and forth over a dozen times.
For a while, the Shilluk militia in the area had fought on the government's side. But by 2018, with Malakal firmly in government hands and the Shilluk militia now fighting for the opposition, anyone not Dinka was wary of leaving the PoC site, just a 20 minute drive from town.
"If you go out, people will kill you, no questions asked," one of the camp leaders bluntly said.
But the Shilluk in the meeting room were adamant: "This town belongs to us."
The Kingdom of the Shilluk
The Shilluk first began moving north along the White Nile in the 16th century. As they expanded their kingdom, they encountered other tribes - tribes they conquered. By the time the flag was raised over an independent Sudan on New Year's Day in 1956, Shilluk territories stretched along both banks of the White Nile. Malakal - multicultural as it was - was traditionally considered Shilluk and lay with Wau Shilluk near the centre of the old kingdom lines. To the north was Fashoda, the traditional seat of the Reth - the Shilluk king.
Territorial boundaries were seldom fixed, however. Decades before the civil war came to an independent South Sudan, the Shilluk and Dinka were already clashing over land and water resources.
In January 2009, a march through Malakal meant to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the peace agreement with Sudan devolved into violence as Shilluk and Dinka residents argued over which group should lead the way.
By the outbreak of South Sudan's own civil war in December 2013, the Shilluk kingdom fell within the boundaries of what was then Upper Nile, one of South Sudan's ten states. Nearly two years later, after months of negotiations and under threat of UN sanctions, President Kiir and rebel leader Machar, first attempted peace.
Just two months later, Kiir unilaterally announced a plan to redesign South Sudan, cleaving its ten states into 28 - a number that would rise to 32 in 2017 - as a way of bringing power closer to the people, he said.
The opposition had long demanded that power in South Sudan be decentralised. Machar himself had argued for a 21-state system using the old colonial boundaries at place in 1956. But Kiir had fought him on that point every step of the way through the peace talks. Now he was the man selling federalism, or a version of it.
"My administration in the centre was busy with issues to do with your self-determination such that you become [a] free and sovereign state," Kiir said, after signing order 36/2015. "Now, indeed you are free, therefore, there is no reason for me to retain your constitutional right for self-governance, self-reliance, self-development..."
The move provoked widespread local and international opposition.
Analysts pointed to possible self-serving ends: shoring up his grasp on power by appointing a new slew of local leaders, and gerrymandering the state lines to specifically favour the Dinka.
For the Shilluk, it was a thinly-veiled plot to rob them of a kingdom.
Machar accused Kiir of violating the peace agreement and left the capital.
The Upper Nile state was to be shattered into three new pieces, with the eastern and western banks of the river split into two separate states: the East for the Dinka, the West for the Shilluk. Malakal, the traditional stronghold of the Shilluk, on the east bank, was to be Dinka.
"That's not good"
In the days after the attack on Wau Shilluk, observers were repeatedly denied access to the town. It was over a month before they were finally allowed a visit, on March 3, 2017.
"Dwellings have been extensively destroyed by fire," the CTSAMM report read, slamming the government's "concerted attempts" to "prevent and delay the investigation".
"There is compelling evidence from a range of witnesses that the dwellings were set on fire deliberately by government forces."
When we visited Wau Shilluk a year later, with the UN military-observer mission UNMISS, we got as far as the riverbank, but no further.
The day earlier we hadn't even made it onto the water. After waiting on the dock for close on an hour, the German officer heading the patrol walked down the gangway towards us.
"So SPLA don't give us permission to go today," Major Rayk Hähnlein said. "They have no clear overview for the overall situation so they can't guarantee our security"
Technically, the army representative in Malakal had also said the patrol could go ahead if it wanted to - but he wouldn't be going with.
"That's not good," Hähnlein told us. "I will have to wait for the permission of my superiors."
Seven minutes later he was back. It was a no.
The half-hour boat ride downriver the next day was uneventful.
That changed upon arriving at Wau Shilluk.
A group of government soldiers were shouting from shore. Only the lead boat would be allowed to dock. The other two boats were forced to pull off and motored midstream, waiting.
As UN soldiers attempted to disembark, the shouting started again. The government troops didn't want any military personnel onshore at all. Eventually several unarmed UN soldiers were allowed to tie the boat off on what appeared to be a rusting hull. As Hähnlein climbed off the boat, he turned to our photographer. "No pictures," he said. "It is very tense at the moment."
A group of local liaison officers - civilian translators, observers - stepped ashore with the army representative from Malakal and disappeared up the bank to meet with the local government commanders.
Hähnlein took out a picture of his kids and approached the soldier guarding the dock. Maybe he could break the tension? The man immediately brought up his assault rifle, shouting at Hähnlein to return to the boat. He backed away.
"Are all your men locked and loaded?" Hähnlein asked the UN Marine commander on the lead boat. "Are they ready to fight?" The commander nodded, and the men subtly readied their weapons.
From the boats motoring midstream, Wau Shilluk looked quiet, deserted. Just before the government's offensive on the west bank, some 24,000 people were meant to be living here - both locals and people displaced from violence in Malakal since the start of the civil war. Now the riverbank was still.
We counted nine women and a dozen children. A group of five men in civvies sat near a cluster of dugout canoes. Several larger boats, used for ferrying groups, lay unused along the river bank. About a dozen uniformed soldiers stood around the dock, some armed. The land was flat - seeing beyond the front line of structures and palms to any potential damage beyond was just about impossible.
The minutes ticked by.
Back on the dock the mood had calmed. The local liaison officers returned. They'd never made it to the town, forced instead to meet with the government's military commanders there and note down only their version of what was happening in Wau Shilluk. The situation, the commanders said, was normal.
Later, one of the local staff would tell us that the patrol was blocked because of the presence of journalists.
So what happened after the fighting ended?
The image here can be dragged to see Wau Shilluk before and after it was attacked.
Satellite imagery capturing Wau Shilluk shortly after the January 2017 attack shows the obvious swathe of destruction caused by the fighting. A clear dotted line of what appears to be either man-made holes or earthen barriers emerged on the outskirts of the town in the aftermath of the attack. Considering the intensity of fighting and the level of destruction in Wau Shilluk at the time, we believe these to be hastily-prepared defensive fighting positions for occupying forces.
Panchromatic imagery sourced from November and December 2017 (not pictured here) shows this line of presumed fortifications to have been replaced by a more linked line of entrenchments, barricades or earthen fortifications roughly 25 metres south. We believe this second line to be an intentional, long-term series of defensive positions aimed at repelling attacks on Wau Shilluk from the North to North-east. The Western perimeter of the area remained unfortified. Although not certain, such a defensive position would support the argument that Wau Shilluk remained a military garrison long after the January 2017 attack. Northern and North-eastern approaches would be likely avenues of attack by SPLM-IO, supporting this analysis. An absence of civilian vessels on the river, as well as larger family-sized dwellings, contribute to the possibility that Wau Shilluk remained a primarily military-town for the majority of 2017.
A final panchromatic satellite photo of Wau Shilluk in December 2018 (not pictured here) showed some signs of larger growth, with fenced-off, larger dwellings being erected within the fortified perimeter. The defensive emplacements, while clearly weathered over the year and largely unmaintained, remained. No dwellings have been constructed outside this perimeter since the January 2017 attack.
Our team had visited Wau Shilluk in March 2018 with the specific intention of verifying the presence of military emplacements and general militarisation of Wau Shilluk.
The ghost of forced displacement
Two years after the government offensive along the west bank of the White Nile, South Sudan is ostensibly at peace. In September 2018, President Kiir and Machar signed a new peace agreement - one they swore would last.
By early December, CTSAMM was already back at it, investigating a horrific mass rape of 150 women in Bentiu, a town near Malakal. Weeks later, a group of CTSAMM monitors traveling just outside the capital Juba were assaulted, detained and robbed by South Sudan's security service.
Back in the former Upper Nile state, no UN patrols have been denied entry to Wau Shilluk since our visit in March 2018, though UNMISS pointed out ours was not an isolated incident.
When UNMISS head David Shearer had earlier visited Wau Shilluk he too had had to negotiate with the military there to be allowed a "limited" walk around a town he found to be "quite sinister".
"Most definitely people who were there were military, sometimes with their families, but they weren't inhabitants of Wau Shilluk," he told us before the peace deal was signed.
He said UNMISS had met dozens of people who had tried to return to Wau Shilluk but who "found the atmosphere there so unwelcoming they continued on to our PoC site" in Malakal.
With the peace deal came a renewed optimism. As of August 2018, some 500 people from the Malakal PoC site had returned to Wau Shilluk.
But the town today remains heavily militarised, UNMISS told us, adding "there has not been a significant movement of persons seeking to resettle in Wau Shilluk". Humanitarian organisations are also reluctant to return to operating there fully.
"We are continuing to lobby the state government to relocate the military from the town centre to the outskirts so as to allow free movement of people and to aid in the improved delivery of humanitarian services," the UN said.
Back in the Malakal PoC site - before the peace deal, before the promises, before President Kiir publicly apologised for the years of war - Nyalot Adiang Mod had been adamant.
"Unless the government forces withdraw from Wau Shilluk, I can't return," she said. "If they are still there, nobody can go there. Something could happen again."
At the time of publication, the defence force of South Sudan had not responded to ADR's questions concerning these attacks, despite multiple attempts to obtain comment. Please contact ADR directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for commentary regarding this investigation.