Editor’s note: This story is part of a series highlighing the Institute's work in connection with various genocidal conflicts for Genocide Awareness Month, which occurs in April.
South Sudan is the world’s newest country, a predominantly Christian nation that was separated from the Islamic country of Sudan and formally established in 2011.
Two years later, in December 2013, a power struggle between two men – the president of South Sudan and his deputy – erupted into a civil war that engulfed the entire country in ethnic violence that has left up to 50,000 people dead and forced hundreds of thousands to flee into a treacherous terrain of wetlands and wildlife.
The fighting pitted the Dinka community – South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, which includes President Salva Kiir Mayardit – against the Nuer community, the second-largest group, which includes Vice President Riek Machar.
In August 2015, USC Shoah Foundation dispatched a team to Juba, South Sudan, where a freelance journalist on contract interviewed five women, all of them members of the Nuer community. Although each side has committed atrocities, Nuer people tended to be the initial targets.
Out of concern for their physical safety, four women remained anonymous and were filmed in silhouette, though the Institute documented their names and birth dates for its internal records. Windows in the huts where the filming took place were covered with sheets and guards stood sentry outside.
Of the four anonymous interviews recorded, two were survivors of sexual violence in conflict, another shared the story of her abduction, and another spoke about racially fuelled gender-based violence. In the fifth interview, 31-year-old Martha Nyawal James recounted her extraordinary story of survival.
Martha Nyawal James’s Story
Nyawal, a paramedic, had been living in the town of Bentiu when the calm was shattered by fighting in February of 2014. The widow grabbed a few basic items and fled with her sister and seven children into the countryside.
“I collected two mosquito nets, a tin of powdered milk, and some bed sheets, also a bag of rice, and then I called my little ones and put on their shoes,” she said in her testimony. “I could hear the sound of mortars in the direction of Rubkona. I said to them 'let's go!' and off we went.”
In the chaos of evacuation they crossed a bridge that was a jumble of panicked people, possessions and cattle. Nyawal said she saw two children get knocked off the bridge by cows; the children fell into the river and drowned.
On the other side of the bridge, Nyawal and her family came across two unsupervised children in the tall grass.
“I told my sister, ‘We are Christians. We can't leave these children in the wilderness to the wild animals. They might get hurt or eaten. Since we have children their age, let's take them along,’" Nyawal said.
At one point, while taking a pit stop in a village, they were caught in the crossfire of battle and a mortar exploded nearby, sending a piece of shrapnel into Nyawal’s leg. She used a strip of a dress to bandage the wound and they pressed on.
After a long walk they reached an island in the Nile, where others were taking refuge. Nyawal and her sister hid the children in a large sleeping hole dug by a hippopotamus. For 21 days, they kept constant vigil for the absent hippo and other potentially dangerous animals such as crocodiles. When the family ran out of grain, Nyawal and other adults on the island encircled and killed gazelle. Nyawal had a gun but she didn’t use it for fear of attracting the attention of hostile soldiers.
One day a group of people on the island gathered around a small radio to assess the situation. The defense minister was telling the people of Bentiu to return to the town, as the fighting had ended. He said if they didn’t believe him, they could call him. Nyawal used her cell phone to dial the number he provided; he answered. She was wary of his promises, and asked to speak to a childhood friend who worked in his office as a commander. The minister put the friend on the phone. Nyawal decided to head back to Bentiu with the children; her sister stayed on the island.
En route Nyawal picked up four more children, bringing the total number of kids under her supervision to 12. By nightfall they reached a river crossing. Nyamal decided to swim across carrying two children at a time while the others hid in the brush. On her first trip she brought an infant and young son.
“As we started to get into the water, the baby found the water very cold and started to cry,” she said.
When she reached the bank, she came face to face with a government soldier.
He “heard the baby crying and came quietly with his gun ready, cocked to kill.”
“Who are you?” he demanded, pointing the gun at her.
“We are people,” she answered.
He repeated the question; she repeated the answer.
The soldier accused her lying – of being the wife of a rebel, and threatened her with torture.
She said, “I only trust and believe in God.”
He said, “Do you see God anywhere?”
Nyawal said she told the soldier she was going back across the river to fetch the other children. This surprised him; his demeanor softened.
“You mean you have children in the river?”
She said yes, and he called another soldier, who quickly arrived on scene. After a brief discussion the men offered to retrieve the children. Nyawal dried her shivering baby, and told her young son to watch him. The soldiers laid down their guns and the three adults swam across to get the other children. They found them, covered in mosquitos, and brought them to the other side.
The soldiers put Nyawal in touch with her childhood friend, the commander. He saw to it that she and the children were taken to a refugee camp in her home town of Bentiu.