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Leer County conflict explained

Leer County conflict explained

It has been nearly two weeks since the conflict in Leer County of Unity State started. To date, thousands have been displaced, hundreds killed, properties vandalized, and livestock looted, according to the area member of parliament.

The conflict has taken a toll on women, children, and the elderly. However, little is known about the mayhem that has gone on between various armed groups, including the youths.

On 07th April 2022, armed youths allegedly mobilized by the Commissioner of Koch County Koang Biel Char and Mayiendit County Commissioner Gatluak Nyang Hoth attacked villages mostly in Leer County of Unity State, killing many unarmed civilians, raping women and girls, beheading the people killed and torching shelters, food and business items estimated to be millions of dollars. The attackers are also said to have looted three stores of the world food program in Padeah, Dindin and Thornyor.

The only help the commissioner of Leer County Stephen Taker Riak Dong could offer was to host the civilians fleeing the conflict according to multiple sources who spoke to Juba Echo from Leer.

What Exactly Happened

On April 11th, a Member of Parliament representing Leer County in the Upper House, Riaw Gatlier Gai, raised a motion describing the situation in Leer as “an urgent matter of public importance”.

In his presentation to the parliament, Riaw gave an ordeal on how the conflict began between forces loyal to Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO) and the Commissioner of Koch County in Mirmir cantonment site in Koch at the beginning of February 2022.

 “Rt. Hon, Speaker, Hon. Members, let me take you to the genesis of the ongoing raid, wanton killing of children, and gang-raping of women and girls in Leer County. The conflict started in Mirmir Payam of Koch County when the Commissioner of Koch decided to fight SPLM/SPLA – IO forces and dislodged them from their cantonment site on 7th February 2022,” he narrated.

“Due to the magnitude of the war and common interests, the commissioner of neighbouring Mayiandit joint the attack on Mirmir cantonment site and made a successful alliance with his counterpart of Koch to attack Leer county which both of them believe is SPLA-IO stronghold. The Commissioner of Koch and the Commissioner of Mayiandit counties made an alliance to mobilize and assemble all the armed youth on 14/02/2022 to launch a joint attack on residential areas of Leer county,” he narrated.

Riaw claimed that the two commissioners had a meeting on 14th February 2022 on how they can raid the residential areas of Leer County before dividing attackers into three groups.

He alleged that “The first group was to attack Buoth, Lual, Kuerlel, Leah, Gador under the command of Koang Biel. The second group was to cross the Guey River through the junction of Mirmir through Reng, Rupnor, and began the attack in Gueny, Waak, Kur, Tieep, Dhornor, Dar, Jiath and Bow under the command of the Deputy Commissioner of Koch County.”

The last group of attackers, he said, were led by Gattiek Tut Lam, the leader of armed youth from Tarir youth of Mayiandit County who attacked “Dhorjaak, Guat, Dhortuol, Juongkang, Nyony and Kulier”.

However, Koch commissioner Koang Biel Char in a phone interview with Juba Echo denied involvement in the Leer violence. He blamed the war in Leer on SPLA-IO.

“The statement from the member of parliament is not true. What is true is that the people of SPLM/A – IO from Leer and Panyijiar organized themselves to attack Mirmir. I did not launch any attack on Leer. Instead, they came to Mirmir. This is what I can tell you.

“Our relations with the Mayiandit commissioner are only to strengthen our border relations as neighbours. It has nothing to do with the war in Leer. When we have improved relations and some people will think that it’s meant to attack Leer. It is not true,” he said.

The scale of destruction and atrocities

According to a report to the parliament on 11th April, 61 people including elderly people, women and children were killed some were beheaded and others burnt alive in their shelters in February alone, 15 women were raped, 37 peopled were wounded and 11 girls were abducted.

More than 2,000 livestock including cattle, goats and sheep were raided and about 2,000 houses were burnt to ashes with properties looted.

The scale of destruction and atrocities compelled some Members of Parliament representing Leer County in both houses to pay a courtesy visit to the house of the Unity State Governor Dr Joseph Munytuil on 18th February to ask him “direct his two commissioners to stop the fighting and withdraw their mobilized armed youths from the territory of Leer County”.

Dr Munytuil called the two commissioners in the presence of the national Members of Parliament and ordered them to stop the fighting and leave immediately, prompting praise from the MPs.

“We thank the  Governor who did not hesitate to call the two commissioners in our presence on loudspeaker in which he ordered them that if any armed youths remain in the territory of Leer, they must leave immediately,” Riaw said.

Munytuil allegedly gave security updates to the parliament on the 19th of February without including the killing and destruction in Leer County, raising suspicions among parliamentary representatives from the county on the position of the Governor in the conflict.

“We ask, is the governor in control of the commissioner? If yes then there is an element of complicity. The same is true about the report of the Minister of Interior during sitting no. 02/2022 whose report was silent about the security situation in Unity State,” the group of legislators questioned.

Armed attacks cascaded to April

It is worth noting that the commissioners of Koch and Leer Counties were appointed on the ticket of SPLM – IG with the Commissioner of Mayiandit representing the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA). The early report indicates that all three commissioners want control over taxation along the Nile river which was fully controlled by the SPLM/A – IO.

In a meeting in Mirmir, the two commissioners allegedly agreed to launch a major attack on the landing site of Wathich in Koch and Paak landing site in Mayiandit using the element of the Kitgwang faction of SPLA – IO to lessen the influence of the SPLM/A-IO in these areas.

Kitgwang is an SPLM/A-IO breakaway group led by Gen. Simon Gatwech Dual, former army chief of staff for SPLA-IO under the command of Riek Machar.

On 7th April 2022, SPLA-IO forces allegedly attacked the Mirmir cantonment site which was overrun in February by proxy forces. Koch commissioner, confidential sources said, told his forces to capture alive or dead the generals of SPLA – IO who initiated the attack.

Riaw said this led to another coordinated severe attack on the civilian’s territory in Leer County by the two commissioners “the two commissioners of Koch and Mayiandit launched a severe coordinated attack against Leer County under the command of their executive directors, Mr Riak Biel of Mayiandit and Gordon Guor Kuoth of Koch.”

“The areas above were raided again and they extended the conflict to areas of Geer, Pilieny, Dindin, Pakuem, Thor, Wulu, Panhiam, Thornyor, Yang, Meer, Nahk and Adok port.”

In the second attack, Riaw said more than 39,000 people were displaced and over 4,000 livestock looted.

“Attackers carried out the wanton killing of innocent civilians, elderly, children, gang-raping of women and girls, 46 people were killed, 29 wounded and 5 girls were abducted,” he said.

“Massive displacement of the remnant to swarm areas and looting of properties as indicated here, 3,105 cattle, 850 sheep, 1,650 goats, 4,000 houses burnt. 13,789 displaced to Moum military training site, 19,485 displaced to Leer headquarters, 2,564 displaced to Pap swarm areas of Adok, 3,458 displaced to Ngop,” he added.

Conversation with a former soldier who was later beheaded

Ngundeng Benyping Gatlel, a former soldier of SPLA – IO whose mother hails from the descendants of Mayiandit County was captured in swarm areas of Adok port. Before he was killed, he was forced to make a statement following a question “confirm are you Ngundeng Banypiny?”

“Yes, am Ngungdeng Banypiny Gatlel and I can’t deny my father’s name and where I belong. I was born in Leer, and I grew up here so this is me and it’s not a mistake to die here in the land where my father belongs to. Am ready to die, tell my father and my elder brother Gatmai Banypiny and all my family members not to cry for me. Just take care of my son and the land”.  He was killed and beheaded after the statement on Monday 11th April 2022.

What Has Been Done So Far

SPLM – IO office in Unity State has called for urgent investigation and reported that the Deputy Chairman of the main armed opposition group in Unity State was among the civilians killed.

Dr Lam Akol Ajawin, a member of the South Sudan Opposition Alliance said in a tweet that “we are shocked by the atrocities that have been perpetrated against our civilians in the Unity State especial Leer County. We are going to leave no stone unturned to uncover the truth and impose accountability”

President Salva Kiir on Thursday 14 /4/ 2022 decreed a seven-member committee headed by the national Minister of water resources. Hon. Manawa Peter Gatkuoth Gual, deputized by the national minister of wildlife Hon. Rizik Zakaria Hassen gave the team a mandate to investigate the killings within fourteen days. The team took the oath of office on 15th April to kickstart the investigation process.

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