Details of how four Kenyans working in South Sudan were killed on Saturday have emerged, as their employer says they are bringing their bodies home.
Gredo, an NGO sponsored by Unicef, said it was collaborating with security agencies to transport the bodies to Kenya for burial. Three will be transported by air and one by road through Uganda.
The four, whose identities the Nation cannot reveal until their families are officially notified, succumbed to gunshot wounds.
They were young men who had left the country as recently as early this month to be employed in an organisation that works towards “empowerment and development”, according to staff badges found near the bodies.
One of them was born on January 30, 1973 in Kiambu. He had worked for Gredo for only a month as a project coordinator and his contract was to run until September next year.
The job grade of another, from Siaya, could not be immediately established. An entry in the mortuary records had his occupation listed as “civilian”.
Another one, a peer educator, was born 37 years ago in Nyandarua but claimed his home county was Laikipia.
The fourth one, born in October, 1973, had yearned to teach English to the youth Gredo works with. He had landed the job just six days to the fateful day, having travelled from Nairobi.
According to a South Sudanese government dispatch, the four were among six aid workers killed as they travelled to their base in Pibor, a town 340 kilometres northeast of the capital Juba, near the border with Ethiopia.
Around 8am, men in jungle uniforms and carrying rifles stopped vehicles some 50 kilometres north of Juba. They ordered all the occupants out and directed them to lie down.
They then ransacked the vehicles, looting. After a while, each one of the aid workers was shot in the head and the back, sometimes the bullets piercing the body.
Under pressure from Kenyans, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially reached out to South Sudan on Monday to help retrieve the bodies from the bush.
In a statement, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed said efforts were under way to have South Sudanese security agents and officials from Gredo and Unicef recover the bodies of the victims.
“The Ministry is working with all stakeholders to ascertain the exact circumstances leading to this tragedy,” said Ms Mohamed, who later petitioned her South Sudanese counterpart Deng Alor Kuol to intervene.
The attack occurred in a region controlled by rebels associated with former Vice-President Riek Machar but they denied killing the workers and pointed a finger at the President Salva Kiir regime.
“The workers were killed by militia sponsored by the government in Juba,” said William Gatjiath Deng, military spokesman for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO), as Dr Machar’s rebels are known. “They have been killing civilians, which we don’t.
“We do not kill those who come to help.”
But Juba denied the accusation, saying the government has been providing security to all.
Later, a South Sudanese government source told the Nation that the bodies were found strewn by the roadside with their hands tied at the back and identification documents scattered nearby.
After several days, Gredo said, all the bodies were recovered and preserved at a mortuary in Juba, waiting to be ferried to Kenya.
The killings have received widespread condemnation, especially since parts of South Sudan are experiencing devastating famine.
“At a time when humanitarian needs have reached unprecedented levels, it is entirely unacceptable that those who are trying to help are being attacked and killed,” said Eugene Owusu, South Sudan’s UN humanitarian coordinator.
UN figures show that at least 12 aid workers have been killed this year in South Sudan, putting the country among the most dangerous for relief agencies.
On March 14, a convoy of humanitarian workers responding to a cholera outbreak was attacked in Yirol East, 240km northwest of Juba. A nurse and a patient were shot dead and another health worker badly injured.
Four days earlier, in Mayendit, where the famine has hit hard, South Sudanese staff of an international NGO were detained by rebels for five days.