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Journey to the heart of South Sudan battle
Published on 24-07-2016 - at 06:20' by Daily Monitor

While there has been no official death toll, most accounts put the number at more than 250, with thousands displaced into neighbouring countries.

Sometimes they say journalists are like soldiers; they don’t know where their next assignment will lead them and what kind of events they will end up covering, whether it turns out to be a peaceful event or a chaotic situation.

The idea that you may end up covering a risky assignment sometimes scares you, making you have second thoughts and mixed feelings of why you want to do what you are about to do.

But in this profession, you are taken over by the passion of bringing the happenings to the audience or readership. Often, I have been asked why I risk it all for a story that is crystal-clear risky to cover, but the good answer has always been I have a passion for the job.

In the wake of the recent civil unrest in South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation where fights erupted between soldiers loyal to president Salva Kiir and his vice president Riek Machar, I got myself assigned to cover the aftermath on the Ugandan side.

While there has been no official death toll, most accounts put the number at more than 250, with thousands displaced into neighbouring countries.

At the Ugandan border at Elegu in Atiak Sub-county, Amuru District, the impact of the conflict had begun biting. On July 10, after a two-hour journey on a commuter taxi from Gulu Municipality, I reached Elegu trading centre, located a few meters from the Nimule Border in South Sudan at 2pm. This was the venue where I would undertake the assignments.

I was welcomed by the sights of hundreds of passengers and truck drivers heading to Juba stranded at Elegu Border Bus Park, and business at the once bustling centre was slow.

At the Elegu Refugees Collection Centre under the office of the Prime Minister, the influx of South Sudanese fleeing their country into Uganda had been registered in thousands just three days after the fights erupted.

Chilling accounts and grim sights of people shot at in ambushes by unknown gunmen as they fled Juba painted a clear portrait of the conflict in South Sudan.

Ms Sarah Mohamed was among some of the injured brought to Elegu trading centre after being shot at at Aruu Junction, Magwi County, on the Nimule-Juba road by unknown gunmen while fleeing Juba city. She sustained bullet injuries on both legs.

Business at Gumbo trading centre came to a standstill for more than two hours as people rushed with their luggage to the waiting police trucks.

She recalls that the gunmen who donned torn combat uniforms and civilian clothes tried to stop the vehicle in which four of them where travelling, but the driver sped off prompting the attackers to open fire on them.

As the fights raged on, foreign countries reacted by evacuating their citizens trapped in the troubled country and Uganda was no exception.

President Yoweri Museveni later ordered for the evacuation of Ugandans, mostly traders from South Sudan, after reports emerged that they were being targeted. The evacuation mission was to be aided by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).
On July 13 at 8:59pm, I received a phone call from the 4th Division spokesperson, Lt Hassan Kato, who notified me to ready myself for a trip to South Sudan as UPDF headed to evacuate the trapped Ugandans the next day.

I had no idea I was going to head into the troubled country, a land engulfed in a bloodbath. I spent part of the evening wondering what would happen on the journey. Would we be shot at? But I later let go of my fears.

The journey

On the morning of July 14, a convoy of more than 40 UPDF and police trucks with two combat battalions of armed soldiers and armoured personnel carries left Bibia UPDF Army Detach and stationed at Elegu border point. The mission was commanded by the 4th Division commander, Brig Muhanga Kayanja.

In the convoy, I was aboard a van belonging to the Defence Press Unit (DPU) which accommodated seven of us, with me being the only civilian. The van was sixth among the lead vehicles in the convoy.

This was my first time covering a combat mission and truthfully, I was terrified about the assignment.
At 8:39am, the UPDF convoy left Elegu customs point and headed to Nimule Town in South Sudan after being flagged off by the Chief of Staff Land Forces, Brig Leopold Kyanda. However, 15km from the Ugandan border side, the convoy made an abrupt stop near the Nimule National Park.
As we waited, a Ugandan spy plane kept monitoring security of the Nimule-Juba highway. After nearly 20 minutes of waiting, a green light was given and the journey resumed.
For more than two hours, as the long convoy snaked through the silent forested Nimule Wildlife Park, we never encountered any sight of vehicles coming from the directions of Juba. We only saw a few suspicious lone individuals. One could tell all was not well along the once busy highway.
During our journey, I kept on imagining our convoy being ambushed, and the sounds of bullets roaring kept ringing into my mind. So I kept praying hard for none of that to happen.
As we approached Magwi Trading Centre in Magwi County, Eastern Equatoria State, it was visible that hundreds of people had fled the area as most shops and homesteads remained deserted. There were just a handful of people left.

The 4th Division spokesperson, Lt Kato, whom we were travelling with in the same van, openly told me at one point to be ready for anything, saying we had entered a dangerous spot in Magwi County.
“We are in an unsecure area; we are left with about two more areas, Pageri and Aruu Junction. Both have been hot spots for ambushes,” Lt Kato said.
As we approached Pageri village, the danger was visible. A ruined private car and a pickup truck belonging to Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) lay on either side of the roads — burnt. At the edge of the road was an abandoned shoe, T-shirt and a decomposing body. Blood stains were also visible on the bitumen road.
We passed the spot safely but the convoy kept on stopping for briefs on the security of the roads ahead.

The ambush
As the convoy drove past Moli village towards Aruu Junction at about 2pm, the lead armoured trucks suddenly made a stop and immediately reversed in military formation while two others sealed the road ahead of us.
In a twinkle of an eye, UPDF soldiers were ducking into the nearby bushes and taking cover, making a ring formation that fenced us in the middle of the road. The cracking sound of gun safes being opened was terrifying.
We were later briefed by Lt Kato that one of the last trucks in the convoy had been attacked by unknown gunmen who shot at UPDF soldiers. He added that a response team had gone to assess the damage.

For 40 minutes, the convoy was static. Soldiers stayed in their cover while we journalists sat under a UPDF truck clueless of what next would happen.
The response team later returned and reports emerged that three soldiers sustained bullet injuries that were not life threatening.
Visibly, most of the soldiers looked more determined to face off any encounter from their enemies.
“We have gone through worse attacks; this is just a tickle. If they want real fire, let them face us,” one of the soldiers shouted as he boarded a truck.
We continued our journey and as we passed Aruu Junction, one of the spots for ambushes, I prayed even more.

The convoy occasionally stopped at numerous road blocks manned by SPLA soldiers donning threadbare or torn uniforms. Others had civilian clothing and just sandals. Along the Nimule-Juba road, it was hard to tell who was a police officer, a genuine soldier or a bandit, owing to mixed up uniforms.
After six hours of a long drive, the convoy reached Nisitu town and headed to Nisitu Barracks, a former military installation used by UPDF from 2013 to 2015 during the civil unrest that erupted in South Sudan. The soldiers camped for the night at the barracks.

Night at Nisitu Barracks

The night at Nisitu Barracks will forever be memorable in my life.

That evening 11 of us, including a journalist from Azam TV, Mr Kassim Kayira, and three NTV reporters, Raymond Mujuni, Solomon Kawesa, and Sam Lawino, spent the night in a small container room at the barracks.

Before sleeping, we had supper of beans and cabbage with posho (maize meal), prepared by a female soldier.

Spending the night was surely going to be a problem. I had no blanket, bed sheet or even mat. My option was to lay my jacket against the cold cement floor and sleep on it. Luckily, a colleague offered a tarpaulin which not only saved me, but most of us.

“I am lucky I carried along with me a Suuka, though sleeping on the floor was going to be hard. We had expected to camp at a trading centre, but here we found ourselves in an abandoned barracks. I’m grateful for the tarpaulin provided,” Mr Lawino said.

The hard floor and hot room kept me awake until morning.

We ate porridge for breakfast that morning served at 8am before the convoy set off for Gumbo Market, where thousands of Ugandans registered for evacuation had assembled. Gumbo Market in Central Equatoria state, a stone throw away from Juba city, had been peaceful during the fight, thus a good spot for assembling Ugandans.

At 11:40am, the UPDF convoy entered Gumbo trading centre amid thunderous cheers and jubilations from thousands of Ugandans. Business at Gumbo trading centre came to a standstill for more than two hours as people rushed with their luggage to the waiting police trucks. Uganda’s Military Police and SPLA soldiers kept watch over the area as people scrambled to board the trucks.

Coming home

The UPDF convoy left Gumbo Trading Centre at 1.30pm with more than 3,500 people registered on the first batch in a convoy that stretched more than five kilometres. Hundreds of boda boda riders braved the more than 140km ride from Gumbo to Elegu amid drizzles and the scorching sunshine.

The convoy crossed Nimule Bridge into Elegu at 6.30pm amid cheers from Ugandan traders at the Elegu trading centre.

Brig Kyanda, who welcomed the Ugandans back home, told journalists that the evacuation mission was a success. A total of 14,037 Ugandans were evacuated from South Sudan in three batches that ended on Tuesday, this week.

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UPDF soldiers take cover at Moli village towards Aruu Junction in South Sudan after their convoy came under attack on July 14.

Kwamamaza
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