UNMISS assessment team visits Tambura, Western Equatoria, following recent armed attacks
Driving into the deep forests of Western Equatoria some 9 kilometers from Tambura town, a team of civilian, military and police peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) are on an assignment to investigate a recent upsurge of armed conflict in the villages surrounding greater Tambura.
Despite the verdant surroundings, the scars of fear and devastation are obvious to the visiting team who recorded more than 50 houses burnt to the ground and at least three people reported to be killed.
“Over 50 houses are burnt but there are more we haven’t been able to reach,” says Leticia Mariano, a Human Rights Officer with the UN peacekeeping mission.
The violence-affected area is deserted, as local communities living here ran for their lives to neighbouring villages or the bush when unidentified gunmen stormed in, firing into the air and destroying their homes and farms.
Mother of eight, Martha Mabeko, survives on the remnants of cassava she can collect, still reliving the traumatic incident but compelled to move about despite her fear because her children need food.
“It was a Sunday afternoon when we were surprised by heavy gunfire and saw our homes being burned down,” she recounts. “We were terrified but managed to escape deep into the bushes with our children. They killed two people. I couldn’t identify the armed group; neither can I tell you which direction they came from. Everybody was panicked and all we could think of was how can we save our children.”
Similarly, Hellena John managed to escape from her village to the internally displaced persons camp in Tambura town. However, life has not been easy following the attack. Hellena has nowhere to shelter and holds a deep fear and helplessness at the lack of nutritious food for her children.
“We don’t know the people who came to attack us. They suddenly appeared, started shooting and burning all our houses,” reveals Hellena. “Everything we have ever owned, everything we grow in our farms are destroyed. Even if we return now, there no shelter. All that is left are the remnants of cassava we collect to feed our children.”
Perhaps the most searing account of the insecurity in Tambura comes from 36-year-old mother of 13, Karmela Gerio, who speaks of fleeing the horror of the attack on her village a month ago while fully pregnant, and its aftermath.
“I was due to deliver any moment when I heard the sound of gunfire and scrambled to escape with my children. I don’t know how I managed to get to the church premise where I gave birth just three weeks ago,” she says. “I am still bleeding, still not feeling well. I can’t go to the hospital and there are no medicines there anyway. Food is a problem. My children have not eaten and are crying but I have no food to give them. I feel faint if I try to stand up and cannot walk. Even if I manage to go back home, I don’t know what will happen to me.”
The UN team on the ground is verifying information received from local communities and authorities to ensure accurate records of the conflict and the atrocities committed. But they, themselves, aren’t immune to the incredible human suffering on display here.
“It is a heartbreaking sight – affected civilians have lost everything they own; their farms are decimated, and crops ruined. The roads and surroundings leading to the scene of the attack are deserted, like a ghost town. We also have deeply concerning allegations of killings having taken place here,” says Leticia.
UNMISS is working with humanitarian partners to alleviate conditions and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
“Our peacekeepers have intensified patrols here to deter further violence, while humanitarian partners, led by the World Food Programme, are providing food assistance to displaced people who are sheltering in Tambura in schools and the church premises,” she adds.
“We are collaborating with state and local authorities in order to make sure such attacks never take place. The plan is to build partnerships for peace dialogues, sensitize armed personnel and rebuild the trust and confidence of the displaced people,” she continues.
“However, it is a long road to recovery for those affected as they have to literally restart their lives from zero. UNMISS will support them every step of the way.”