UNMISS Force Commander leads patrol to deter armed attacks on road to Nimule
In the pre-dawn darkness, civilian and military peacekeepers gather for a security briefing as they prepare to head out on patrol along a road that has been a hotspot for armed ambushes.
Protected by Nepalese troops in armoured personnel carriers, the convoy leaves the safety of the United Nations base, doing all the necessary security checks as it weaves its way through heavy early morning traffic in Juba city.
“Juliet Golf base, we read you loud and clear, over and out,” squawks the radio as the patrol’s progress is tracked back at base.
Crossing the bridge across the River Nile, the long line of UN cars leaves the hustle and bustle of the city behind in favour of a more peaceful rural landscape.
The rising sun gently breaches the low-hanging clouds, casting a warm pastel glow across the fertile earth as the convoy heads south. While it provides a stunning backdrop, the lush foliage also serves as the perfect sanctuary for people with sinister intent. In recent weeks, it has been a hiding place for gunmen attacking cars and buses, wounding and killing several civilians travelling along the road.
The UNMISS convoy, led by its new Force Commander Lieutenant General Shailesh Tinaikar, is on a mission to find out more about these attacks. He wants to see the situation first-hand before deciding whether more troops and patrols are needed to help deter violence in the area.
“This is a very, very important lifeline for South Sudan,” says the Force Commander to his troops, as they stop at a strategic location along the way. “So, we need to have a much better understanding of what is happening on this road and the security situation. Okay?”
The road was once home to dozens of thriving villages. On this day, however, the only signs of life are found at military checkpoints, where a few women and children watch on as soldiers stop cars and trucks, inspecting passengers and contents.
While political violence has died away after the signing of a peace deal last year, the economic situation remains dire, creating an incentive for criminals to take what they can, when they can.
Local authorities have responded quickly to the threat. Military land-cruisers escort long convoys of buses and trucks along the main supply route, at high speed.
That approach to security carries its own risks. Vehicles that haven’t been able to handle the pace or road conditions litter the roadside. An abandoned, burnt out fuel tanker lies like an insect flipped on its back struggling to get back on its feet while the driver of another truck, stranded with a shredded tyre, anxiously stands guard over its contents to prevent looting.
Through misty rain, the peacekeeping convoy descends into Nimule, a town bordering Uganda, stopping at the County Commissioner’s office to get a local assessment of the security situation. He explains that, despite the recent road attacks, there have been many positive developments, including a series of rapprochements between the Government and Opposition.
“There has been a lot of confidence building. The IO [Opposition] forces communicate regularly and visit their counterparts in the SSPDF [South Sudan People’s Defence Forces],” he says.
“There was no problem on the road, except with this new development, which has surprised us. Why do a few individuals attack people on the road and who are they?” he asks the room full of police, military and security officials.
No one has an easy or accurate answer.
“The situation is not clear. But we think they are criminals who united and were ambushing people,” says the commander of the local division of the elite Tiger Brigade, Major Akol Amet Amet. “We don’t know whether they may have previously belonged to an armed group, but we have chased them away.”
More generally, the commander says the relationship between Opposition and Government forces is improving. A new cantonment site has been established so that the once bitter enemies can be reunited into a single South Sudanese army.
“As you know, war is not good,” says Major Akol Amet Amet. “Our population has migrated to neighbouring countries, so we need peace in order to return our community back to our villages. This is the confidence we need.”
The discussion reinforces the need for UNMISS to support peacebuilding and to respond quickly to protect civilians. This is an approach the new Force Commander is keen to pursue.
“We need to see that we are able to save lives, and the only way of doing that is by being proactive rather than reactive,” says Lieutenant General Shailesh Tinaikar. “The moment fighting starts, lives will be lost.”
“There are challenges - we may not be able to predict the exact place where violence could initiate. But our purpose is to see that conflict doesn’t start and that we are able to protect people. To do that, we must be nimble, proactive and very robust in our actions.”
Back behind the wheel of his armoured vehicle, the Force Commander leads the convoy out of Nimule on the 200 kilometre journey back to Juba - an arduous five-hour drive given the dilapidated roads.
Arriving back as night falls - 13 hours after they left - it’s been a worthwhile journey for the travelling peacekeepers. They return with a better understanding of the challenges they face, and how they can support the people they are here to serve.