Where the bodies aren’t buried

Bearing witness to a murder—and a message—on a dirt path in South Sudan

People seen outside their camps on April 2, 2017 in Juba, Sudan. Photo by Natalia Jidovanu / Le Pictorium / Barcroft Images via Getty Images.

One morning in February, people began telling me about “Abu Sala.” They were all new arrivals, men and women who had fled to Uganda from the village of Bamurye in the far south of South Sudan. They talked about him at the Laufori refugee collection point, where the air inside the medical tent was heavy and sour as exhausted South Sudanese sleep-walked through a snaking line, coaxing along children with shrunken bodies and shell-shocked faces, to see a paramedic. They talked about him on one of the four sun-baked dirt tracks leading to Laufori, just across the Ugandan border from South Sudan.

“Abu Sala” (or “Abu Saleh”) was a nickname, a kind of honorific given to a man named Alex Kajoba. A husband, father, grandfather, and village elder, he held great sway in Bamurye. He did what the village’s sub-chief failed to do: went to the local military barracks when government soldiers—members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA—detained people often falsely accused of supporting local rebels. Kajoba strenuously argued for their release, and his neighbors respected him for it.

By the time I arrived in South Sudan—my fourth trip in as many years, this time for Harper’s—the situation across great swaths of the Equatorias, that nation’s Deep South, had grown dire. Thousands of civilians were fleeing to Uganda each day. Bamurye was just the latest village being emptied as part of a government campaign of terror, murder, and massacre.

South Sudan was born in 2011, following a long civil war between the South Sudanese and the Khartoum government. But peace was fleeting for the Texas-sized nation of 60-plus ethnic groups. In December 2013, government troops loyal to president Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka people, carried out an ethnic cleansing operation against Nuers. Rebel soldiers known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition or “IO” and led by Kiir’s former vice president, an ethnic Nuer named Riek Machar, massacred Dinkas in response. The conflict has raged ever since, but the southlandsthe country’s breadbasket and home to dozens of minority communitieswere largely spared at first. In 2015, however, war spread to the Equatorias and clashes between the IO and SPLA have increasingly led to reprisals against minority communities all across the region.

***

A rebel ambush that killed three SPLA soldiers was the reason, I was told, that troops from the Bamurye barracks murdered three young men from the village. The men, like most other residents, were ethnic Kukus. Their neighbors fled following the killings, but some soon returned, hoping to avoid the troops and gather a few of their meager belongings. Alex Kajoba was among them. He was on his way back to Laufori, near the edge of town, when the soldiers caught him.

I felt a tremendous imperative to lay my eyes on the body of Alex Kajoba. I had been interviewing in northern Uganda for almost a week, and testimony from dozens of witnesses revealed a simple and brutal SPLA playbook. Uniformed soldiers would roll into villages in military pickup trucks or march in on foot and open fire with their AK-47s. They didn’t massacre the entire population. They didn’t need to. They would kill a handful of people—men and women, sometimes even children; generally, 10 or fewer—and set some homes aflame. The effect was the same as if they had wiped everyone out: an empty village.

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Like so much else in South Sudan, which has no paved roads and little infrastructure outside the capital, the civil war is exceptionally remote. For me and other journalists, the conflict has been marked by myriad eyewitness accounts of rape, torture, murder, and massacre; gunshots heard echoing in the night; people with scabbed-over wounds and vacant eyes; burnt out houses; ankle-high fragments of mud-walled homes; mass graves; a field strewn with anonymous, unburied human remains from yet another government killing spree. I was always late to the scene. All that remained were fading shadows of war—bones and broken bodies and shattered minds and residual suffering. Here was an opportunity for a more intimate understanding of the conflict, a chance to see what the government of South Sudan had done to one particular man, Alex Kajoba, who, through his friends and a relative, I had come to know in some small way.

I was always late to the scene. All that remained were fading shadows of war—bones and broken bodies and shattered minds and residual suffering. Here was an opportunity for a more intimate understanding of the conflict.

The murder of Alex Kajoba offered an opportunity to see a victim exactly where neighbors told me he fell; to bear witness to evidence of the violence that had emptied a village just days before. If Kajoba’s body was there—or I found evidence that it had been—I believed it would lend credibility to witnesses whose villages I would never reach, add weight to their testimony, provide indirect corroboration of similar accounts I had heard and would later hear, in addition to nailing down the story of Bamurye.

The troops had instructed the last stragglers in the village, residents later told me, that Kajoba wasn’t to be buried. The SPLA had wanted to send an unmistakable message to locals, a warning they surely thought would never reach the world beyond Bamurye. I could change that.

But getting to the body, and making use of any photographic evidence I might collect once I got there, were fraught with ethical challenges. The trip would be exceedingly dangerous for the locals I’d need to guide me. Was it worth it? And even if I succeeded in finding the body and documenting it, would a US media outlet publish such graphic details of a distant war in a country most Americans couldn’t find on a map?

Salina Sunday, a friend and neighbor of Kajoba who had traveled back to Bamurye with him, echoed numerous villagers who told me unequivocally that the government soldiers killed him. She hadn’t witnessed it, but she had passed by his body a day and a half before. I quickly asked if she could lead me to him. Even though she was a local representative of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, President Kiir’s political party, she agreed. It was her “incredible courage” that photographer Natalia Jidovanu, who was on the scene that day, recalled recently. “She risked her life, never asked for anything, and didn’t think twice about taking you to the place Alex Kajoba was killed.”

In talking with Sunday, it became clear that we would need to travel by motorbike, known there as a “boda.” It was clear, too, that my translator, an ethnic Kuku from South Sudan who had been living in Uganda for many years, would not go along. He felt the risks were too immense, and I couldn’t disagree. His people were being killed by soldiers living in the town I hoped to reach.

It didn’t take long to realize that the boda drivers lined up in the market along Laufori’s main drag had the same fears. They were heading back and forth across the border on other roads to other villages, but they laughed when I asked about Bamurye. About 30 men refused my entreaties, telling me I was crazy, asking for unrealistic sums of money, saying it was certain death to travel there. “Everyone wanted to help but no one wanted to cross the border because”—as the drivers said that day—“‘if you go, you don’t come back,’” Jidovanu recalled.

It took me about an hour to find a boda driver willing to take Sunday and me. I ended up agreeing to pay $200 for the driver and what I was told was the best motorbike in town, and later added $100 more, something close to what most South Sudanese live on for a year. I asked the boda driver and Sunday a final time if they were certain about making the trip, but I’ll admit the question felt perfunctory at that point. We were already on the road when the driver mentioned that he thought we should have enough fuel to make it to Bamurye and back. I insisted we turn around and top off the tank.

As the driver poured in gasoline from a repurposed plastic water bottle, I had a last chance to think over the calculations I had made during the previous hour. The negotiations had been a chaotic scene, many drivers speaking to me and to each other at once; conversations between myself, my translator, Jidovanu, who I worked beside for several days in Uganda, our driver, and Selena Sunday. In the midst of it, a journalist I knew from Juba suddenly appeared. He was moving his family across the border, noticed the commotion and recognized me. He joined in the negotiations with a local powerbroker, who said he could find me the right driver and the right bike.

I was clearly assuming responsibility for the lives of two strangers. While I didn’t take the decision lightly and tried to weigh the risks, this was done simultaneously with planning, negotiating, and working out rudimentary security protocols. Sunday seemed confident that SPLA soldiers wouldn’t kill a middle-aged woman. (Residents of other nearby villages had already disabused me of this notion.) The boda driver, a young Kuku man, seemed far less assured. He was right to worry. In almost any scenario, he would likely be the first arrested or killed. Sunday was the next most vulnerable. As a white male foreigner, an American with a US passport and a valid South Sudan visa within it, I had the most protection by far.

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Looking back on one of her most famous photographs, Cuesta del Plomo—a 1978 image of a corpse on a hillside near Managua, Nicaragua—the celebrated photographer Susan Meiselas spoke of her deep need to make the picture. “When I saw that body, there was a tremendous sense of urgency and necessity; it had to be documented, it had to be witnessed,” she wrote. Meiselas happened upon the corpse—half a man, still clad in blue jeans—dumped at a well-known site of government assassinations to terrorize passersby. In no universe would I ever compare the photographs I eventually took to the artfully composed, horrific but beautiful, picture Meiselas made. But I felt the same compulsion, the same gnawing need to document the government’s use of a dead human body as a warning, a threat, an instrument of control.

***

We tore down the main drag, toward the official border checkpoint, at top speed but then hung a right onto the Bamurye-Gwere-Laufori “road,” a dirt footpath that meandered off into the dun-colored bush. We skidded and bounced along for 40 minutes, down spine-jarring culverts, the thorny, sun-strangled brush sometimes whipping our bodies. What remained of Kajoba’s body, wet with death, was lying on the edge of the path on the outskirts of town, just where witnesses said it would be. In Harper’sI described it this way:

His body was blackened and bloated, reeking of the sweet, terrible scent of putrescence, his stomach bursting out of his tan shirt. His hands were missing. What remained was a bloody stump on the right, a jagged shard of bone jutting from torn flesh on the left. His head was gone. Where it had met his neck was alive with a writhing mass of maggots spreading down his chest.

“They took his money and his bicycle and left his mattress,” Bamurye resident Jackson Milla, 37, told me. Indeed, I saw that stained piece of foam, wrapped around a blanket and a few articles of clothing, just steps from Kajoba’s body. They’d shot him in the side and then, according to witnesses who had seen his corpse prior to its disfigurement, through the back of his head. Then they mutilated him, transforming his body into a gruesome warning.

I climbed off the boda and started taking pictures while the driver spun the motorbike around and implored me to get back on board. He was gesturing toward the nearby SPLA barracks, warning of the danger as if the corpse at my feet weren’t caution enough. I looked around for soldiers but, failing to see any, continued snapping photos, taking care not to disturb Kajoba’s body. The driver began slowly walking the bike, with him and Sunday on board, back toward South Sudan and, even though only a few minutes had passed, I started to worry that he might leave without me. But I was now fixated on the field beyond the trail. The driver kept telling me that we had to go, but I kept scanning the area, searching for Alex Kajoba’s head.

Warning: Graphic image. Click here to open the photo in a new window.

South Sudan’s government disputes accounts of its soldiers making war on civilians in the Equatorias. “All the reports that talk about ethnic cleansing, these are just misleading reports by those who want to attack the sovereignty of South Sudan,” President Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, told me. The official line is that the government of South Sudan is conducting a counterinsurgency campaign against the rebels. Civilians killed are unfortunate collateral damage due to crossfire or are, in rare circumstances, slain by rogue troops. “If the Sudan People’s Liberation Army were killing people, there wouldn’t be any civilians left in South Sudan right now,” Ateny mused. “We would have finished them off.”

Salina Sunday told me it was important for people to know what had happened in Bamurye. Indeed, she had risked her life for it. But Harper’s didn’t want my photographs of Alex Kajoba. “That’s really not the kind of visual we’re interested in publishing in general,” I was told. Admittedly, there are any number of reasons not to run them, their graphic nature first and foremost.

German journalist Simon Balzert devised a comprehensive code of ethics for the use of explicit images that decries publication for mere “shock or entertainment value” and employing a double standard for photos taken abroad. “Before publication, journalists should see if it is possible to avoid publishing the photograph by conveying the information contained in the image in another manner,” said Balzert. Indeed, the vividness of my description was cited by Harper’s in deciding not to publish my photos of Alex Kajoba’s corpse.

But Balzert has also said that “sometimes it is important to publish graphic photographs in order to document the horrors of war. For example, politicians may be interested in propagating the myth that it is a clean war.” This lie is central to the government of South Sudan, which censors newspapers, bans foreign reporters, detains and threatens local journalists; it is a government, like so many others before it, devoted to covering up its atrocities.

Embed from Getty Images

Soldiers of the Sudan People Liberation Army sit in a pick-up truck at the military base in Malakal, northern South Sudan, on October 16, 2016. 

Since the civil war in South Sudan began in December 2013, there have been endless images published of soldiers brandishing weapons.  There have also striking photographs of civilians running from attack and of war crimes survivors, not to mention injured and dead combatants. But such evidence has largely vanished from view in recent years.  “Only at the start of the war was there any real conflict footage.  Once the war left the main towns it became invisible,” says Jason Patinkin who has covered the conflict in South Sudan since 2014. “There just aren’t enough reporters, and access is so difficult.”  Just last month, freelance journalist Christopher Allen was killed by the SPLA while attempting to cover combat in the Equatorias—a rare instance when reporters were present during a battle.  A government spokesman first labeled him a “white rebel” but later said he was “not targeted” and killed in “crossfire.”

South Sudanese men will sometimes show you atrocity photos of unknown origin on their cell phones, but there are few notable published photographs spotlighting the violence against civilians by the SPLA. And while dedicated South Sudanese have made admirable efforts to begin naming the dead of this war, the international community quit even counting more than two years ago. Since then, the number has been stuck at 50,000. Most of these victims are unknown beyond their families and friends. They lie in unmarked graves, their deaths undocumented.

Alex Kajoba was an important man in his tiny village. He was a night watchman at the local medical dispensary and a small businessman during the day. He was respected and loved, and he is missed. The sight of his corpse isn’t pleasant. By publishing it, I run the risk of exploiting him in death, just as the SPLA did. But it’s a risk that feels necessary. However gruesome, some might even say gratuitous, this is a photo the world needs to see precisely because it’s the type of photo the government of South Sudan doesn’t want to be seen.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

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Nick Turse is the author of seven books, most recently Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.