Rwandan convoy in the road to Juba in 2014. RICHARD STUPART/ADR
As reports of heavy weapons fire in Juba continue to arrive, RICHARD STUPART speaks to IOM project development officer Katy Snowball, currently in Juba, in an effort to work out the details of what’s been happening over the last few days. Any transcription errors are our own.
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Richard Stupart: Welcome to African Defence review. We are resuming our coverage of events in Juba today, as fighting continues across the capital after the weekend. We’re talking now with Katy Snowball, development and support officer with the International Organisation for Migration in South Sudan. Katy, can you tell us a little bit about what’s been happening there over the last three or four days?
Katy Snowball: Tensions have been building in Juba for a little while, over the last month, I’d say. The last week has been particularly tense. We knew with independence day, the anniversary of independence day coming up, that it would be very stressful. There were a couple of events on Thursday night and we got together on Friday. I think it was decided that if on Friday night, if things happened on Friday night, then it wouldn’t be good. Basically the last two days, Saturday and Sunday, has been very bad. Especially where the IOM guest house is in Tomping. There has been a lot of fighting – small arms on Saturday, Sunday the heavy artillery started. Mortars dropping. Today it’s been the same. Particularly in the morning. And we know it’s been the same over the IOM office, which is on the other side of town.
RS: Many of the accounts of the violence that have emerged so far have placed the start of events at a roadblock at which a shootout occurred on Thursday night. Does that accord with your experience from that side at the moment?
KS: Yes, yes. That’s what we heard as well. And the reports that came out were just skirmishes between the SPLA and the SPLA in opposition. Everything’s very unclear, I would say, at this point. It feels like everything’s unconfirmed, and because all the humanitarians are in lockdown, it’s very, very hard to verify any information. There’s a lot of misleading information flying around as well. Various spokespeople saying different things, and it’s difficult, it’s difficult. We’re getting updates from the UN obviously, on the radio, and then other humanitarians across town. So we’re getting a lot of information, but it feels like there’s a lot that’s unconfirmed right now.
RS: Some reports have indicated that there’s been firing on UN positions in Juba. From what you’ve been hearing has that been correct?
KS: It’s hard to tell if that’s accurate or not. There’s firing on a lot of things in town. We’re close to the UNMISS base here, but it’s also close to the airport and the neighbourhood where I think a lot of influential people live, so I couldn’t say whether it’s firing on the UN specifically.
RS: And across Juba in general are there any indications that we’ve been seeing more fighting than others?
KS: Yes there’s generally a focus on two particular areas. Gudele and Jebel, and Tomping, where the island guesthouse and airport is, and the UNMISS base. It is also where the UN housing is. The fighting is definitely focused around these areas. And in Munuki as well.
RS: Have you had any reports on attacks on other humanitarian compounds in the city?
RS: We haven’t had any reports about that at this time. People are fearing looting as well. Overnight we’re hearing lots of shots and small arms ringing out at all times at the night and morning. Our compound is very secure, but there are other NGOs and agencies that don’t have as much security as we do, and obviously there’s national staff in houses in some of these areas. So there’s really high concern for these people who don’t have the same level of security as other agencies. So far I haven’t heard anything, but it’s hard to say what will happen in the next couple of days.
RS: Is there any indication as to whether the fighting has increased in intensity or has it started to peter out over the last day or so?
KS: I don’t think it’s petering out. It’s coming and going. There are certain times where the fighting has been more active. I don’t think it sounds like it’s stopping. We really hope it’s a bit calmer tomorrow, but everyone’s in lockdown so we’re not getting a lot of information on what’s happening.
RS: And for IOM, what are you immediate concerns? Are your staff safe, and what are your short-term priorities?
KS: We’re very safe, yes. I should say certain people, the national staff, are in a lot of areas that are a bit more tense. I’m probably not privy to a lot of conversations that are happening, but I think everyone’s feeling okay right now. The airport is closed down. There are no flights coming in or out at this point. So we won’t relocate today, obviously. Tomorrow it may be a different story. For IOM, in terms of response, it’ll be really important to get out there and find the people who have been displaced. There’s been a lot of people running to UN bases, or collecting at churches or community areas. And I think one of our main concerns is how are they. There was rain on Saturday night and they have little access to shelter and food. Obviously we’re concerned with the capacity with the health facilities in Juba. We have a health team here and we know the main hospital in town needs extensive support with casualties or injuries or whatever’s been happening out there in the last few days.
RS: Have you had any communications with IOM sites outside of Juba? There have been reports of troops mobilisations in various other large cities outside of the capital.
KS: I think there is a fear that this will spread. We are in contact with our field officers. I’m not too sure what to say. We are in contact with everyone, UNMISS, other agencies and so on. But I think there are fears amongst everyone that this will spread.
RS: Have there been any communications over the radio by Riek Machar or Salva Kiir to indicate that either of them are in control of their respective forces?
KS: I haven’t heard anything like that, no.
RS: Do you have any idea of an approximate timeline in the last few days, for example from Thursday night, of the order of events that have been taking place in the capital?
KS: So Thursday night was the roadblock, and that was the first indication that things were getting serious. And we did hear that there were soldiers and casualties. Friday escalated in Gudele and Jebel. We were at the office and all the staff were instructed to return home or to a safe area. Friday night, I can’t remember exactly. Saturday night was when the small arms really started over in Tomping. That’s when I think it was all happening at the airport. That’s also when we started hearing reports that people were running to the bases or fearing being out in the streets. There are still a lot of soldiers walking around the neighbourhood, around the streets. I think Sunday and Monday have been a couple of days of really heavy artillery.
RS: One of the reports we’ve heard is that IO soldiers may have moved into the south of the city and taken control of some of the areas. Some of the fighting was apparently the efforts of government soldiers to dislodge those troops. Do you have any indication of whereabouts in the city fighting has been heaviest, and whether the south in particular has seen heavy shelling?
KS: I’m probably not the best person to ask about that. I’m not good with the directions in the city. It’s also hard where we’re under lockdown, so it sounds like there’s fighting and firing coming from all around, but I couldn’t say in which direction it’s coming from.
RS: Finally, for many people watching from the outside, where much is still unclear, is there anything you feel would be useful to know or to alert people from the outside at the moment.
KS: Just that we really hope that it’s calm again tomorrow. It’s very stressful. South Sudan has been in civil war for a very long time. And it’s getting more and more difficult. The economy is struggling, now there’s no peace in Juba. We would just hope that the international community does keep a watch on South Sudan and keep its people in its thoughts.