On Sunday, the fourth division of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA [South Sudan’s army], operating around Panakuac — a South Sudanese town in northern Unity state, located about 23 kilometres away from the disputed Heglig oil fields — came under attack from the Sudan Armed Forces, or SAF [Sudan’s army]. I, along with a group of international journalists embedded within the fourth division, was caught in the crossfire.
The experience gave me and my compatriots a firsthand account of what civilians and SPLA soldiers, alike, have experienced almost daily in Unity State over the past several weeks, as military forces on both sides of the ill-defined international border separating the two Sudans engage in escalating conflict. Also on Sunday, the SAF bombed densely populated areas in Rubkona, several kilometres away from Bentiu, killing at least six people, including two children.
En route to Panakuac over the weekend, we encountered trucks of soldiers rushing in both directions, to and from the front line. There was nothing but soldiers to be seen in the area, as civilians have fled and moved to the relative safety of Bentiu and neighbouring villages.
When we arrived in Panakuac, we met the commander of the SPLA’s 4th division, Major-General James Gatduel Gatluak, along with his soldiers. He led the SPLA forces that overtook Heglig earlier this month and says that he is ready to go back, if necessary, to stop further aggression from Khartoum.
“We are only three kilometers from SAF,” he told us. Only a few moments later his soldiers scrambled to their positions to respond to what appeared to be gunship fire from the SAF, followed by the sounds of MIG 29 jet–fighters approaching in the sky above.
“People in Unity State increasingly appear to see an all-out offensive against the North’s army as the only option to bring them much wished-for peace”
For the ensuing 15 minutes, we sought cover in a trench while a barrage of anti-aircraft weaponry, artillery and explosions raged around us. It was 15 minutes before the first lull in firing, when Major-General Gatluak told us to get away from the front line.
A few hours later, we met Bol Simon Chol, a young SPLA soldier, at a hospital in Bentiu. He suffered from wounds inflicted during the attack. “I was there standing close to the Major General when I was hit, soon after you left,” Bol told me. He was one of the four soldiers wounded in the attack.
Indignation with the international community is palpable here in Bentiu. SPLA soldiers grow impatient with every day passing, and with every new SAF attack their resolution to push SAF forces further north and retake the Heglig area is gaining momentum. The SPLA withdrew from Heglig under heavy pressure from the international community, they all say. They wanted to show the world that they desire peace. Now, they demand that the international community put an end to “[Sudan leader Omar] Bashir’s aggression.”
“The African Union and Thabo Mbeki
[its chief mediator] are only talking and talking,” a soldier from Central Equatoria told me in Bentiu during his short break from the front line. While the political work to find a peaceful solution to the crisis is being dealt with by the government in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, people in Unity state increasingly appear to see an all-out offensive against the SAF as the only option to bring them much wished-for peace.