Reviews & Profiles

Caught up in the Juba coup

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Posted  Thursday, December 19  2013 at  02:00

In Summary

The ongoing clashes in Juba have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and a shutdown in the city. One Ugandan (names withheld) who has found himself in the middle of all this chaos tells us his story.

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When I arrived in Juba four weeks ago, one of the very first pieces of advice a friend volunteered to me was, if ever I passed near the John Garang Mausoleum, there was one thing to note, the time. Every day at 6am and 6pm, soldiers guarding the Garang Mausoleum raise or lower the flag at the head of Col. John Garang’s grave, located in the middle of Juba, near Juba University.

Whenever this happens, literally everyone, whether they are walking, cycling or driving has to stop, sometimes get out of the car and stand straight, until the five-minute ceremony is over; then one can proceed on their journey. It is a seriously upheld rule in Juba and visitors who have unwittingly driven past as the daily ritual is taking place, have got fired at, with live bullets.

Such is Juba – a city with a lot of dos and donts, which you normally get lectured about as you arrive. Because of that, visitors like me tend to live a guarded and nervous life on the streets, as things as simple as taking a photograph on the street could hand you an invitation for questioning, by, normally, the military.

But none of that prepared me for last weekend.
Sunday was hot and sunny like any December Sunday in this part of the world. I had an appointment with a Ugandan friend to meet up for lunch after church. In what turned out to be a rehearsal for our life for the next 24 hours, we both got glued to our TVs watching the burial of Nelson Mandela; as such, our planned lunch appointment collapsed. And so I spent the whole Sunday indoors.

At about 6.30pm, because I had run out of the local Sudanese Pounds and I needed to change some money for the week (thank God I did), I strolled out from my apartment to a supermarket, and then next door onto an Ethiopian Restaurant at the Dream Palace Hotel, close by the American Embassy at the end of Juba’s main Street-Airport Road, in Juba’s Kololo area.

By the time I was walking out of the restaurant (it must have been going onto 8.45pm), everything seemed wrong all of a sudden in central Juba.

The road where the John Garang Mausoleum stands was closed off, as was the one joining Airport Road, near the Ministries where government offices are. There was a long line of cars building up, but very few pedestrians. There were a number of military pick-up trucks driving very fast, up and down the roads. It definitely looked all wrong. But characteristically, everyone you spoke to didn’t know about anything wrong going on.
It didn’t take long for it to unravel though. Because hardly an hour later, the first bullet went off. Then, another rapid volley. Because this was happening at the side of Nyakuron Culture Centre, near the Garang mausoleum, on the west of the town, I ignored it, as it is not uncommon to hear gunshots around this area since it is guarded heavily – the President’s office and other ministry headquarters are across the road from the mausoleum.
Before long, both the direction and the magnitude of the gunfire changed. Now the firing was coming from the northern side of Juba (I later learnt that the headquarters of the military called GILPAM were based in Gudele and Munuki payams/sub -locations of Juba). The one shot turned into an exchange of bombardments that went on for hours.

I have never been to any military academy, but at that point, I could tell that this was no ordinary shooting; it was clearly a fire-fight. First, there was the cracking sounds of the small guns, the familiar AK47- and another type of gun that didn’t sound familiar. Then came the short loud blasts, which I figured must have been hand grenades. The cracking of the handguns continued, and then there were bigger booms of mortar fire.
Unlike in Kampala, where you can switch from one FM station to another to catch the breaking news or get an idea of what is happening, in Juba, the radio stations went on with their normal broadcast as though nothing serious was going on.

If ever you wanted to prove the adage that information is power this was it; there is nothing under the sun as bad as hearing a growing gunfight in close quarters and you have no clue what it is about, where it is happening, who is fighting who, whether it is a robbery (that you know will soon pass), a coup (to prepare for a long haul), or friendly fire (which you know won’t affect you anyway). Although I eventually went to bed, I never actually slept as the fire exchange went on through the night. And the problem with the night – when you are cowing in your bed – is that the sounds are louder and keep coming closer.

Monday morning was ushered in with heavy gunfire, no information, and heavy movement of soldiers on the streets.
By the time President Salva Kiir went on the national TV at about midday on Monday, to announce there had been a failed coup attempt and that the government was in full control, it was not only too little too late; you also tended not to believe him as gunfire was still rocking.

And so for the last few days, this has become the way of life; once in a while, you get respite of a couple of hours and you can actually go out on the balcony to watch soldiers and civilians running for safety and military vehicles patrolling the streets.

That is only temporal as sooner than later, the sunny peace is interrupted by another barrage of fire and explosions.
It’s one of those times, when you value things as simple as a telephone call. A call from home and back home is as valuable as life. When my family tried to call me from Kampala on Monday morning and they could not reach me because the telephone network was off, they definitely went into a panic. For us in the middle of it, it’s not so bad.

Poor networks makes things worse
We only need the network to be able to speak to friends in different parts of the city to find out how they are doing and what is happening where they are. Trouble is, for the last two days, even the telephone networks have been on and off.
Worse still, Juba is a city that runs on diesel (generators); there is no hydropower, and naturally the generators are sometimes switched off. And so at some point in the night, you have no light, no telephone network, no internet – but lots of gunshots outside.

We cannot step out onto the street; there are no shops open-and for those of us who depended on restaurants for food, it means we have no food in our house.
Of course the other troubling thing is that although most of us were armed with tickets ready to join our families for the Christmas holidays, for now the Juba airport remains closed, like all borders to South Sudan. If this situation continues, we might as well spend our Christmas holed up in our rooms.

Tensions have continued to build until the events of Sunday, December 15, and exploded out of what appears to be an unplanned military confrontation that nonetheless is framed by the ethnic and political vision of Machar and those disgruntled former officials who have sided with him. Since the army remains multi-ethnic, the role of Nuer-Dinka tensions—while still unclear—is almost certain to have been significant, as Machar’s personal security is almost exclusively Nuer.