Worrying situation. Whereas many East Africans, especially Ugandans found Juba a hot spot for business, times have changed ever since conflict emerged in 2016. Travellers have to be guarded or else they are attacked.
The conductor of our bus made the last plea before we crossed River Unyama at Elegu, the last town to South Sudan border.
“When we cross to South Sudan, do not take photographs and do not make or receive calls on your mobile phones. It isn’t negotiable. The government doesn’t allow it,” Eco Bus conductor emphatically said.
“I repeat, don’t take photographs or speak on your mobile phones while we travel to Juba. In fact, its advisable to switch off your mobile phones.”
He added: “Abide by orders given to you by the security officers. Do you have any questions?”
No one asked but every passenger was fidgeting to reach out for their mobile phones .
Travelling to Juba, the South Sudan capital, by road has never been a spectacular trip due to decades of armed struggles, but the latest fights between two dominant tribes, the Nuer and Dinka have made it even more risky.
Five years ago, it required no escorts to move from Nimule border to Juba. Even military road blocks had been removed. Buses and traders would travel at their preferred time.
Incidents of extortion and armed robbery were isolated.
The July 2016 fierce fight between forces loyal to president Salva Kiir and his former Vice president Riek Machar has dramatically changed everything for the highway, which is the gateway for the country’s critical imports.
Currently, motorists travelling on Nimule-Juba Highway must move in a convoy of guards provided by the army to ensure their safety.
Mr Hannington Kiwanuka, the chairman of bus drivers, says all bus companies operating in Kampala have changed their schedules.
“Buses now set off from Kampala between 8pm and 10pm so that they reach Nimule before 9am when South Sudan military vehicles arrive to provide escort security to Juba,” Mr Kiwanuka says.
Journey inside South Sudan
Having set off in the night, we reached Nimule border at 9am.
Soldiers on two Toyota Land Cruisers with mounted machine guns had already arrived waiting to offer escort services.
While we checked in and cleared with immigration, the army officers were arranging the vehicles starting with buses, private cars came second followed by trucks ferrying various commodities.
Our conductor is quick to advise us to utilise the remaining few minutes before setting off to ease ourselves in bushes explaining that the convoy wouldn’t stop until we have reached another safe place.
Young armed men dressed in different South Sudanese army uniforms, some wearing sneakers others in boots or sandals posed with their rifles, including PKs and AK47s, as they smoked their cigarettes. Everyone rushed back in the vehicles.
A mile or two, our bus drivers (each bus has two drivers), their turn man, conductor and passengers immediately initiate a conversation on the security situation on the road.
But passengers are unhappy with the driver saying he was driving slowly and creating a gap between us and the convoy. All sedans were overtaking us which made it risky.
“Please, try moving faster and cover the distance. The lead car has already left us,” one passenger told the bus driver as others nodded in approval.
But we were on a hilly place and our Chinese-made bus was a poor performer on the slopes despite the driver’s efforts to increase acceleration.
The countenance of every soul in the bus was fixed on the tankers. Any attack on one of the vehicles would send us to painful death.
Having raced past them, passengers were finally at ease and continued leaning to their seats.
However, the memories of the October 2016 incident, where rebels ambushed Eco Bus and other buses, killing three people at Jebel-Lein on Nimule-Juba Highway were still fresh in the passengers minds. The rebels had used a rocket-propelled grenade to blow up the bus.
Passengers begun joking of how they would be reduced to ashes if rebels attacked one of the petrol tanks which was just metres away.
Ten kilometres inside South Sudan clearly painted the picture of the fears passengers had.
Towns were deserted, iron sheets, windows and doors of houses had been vandalised.
Yards had been conquered by elephant grass. The only visible sign that there was once life and business, was the branding of telecom companies on the walls of shops.
I asked my neighbour, a South Sudanese, how the vandals managed to remove door and window frames that fast, he told me that they would fasten a metallic rope around the door or window frame and then tie it to a Toyota Land Cruiser and drive, pulling it out of structure.
According to him, most of these abandoned town were once under the control of Ugandan traders who only picked a few valuables while fleeing the conflict but all their goods were looted.
In few towns where there was resemblance of order, they were occupied by heavily armed soldiers who rested on verandas of shops.
But as we continued to approach more deserted places everyone in the bus became unsettled worrying what would befall us before making it to Juba.
Even those who kept conversing would go mute once the driver or a vehicle before our bus braked or tried to slow down suddenly.
Frequently, passengers would leave their seats and stand to peek through the bus corridor and windows to see what was ahead.
The two-metre long grass that sandwiches both side of the road made the journey more frightening.
Files of heavily armed soldiers along the highway facing the opposite side was an indication of how dangerous those areas are.
Our co-driver, Godfrey Mawanda, would point at an area and say, “the rebels ambushed us here and killed people. It is a very dangerous place.”
“The shooting was so intense. It was a stampede in here,” Mawanda said as he pointed at the bus entrance door.
“The rebels first shot at the lead car. The soldiers returned fire. Then the rebels responded with even a very powerful gun. Our escorts ceased firing and left the car blocking the road in front,” he recalls.
“We were stuck. We couldn’t reverse and drive neither could we drive forward. Passengers jumped out of the bus to flee to the bushes. One woman forgot that she had a baby. She left the baby in the bus as she made an escape,” he says.
Surprisingly, he says, the rebels decided to retreat. Thereafter, they collected themselves and got back in the bus.
He says they gathered some passengers 200 metres in the bushes away from the bus. After a nerve-racking tally, Mawanda and his colleagues all burst into laughter.
We made a stopover at Kit Bridge nicknamed Obama Afrikan Resort to ease ourselves. Others bought snacks and then got back in the bus.
The last time I was at The Place Hotel, it was full of life. But this time it was so deserted. The hotel was now a military detach.
In a few minutes, we were entering the most dangerous section of the highway.
It is between Obama and Nisitu Town. Countless vehicles have been ambushed here. Ugandans are among the many victims, who have lost life in this area.
Our driver and other motorists in the convoy pretty well knew what it meant driving through the section, they moved as fast as they practically could.
The driver entered some sharp bends at reckless speed that luggage in cabin rolled and fell on the passengers. No one made any outburst. Our prayer and concern was keeping with in the security
“Make sure that they (escort pickups) don’t leave us. You know how dangerous this area is,” a passenger echoed.
The speed at which the military pickup was cruising made think that their focus was more on passing through the section alive than those they were escorting.
Often we caught up with them when they reduce speed to navigate areas with poor road surface.
In these areas, vehicles with South Sudanese registration number plates would harass buses to a point that they were knocked in the rear.
They often drove and squeezed between the buses forcing drivers to make sudden brakes and swerves that irritated every passenger. But this is what attracted laughter among our bus crew. “South Sudanese motorists hide between buses to avoid being attacked by the rebels. You know rebels rarely target buses ferrying Ugandans. The rebels prefer attacking vehicles with South Sudanese plates,” Mawanda says.
Areas with bad road surface are often targets for rebel ambushes, he adds.
At 1pm, we had reached a check point at Nisitu Township, where everyone was ordered to present their travel documents for another search.
After the inspection, we got back into our bus as the military vehicles made a U-turn to escort vehicles that were waiting to travel safely to Nimule border.
Alas, now we were assured of reaching Juba.
In Juba, Ugandan pineapple and water melon trader, Benson Muwanguzi, says some traders risk driving without following the convoy schedule, but if rebels haven’t struck, errant security officers will extort not less than Shs500,000 from them.
During my return journey, I boarded Friendship Coaches and preferred a seat behind the driver’s, a perfect place to have a good chat.
Unlike the Eco Bus drivers, Friendship Coaches driver, Godfrey Kityo, had a heavy right foot.
The speed was reckless by any standards but superb on a road, where everyone wants just to get out of hell.
Stories of terror were dramatically narrated all the way until we reached the border.
I looked at dramatic but didn’t pick a camera to take any photo as earlier warned. We are often warned in journalism classes that no picture or story is worthy our lives.
Some of the ambushes
August 2017. On August 1, 2017 two buses travelling to Juba from the border town of Nimule were ambushed and 10 people were wounded and nine people others killed, two of which were soldiers.
December 2016. On December 28, one person died on spot and three others were wounded in an ambush that involved two Ugandan registered buses and three other vehicles in South Sudan. The incident happened at 11:30pm at Amer junction, 90 Kilometres from the South Sudan capital Juba. It was reported that unknown gunmen opened fire at a Crown Bus registration number UAQ 409D.
October 2016. On October 10, Gateway Bus registration UAU 262L was ambushed by South Sudanese rebels, killing two people and injuring one at Moli in Magwi County Eastern Equatoria state.
A week later unknown gunmen ambushed another Ugandan bus, Victory Base bus registration UAK 478V at Loboi village in Aruu Junction, Eastern Equatoria State at about 10:30 am.