History Revisited: The Gilo Massacre

"For me I just wanted to go to Bonga, get trained, received my gun and everything a real soldier gets and headed straight back to the village to terrorize boys there. But, here I was in the face of uncertainty. I began to wish I had listened to my mother."

(To our readers: Sorry for dumping everything on this page for the moment. We are restructuring topics and the website to be more responsive to all devices. ED.)

A Personal Story

By Garang Kuot –Dated July 14, 2019

Note from the author :On the 8th anniversary of South Sudan independence, I decided not to write our usual "Happy Birthday" to this young republic on her Birthday. But, I instead decided to write a brief piece of history as my way of celebrating the July 9th as well as my way of remembering and celebrating the lives of those whom we lost on a long road to freedom. However, I got too busy with other life’s commitments that I was not able to complete drafting and sharing it on independence day.

 But it is an important piece of history and it is still worth sharing it now.

Previously, I heard that some of my colleagues and Comrades wrote about Gilo Massacre but I have not been able come across any of those writings. This brief account from me, as an eyewitness, is a contribution to the writings on this tragic episode, which is one of the darkest moments of our war of liberation.

 How I became part of this dark history is where I want to begin this article.

It all began when our life in Pochalla was unbearably difficult. As my colleagues in the Red Army know, we were surviving on tree leaves and roots. The miraculous tree, "Waak", whose fruits became our main food supply later in July, had not yet ripened.

So, my colleagues and comrades, Garang Aher Arol, (current MP in East African Parliament), Thon Bol (R.I.P), and two others whose names I can no longer remember, made a bold yet risky decision to go back to Panyido, Ethiopia to look for food ration.

Thon Bol was later severely wounded in Kapoeta in 1994 during SPLA assault on that town, his right hand was amputated. He came back to Kakuma but he was extremely depressed by his helpless situation. We used to bathe him in turns. But despite our vehement efforts rejecting his return to South Sudan in his condition when he brought up the topic, he escaped without informing us and went back to Eastern Equatoria. He committed suicide there by jumping off a speeding military vehicle. He died on spot. He was a member of Ingas Division.

So, we set off for Panyido, not knowing what awaited us ahead. We had no weapons for our protection, we were only carrying sticks and we were too young and too weak from hunger to mount any significant defence against any attacking force or animal. We could easily have been eaten up by any willing wild animal if luck was not on our side.

We had no idea whether or not there was anyone still living in Panyido, as there were no communication devices then. We were literally going to the unknown. The narrow path going to Panyido had not been used by anyone for a long time. Tall grass had grown on it and it was full of water because there was flooding.

We walked for a whole day without seeing any sign of human being until late in the afternoon, when we came to what used to be a resting point for people traveling between Pochalla and Panyido.

Upon our arrival, we found some soldiers from Nuer ethnic group resting there. They were going to Nasir. That time, there was split in the SPLA but there was no tribalism; we were still comrades. The political fight was confined among the leadership, the rest of us had nothing to do with it.

These soldiers had killed a cow and they were roasting some meat. When we arrived, they welcomed us very happily with famous Sudanese phrase of generosity: “padhol, padhol ya Jesh el amer", translated as welcome, welcome members of Red Army. The spirit of comradeship was very strong. We ate roasted meat together with them. It was the first time we had a real meal for a long time. We slept there.

The next day, they gave us some raw meat to carry with us so we could eat it on our way to Panyido. They warned us to be very careful because Anyuak had rebelled and were killing people indiscriminately. They advised us to avoid walking during the day but to walk at night or to walk in the bushes and avoid the main road as much as possible. They left, taking the road going to Nasir and we headed to towards Panyido.

We arrived at a river crossing point called Chamlung, which was not very far from Panyido. Surprisingly, the same Anyuak people that we were most worried about helped us with their boat to cross the river. Humanity had not yet vanished; people were still people with human value of sympathy. The river was over flooded; it was not even possible to know where the riverbank was because river water was at the same level with inland water.

We made it safe to Panyido. We went straight to UN stores, which were full of all kinds of food items and other materials including thousands of books. We didn’t know what to take and what to leave behind.

But as fate had it, the day we arrived in Panyido was the day the last group of SPLA was evacuating the area. We found them planting anti-personal mines in strategic places, including stores. We were told to pick our food and proceeded right away to Maketh Military Training Center or (Markas as it was famously known), where we were trained back in 1989. For the sake of brevity of the name, I will use the word Markas in this article in place of Maketh Military Training Center.

We took as much food items as our emaciated selves could carry. And for the thirst of knowledge, we also took many books with us.

The soldiers we found evacuating Panyido were members of Red Army who were taken from different groups of Red Army and sent to Bonga for additional military training. So, when we arrived at Markas, we met many members who were taken from our group. They were very happy to see us. Everyone among them wanted to know about those that we left in Pochalla.

On our first night at Markas, we didn’t sleep, we talked until the wee hours of the morning. We told them about the conditions in Pochalla especially how our comrades were surviving on tree leaves and roots, they were very sad on hearing those conditions.

On their part, they told us everything about their training in Bonga, and their engagement with Oyano forces at Damdolla and Gore. They told us about our comrades who were killed there and difficult conditions they went through since leaving Bonga. There was just too much to talk about.

We spent the second day with them at Markas. Everything was beautiful; there was plenty of food to eat except that there was no stomach to take it. We were only thinking about our Comrades whom we left in Pochalla. We only wished they were part of our newfound life of abundance and happiness.

On our third day, around 2 or 3 o’clock, Chan Padiet, a gentleman from Dongjol who was in our group, coy two (sire tania) before he went to Bonga, came back from reconnaissance he had gone to and came straight to where we were conversing. He was among a small contingent of soldiers who went for reconnaissance that morning.

When he arrived, the look in his face wasn’t alright. We asked him if everything was ok, but he told us that they fell into Oyano’s ambush at Post Ayor and that Mawutdit had been killed by Oyano.

Ethiopian Revolutionary People's Democratic Front was commonly known as “Oyano” at the time. Post Ayor was a small military outpost located between Markas and Panyido, every member of the Red Army who was in Panyido knew it.

Mawutdit was the tallest man in the entire force in Markas. I think he was from Tony. Everyone was devastated on hearing the news of Mawutdit’s death. The force was under the overall command of Cdr Majak Agot.

Soon after we heard the news of Mawutdit’s demise, we were told that everyone who was not armed was ordered to leave the Markas immediately for Kor Deng Panan. Forces at Markas were ordered to start digging trenches around Markas area in preparation for Oyano's attack which was thought to be eminent. Everyone started digging trenches. We took our food ration and all other possessions left for Khor Deng Panan.

Arriving at Kor Deng Panan, we met many more guys who were in our group. The first person we met was Nyuol Aguer who helped us meet a lot of our guys including those of Ajiaal who was our group one logistician (sool tayiina) in 1988 before we went to group five. We were again very happy to meet our comrades that we had not met for a long time. But the situation at Kor Deng Panan was different from that of Markas.

There were a lot of ammunitions of various types there and they were transported on a daily basis by soldiers to Kor Anyuak. Stuck vehicles littered the muddy roads between Kor Deng Panan and Kor Anyuak, so they were of no use. Ammunitions had to be transported from one base to the next by soldiers in an effort to cross them over to Sudan’s side of the border. Each soldier was required to carry a huge load of ammunitions, so weapons were left behind at Kor Deng Panan.

We spent two days there. On the third day, we decided to cook our special maize that someone had prepared by removing the cover or its first layer and left it in Panyido. We thought the owner was either running or he had too much to carry, which was why he left behind that beautifully prepared maize.

We mixed this maize with beans and cooked it to perfection. It was the best food anyone could have during those dark days of 1991. When it was fully cooked, we decided to let it cool down and we went to the river to play and take bath.

When we were done playing and taking nice bath in the river, we came back to eat our meal. We made ourselves comfortable and ready to enjoy the work of our hands. We poured on it oil and mixed it up until the color turned whitish-grey. It was a delicious food that made one’s mouth watery during those days of food scarcity.

But, just before any of us could take a nice scoop of this delicacy, we heard what was commonly known as “mapaga taan", the then-new AK47 bullet that exploded twice, ringing out nearby. “Tap tum” was the ominous sound. And in seconds, Oyano forces opened massive and sustained fire against the base in a way that I still hate to remember to this day. At that moment, all we could hear was “ajire, ajire", loosely translated as “run, run”.

Since the Red Army had taken ammunitions to Kor Anyuak that morning, the remaining force, which was guarding the base at Kor Deng Panan, was too small and therefore it was of no match for the attacking enemy. Everything belonging to the SPLA, including weapons and huge amounts of ammunitions, were captured in good condition.

The intelligence of Oyano was incredibly good; they launched their attack at the best time when there was nothing to resist them.

We were not used to the sounds of Zu-23 and BMs. Oyano was using Zu-23 and either BM-21 or Type 63 multiple rocket launchers, both of which had a very traumatizing effect on inexperienced people like us. Zu-23 would explode overhead until we sat down and in front making some of us to run back to the enemy.

Fast forward, we managed to get out of Kor Deng Panan safely. But everything was captured: weapons, ammunitions, everything, including our cooked maize, stupid Oyano. That maize must have been cursed, the same way the first owner left it in Panyido is the same way we left it at Kor Deng Panan. I don’t know whether it was eaten by humans, birds or animals.

We came to Kor Anyuak and found everyone there, including high military command, which was in charge of the evacuation process.

Among the people we found at Kor Anyuak was Gaidit, the old man from Bor, who used to be a top comedian in Panyido and who was living in SPLA cattle camp. Gaidit was not able to walk at the time and there was no vehicle to carry him since all the vehicle were stuck. I later heard that Gaidit was killed by SPLA on compassionate ground when they were evacuating because they didn’t want to leave him alive only to be eaten by wild animals or killed by advancing Oyano forces.

But I can’t verify for certain the circumstances under which he died because I wasn’t there. Those who evacuated Kor Anyuak later that night will be in a better position to tell us how Gaidit died during those hasty moments of evacuation process.

We made it to Gilo late that evening. We found hundreds and hundreds of people on the bank of river Gilo One. Everyone was stranded; there was no means to cross the flooded river which was ominously full and with a current that even the most experienced swimmer found difficult to cross. The majority of us were either moderate swimmers or non-swimmers at all. It was even worse for our brothers from the Nuba Mountains who knew nothing about swimming. To add to the despair of everyone, there was only one small boat, which carried around 3 or 4 people. That small boat was committed to sick and elderly people. The rest of us had to figure out how to cross the river on our own.

It started raining that night but there was no shelter. The rain turned into drizzles that went on until morning, which added to the misery. The hunger had kicked in. Remember we had not eaten our maize at Kor Deng Panan and we had to run for many hours passing by Kor Anyuak until we reached Gilo One and now rain.

Exhaustion, fatigue, hunger, and rain turned life into a real hell. We stayed awake that night not knowing what the next day would bring. It was one of those moments when, as a young person, you begin to remember your mother’s advice.

For the most part, our mothers didn’t want us to go to Ethiopia at that young age. My mother was strongly opposed to my going to Ethiopia. It was my father that wanted me to go. And I was on the side of my father's although we had different objectives. For me I just wanted to go to Bonga, get trained, received my gun and everything a real soldier gets and headed straight back to the village to terrorize boys there. But, here I was in the face of uncertainty. I began to wish I had listened to my mother.

In the middle of the night, we saw the sky light up with bright light at a distance in the direction of Kor Anyuak. We enquired around what was happening. We were told that SPLA had set ablaze thousands upon thousands of ammunitions at Kor Anyuak. We saw a lot of ammunitions there during the day, so we understood why the sky was bright. The bright light went on for many hours until it disappeared. Apparently, SPLA burned the entire ammunitions at Kor Anyuak and left the base that same night.

The next day, everyone was desperately trying to cross the river but for the majority, there was nothing to do but to sit and wait for a miracle to happen. Like many others, we sat there at the riverbank because none of us was good at swimming to attempt jumping into that fast running river.

Among the people stranded at Gilo One riverbank was this young beautiful lady, a junior SPLA officer. She was wearing quite fitting dark-green khaki, nicely polished brand new black boots and her rank. She was wearing in a style that used to be referred to as “libis kemsah”. She was a typical soldier that would make a young person want to be a soldier. She made military attire very attractive. She was wearing it as if she was saying goodbye to the world. She would be among those whose lives would be claimed by the mighty Gilo River in a few hours. Her name turned out to be Anip Marial from Yirol, the wife of one SPLA officer, Korou.

I believe at around 1:00 PM or so, Salva Kiir and his guards arrived at the bank of Gilo One riversite. He was hastily crossed to Gilo Two, using that small boat I referred to early.

Some people were using plastic sheets to wrap up their items and crossed with them over to Gilo Two. But that was a very cumbersome process and only the most experienced swimmers were able to do that.

I think it didn’t take more than 30 minutes since Salva Kiir crossed the river when we heard the same deathly “Mapaga tan” of AK47 that we heard the previous day at Kor Deng Panan. Again, at that instant of the first bullet, the attack began. Oyano opened heavy fire on stranded masses of people on Gilo One River.

To make the situation worse, the SPLA on Gilo Two, where they had placed their 106 artillery piece, opened fire against advancing Oyano force. Those of us on Gilo One riverbank got caught up in crossfire. Soldiers from Nuba mountains were just shooting randomly at the direction of the enemy, they didn’t care anymore who was in between. A lot of people died from friendly fire.

At that moment, panicked people started jumping on top of each other in the river. It was the worst form of river stampede rarely seen anywhere. Even the best swimmers at that moment drown because they could not swim as they were held down by too many people.

Those of Anip Marial drown in those frenzy circumstances. The wailing of people and scrambling of multitudes of human beings of all ages into the river of death made it looked as if some kind of horror movie was being acted. That river stampede was a scene that those who witnessed and survived it to tell the story, will live with in their memory for the rest of their days.

For my colleagues and I, we decided not to jump into the river. We instead ran along the river, southward. We felt that it was better to die of a bullet than drown because bullet killed instantly without experiencing much pain but drowning was a slow painful death.

Fortunately, none of us was hit by a bullet despite massive death through combine fire of Oyano and SPLA. After we had run for a while and had gone beyond the range of bullets, we started hearing that Anyuak had laid ambush ahead. But people kept going any way.

I decided at that point to try crossing the river along with other six young men. Among the six was Joseph Deng Lual (R.I.P), who became best volleyball player later in Kenya. He had a very famous nickname but I have forgotten that name. He later died in a car accident in Narus.

I nearly died while trying to cross but that will be topic for another day.
The strong current started taking us back to where the fight was still ongoing. We were separated and were no longer able to see or know where each person was. Whatever happened to the rest of the other guys, I don’t know. I only know the fate of Deng Lual whom I later met. But whether or not the other four guys made it across the river is only known to God.

Those of Garang Aher who decided to continue running southward along the river had among them senior army officers such as Jana Pil aka Riny Tueny, the former Governor of Western Lakes. They managed to cross the river using a rope tied to a tree on the other side of the river by one good swimmer, Dot Ngueny Dot, who is currently serving in SPLA in Bilpam, Juba.

My clothes were taken by the current but I managed to cross the river after nearly drowning.

When I was safely on the other side of the river, I could not see any sign of a human being. So, I started walking alone in tall grass. Then I suddenly met another tall man. He was wearing shorts and a vest. I nearly ran away from him but he called me in Dinka “duk kat jesh el amer bar ten”, translated as “don’t run Red Army, come here”.

So, I followed him. He was an experienced soldier. He told me that we had to continue walking southward in order to avoid bullets range before turning northward to look for a road heading to Pochalla. I walked with him until we finally found the road going to Pochalla and we found many other people walking along the road.
I found those of Garang Aher later that night. Someone whose name I have forgotten gave me a T-shirt. I hope Garang Aher will remember his name because he was there.
But of all the entire dramas surrounding the Gilo massacre, there is one thing that remains traumatizing and mysterious to this day. The Oyano’s fire was coming from the East and SPLA’s fire from the West. We were running to the South.

But just as we started running, I saw this huge, tall man falling in front of me in a slow motion with two bullets penetration on upper part of his back. I had never seen some one shot very close to me until that time.

I thought at the time that those bullets missed me just because I was short. But that is not the reason which makes it permanently ingrained in my brain, it is the origin of the bullets that hit him. If the bullets originated from Oyano, he should have been shot on the left side and if it was from the SPLA at Gilo Two, he should have been shot at the right side. But the bullets that hit him at the back obviously originated from the North and this begs the question: who was shooting from the Northern direction?

As an adult and informed man now, I believe certain people were shooting at their comrades because the bullets that brought down the man in front of me was certainly a friendly fire and deliberate one, either from a wounded soldier or someone who had his reasons to turn his weapon against his comrades.

To this day, no one knows how many people perished at Gilo River but as an eye witness, hundreds and hundreds of lives were lost on that fateful day.

Let me end this lengthy narrative on a lighter note. We eventually made it back to Pochalla, the same way we had left; that is with empty hands. We started narrating our experiences and encounters.

As we were describing variety of food assortments we found in Panyido, we heard our comrade, Dak Gatpan, cry out: “haahuu”. We all looked at him and asked why he was crying? He said he was imagining in his mind the food we were describing and that the cry came out involuntarily. We all laughed as if all was fine. Those are the realities of revolution: war, death and comedy are inseparable.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, we will continue to tell these histories in honor and remembrance of our martyrs and for the sake of posterity.

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