The civil war that began in South Sudan in December 2013 has had dire consequences for the Shilluk of Upper Nile. Attacks by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and allied militia forces have forcibly displaced tens of thousands of people. Many of those displaced have fled to Sudan—just as they did during the second civil war (1983–2005)—where they eke out an uncertain existence. On the east bank of the White Nile, where there was once a robust Shilluk community, the numbers now living in towns such as Renk are massively reduced. While there are no exact figures, according to unoffical estimates as much as 50 per cent of the Shilluk population has left the country during the current civil war, while—including internally displaced people (IDPs)—as much as 80 per cent has been displaced.
Government forces have used helicopter gunships and fighter jets to destroy villages, hospitals, and schools. As explained in the report, these attacks appear to have formed part of a concerted campaign orchestrated by the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS) and the Padang Dinka military and political elite of former Upper Nile state, designed to push the Shilluk from the east bank of the White Nile, maintain total political and administrative control of the area now constituted by Central and Northern Upper Nile states, and keep the Shilluk in a permanent state of impoverishment and terror on the west bank of the river.
The South Sudanese civil war is extremely complex; on the ground, it is driven by a series of local antagonisms in different parts of the country, and is irreducible to a single broader dynamic. In Northern Upper Nile, the area that is the focus of this report, the Padang Dinka political elite were able to link a relatively localized struggle for land and power to the interests of the government in Juba. As outlined in this report, it appears that, from 2015 to 2019, a campaign to consolidate Padang Dinka power in Upper Nile utilized the firepower of the national army in an operation on the banks of the White Nile that led to the death and displacement of much of the Shilluk population. Understanding the roots of this conflict, and its dynamics, is central to any possibility of sustainable peace for the inhabitants of Upper Nile.
Joshua Craze is an independent writer, His essays and reportage have been published by the Guardian (UK) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, among many others. In addition, Mr. Craze is a HSBA consultant and a collegiate assistant professor at the University of Chicago.