Over 200 drown in Nile fleeing violence in S Sudan

January 15, 2014 - 9:40:26 am
JUBA: More than 200 women and children drowned when their overloaded boat capsized on the Nile as they scrambled to escape fighting in South Sudan, officials said yesterday.

In a disaster shocking even by the standards of the month-long warfare wracking the world’s youngest country, only two people, male crew members, are believed to have survived.

The South Sudanese government described the tragedy as heartbreaking, and was quick to blame rebel forces for causing the panicked stampede to the river.

Lieutenant-colonel Philip Aguer, a military spokesman, said the incident happened last Saturday when fighters loyal to rebel leader Riek Machar gave a warning that they would attack the town of Malakal. This prompted a chaotic mass exodus by residents, who are of Shilluk ethnicity.

“People tried to cross to their villages on the other side of the river,” Aguer said. 

“Women and children were put on board and the boat was filled with much more than its capacity. It sank and between 200 and 300 people died. They were nearly all women and children; there were a few men but we don’t know how many. Only two people survived.”

Aguer described it as the worst single loss of life in South Sudan’s two-and-a-half year history, adding: 

“This is a real human disaster.” He was not aware of the identity of the ferry owner or whether action will be taken against them. “Maybe if the situation is stabilised he can be traced.”

President Salva Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, said a condolence message would be issued to the nation. “It’s very unfortunate, the magnitude of what has happened to the women and children,” he said. 

“All of this will go to Riek Machar in terms of trying to use a short cut to power.

“The rebels caused panic by saying they would attack Malakal. The civilians tried to squeeze themselves out. They overwhelmed the boat and it capsized in the middle of the Nile. Many women and children don’t know how to swim and they drowned. It’s very heartbreaking.”

The death toll highlighted the human cost of a conflict that began as a bitter struggle between politicians in South Sudan’s ruling party and quickly led to the exploitation of ethnic divisions between Dinka and Nuer, dragging the fledgling nation towards civil war. 

Peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia have borne little fruit. Edmund Yakani, director of the independent Community Empowerment Progress Organisation, said: 

“This is the impact of too much delay of the ceasefire by the competing parties. The more they delay, the more people suffer tragedies.

“It is shameless and meaningless for our politicians to take us back to a situation where we can’t manage our own independent state. It is friction between politicians who are taking us back to where we don’t want to be as citizens.”

Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in the violence, aid sources and analysts estimate. 

Guardian news