With thousands still missing, South Sudanese families seek answers

People line up to register missing loved ones with ICRC in Juba, South Sudan. Photo by: Sam Mednick

JUBA, South Sudan — Gatmai Kueth last spoke to his mother almost six years ago, the day South Sudan erupted into civil war. When fighting broke out in Bentiu town, she fled one way and her children ran another.

“If we knew her fate, we’d know if she was dead or alive,” said the solemn 23-year-old, seated in a United Nations protection camp in Juba.

Kueth has been searching for his mother since 2017 when he left his family in the north of the country and traveled to Juba seeking answers. So far he’s had little success.

South Sudan’s civil war has killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions. As the country slowly emerges from five years of fighting, with a fragile peace deal signed one year ago, it is now grappling with the largest displacement crisis in Africa, according to a report recently released by several international and local aid groups. More than 4.3 million people have been forced from their homes, almost half of whom have been internally displaced, while the rest have fled to neighboring countries, according to the report.

In August, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced it was following more than 4,000 cases of missing South Sudanese. But the number is likely much higher.

“The scale and magnitude is still not known,” Precious Eriamiatoe, manager in charge of the file for missing persons and their families in South Sudan for ICRC, told Devex. “This is only a drop in the ocean considering the large numbers of internally displaced persons and South Sudan refugees. This number may increase as people begin to return,” she said.

As the only organization tracing adults and children in the country and across borders, ICRC is trying to raise awareness within communities that finding missing family members is possible.

The tracing process

“I sometimes don’t sleep at night because I don’t know if my children are OK,” said Nyadeang Thouk. The 40-year-old mother hasn’t spoken to four of her five children since 2013. She thinks they’re in Nasir, in the country’s northeast, but isn’t sure.

In the absence of a clear definition of what a missing person is under international law, ICRC’s working definition is: “Individuals of whom their families have no news and/or who, on the basis of reliable information, have been reported missing as a result of an armed conflict — international or non-international — or of internal violence, internal disturbances or any other situation that might require action by a neutral and independent body.”

To begin the tracing process, a person has to be reported missing by a family member. The relative fills out a questionnaire with details such as when and how the person went missing, and that form is transferred to the ICRC field office depending on where the person was last seen.

ICRC then engages with community leaders as well as the national Red Cross Society, which has networks across the country. Finding someone can take weeks, months, or longer. Many cases stay open for years and are only closed if a person is found or if a family member calls off the search.

The last time Peter Leek spoke to his wife and seven children was in 2016, when they called from Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to tell him they were OK. Three years later, Leek doesn’t know where his family is or if they are safe.

“I heard they’re in Kenya but I don’t believe they’re there,” he said, anxiously seated near an ICRC registration table in the U.N. protected camp in Juba. He had only heard about the tracing service the day before and was desperate to register.

Separation from family members in a conflict setting has a profound impact on families, said Jean Lieby, UNICEF chief of child protection in South Sudan: “It creates high levels of stress and anxiety and may lead to depression as well as difficulty in carrying out everyday tasks,” he said.

The number of people reporting missing loved ones has recently increased, a jump that ICRC attributes to an awareness campaign about its services. Last month, 95 people registered missing relatives with ICRC. A total of 451 cases have been recorded this year and 181 people have so far been found alive, according to the INGO.

In addition to tracing requests, ICRC creates photo books, in which photos of people searching for relatives are put in an album and circulated in hopes someone might recognize them.

For those who know where their relatives are but are unable to easily reach them, the group facilitates the exchange of messages and phone calls using satellite phones in areas with no coverage. Almost 7,500 phone calls between family members and 1,450 messages were facilitated and exchanged in the first half of this year, according to ICRC.

Women sit on the ground waiting to register missing loved ones with ICRC in Juba, South Sudan. Photo by: Sam Mednick

Mental and physical challenges

Tracing people is labor-intensive. “You need a lot of people, which entails a lot of capacity building especially for local staff,” said Kaumi Kolo, a member of ICRC’s tracing team.  

It also takes time for the community to understand the assistance being provided. When people go missing, family members often give up and conclude the person is dead, Kolo said. Once they see other families successfully traced, they’re more inclined to trust the process.

Distrust runs deep, specifically between South Sudan’s national security and civilians. During a panel discussion last month with ICRC and those whose family members are missing, several people said they were afraid to report missing loved ones to authorities for fear of reprisal.

Access is another challenge. The country is vast with very little road network, and some remote villages are extremely hard to reach, especially during the rainy season. The country is also riddled with armed checkpoints where security forces detain and harass people. Access incidents in August, such as the detention and intimidation of aid workers, involving state security forces increased by a “significant margin,” according to a U.N. report.

Compounding the physical restrictions are weak telecommunications. Years of fighting damaged or destroyed half of the cell towers, according to Ahmed Hussein, senior marketing manager for Zain telecoms company, one of two in the country. Some areas have been completely cut off, and last year the popular mobile network Vivacell shut down overnight, locking out thousands and severing ties between families already displaced but who had managed to stay in touch.

Margaret Nyajuok Ding Ding, 22, hasn’t spoken to her grandmother since 2013. She lives in the opposition-held town of Akobo, which has no phone network. “I haven’t heard anything, I feel bad I miss her so much,” said Ding, who’s living in the protection of the civilian site in Juba. She wants to return to Akobo but still doesn’t feel safe enough to leave the camp. In the meantime, she’s registered with ICRC so they locate her grandmother.

Healing from war

In June, the U.N. Security Council adopted its first resolution dealing specifically with persons reported missing in armed conflict, out of concern that the number of cases globally was showing no signs of slowing. The U.N called on states “to take measures, as appropriate, to ensure thorough, prompt, impartial and effective investigations and the prosecution of offences linked to missing persons due to armed conflict.”

ICRC is working with South Sudan’s government to build legal frameworks to support people looking for loved ones and advocating for mechanisms to prevent people from going missing and to clarify the fate of those missing. It’s also helping authorities with proper and dignified management of the dead.

But advocacy groups say South Sudan’s government isn’t doing enough to hold people accountable and bring closure for thousands of people who don’t know where their loved ones are.

In 2014, Human Rights Watch urged for an investigation into “alleged crimes including investigating sites of mass graves in Juba kept off-limits in part because of intimidation from government security forces.”

“The government is doing nothing about missing persons in South Sudan,” said Edmund Yakani, executive director for the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization. Since 2013, a lot of people have been buried across the country in mass graves, which haven’t been properly managed by the government, he said.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said the emphasis should be placed on investigating those accountable for the mass graves, said Andrew Clapham, a member of the commission and a law professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. “There's a duty to look for, prosecute, and punish those who are responsible for any crimes committed,” he said.

But the government has yet to undertake the task. Devex reached out for comment, but the government didn’t respond in time for publication.

In the meantime, at least one South Sudanese organization has embarked on the endeavor.

In 2014, local nonprofit Remembering the Ones We Lost set out to identify every person killed in the civil war by name, including those killed in conflicts dating back to 1955. So far it has 7,578 names. It hopes to erect monuments to the dead in the future.

“The state has a responsibility to assist families so they know the fate of their loved ones,” said Daud Gideon, executive director for the group. “Families are expecting the truth about their missing ones. Truth comes first then reconciliation,” he said.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.