SPLA for its part has strongly denied the accusation. UNMISS on 19th August issued a press release which condemned the use of live fire. The sustained burst of small arms and artillery fire, lasting for around 30 minutes, reportedly originated from nearby Rubkona Airstrip, where SPLA soldiers are stationed. UNMISS says it has been advised that the firing was carried out by soldiers who were firing in the air in celebration the 59th anniversary of Veteran’s Day.
According to the press release, indications are that the firing into the air was done in the direction of the UNMISS Bentiu base. “As a result of the firing one child was wounded, while inside the UNMISS Protection of Civilian (POC camp) area, UNMISS has recovered nine bullets which penetrated UNMISS accommodation and office blocks”, said an UNMISS source. One artillery shell exploded next to the UNMISS base, though happily nobody was injured by the blast.
Lt Col Joseph Marier Samuel, acting spokesman for the SPLA, denied the allegation that army personnel had engaged in live fire aimed at civilians. He said: “Those in the camps are our citizens and our duty is to protect them”. Further, he pointed out that if it were SPLA policy to fire at POCs, one would expect to hear reports of similar incidents from elsewhere in the country. No such reports have been received.
Gurtong has been able to secure an important and exclusive interview with a neutral eyewitness who was at the Rubkhona airstrip at the time of the incident, and spoke on condition of anonymity. Our witness’ testimony tends to support the version of the SPLA of the incident more than that of UNMISS.
This witness said that the soldiers stationed at the airstrip are of local origin and thought to be former South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) fighters, now absorbed into the national army. Many of them are thus themselves veterans of many years service. The witness confirms that the soldiers did indeed fire into the air, but notes that they suspended their fire in order to allow the safe take-off of a UN aircraft, before continuing with the celebration.
The witness was clear that no hostilities took place, as there was no enemy present to engage. The source threw doubt on suggestions of deliberate targeting of civilians in the POC site, saying: “The soldiers are Nuer; the civilians are Nuer. Why would they fire at their own relatives?” As a result of what was seen on the ground, our witness suggests that any injury or damage at the UNMISS base must have been as a result of mis-fires or sloppy aim on the part of the soldiers.
Veteran’s Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the Torit Mutiny in 1955, is widely seen as marking the start of South Sudan’s modern-day struggle against colonization. It pre-dated the independence of Sudan from the Egyptian/British Condominium which had previously ruled the Sudan. This year, the anniversary was marked by a ceremony at the Mausoleum of the Late Dr John Garang in Juba.