Ding Col Dau Ding was successful, handsome, and fit. Born in Britain, he was an avid soccer player as a boy. As a man, he was a generous physician with an urge to give back to his ancestral homeland.
One thing he wasn’t was murdered. At least, that’s the official position of the office of South Sudan’s president.
This is not to say Ding is alive. He died on October 27, 2015, late at night, in his home. When I visited his grave earlier this year, it was decorated with a greeting card — a commemoration of the 40th birthday he never saw — and some artificial flowers.
The exact circumstances of Ding’s death may never be known. Some people say the doctor, pharmacologist, and Oxford-trained neuroscientist took his own life. Some say his death was accidental. The latter is the government line.
“Ding was not killed,” presidential press secretary Ateny Wek Ateny told me recently. “He died inadvertently. There was no foul play.”
This wasn’t the first time that Ateny had commented on Ding’s demise. A day after Ding was found shot to death, Ateny’s office issued an official “condolence message” that suggested Ding had killed himself.
If Ding died by his own hand or in some accident, the circumstances must be counted among the strangest imaginable. Would he really choose to shoot himself in the back of the head? Would he eschew using his dominant hand to fire the shot? And after shooting himself but before he died, would he scrub his bedroom so thoroughly that there was no blood splatter whatsoever? And what about the other gunshot, the one fired through his bedroom wardrobe? Had he accidentally fired that shot first and then accidentally shot himself in the back of the head?
South Sudan is a violent place. Somewhere between 50,000 and 300,000 people are thought to have been killed since the country plunged into an atrocity-filled civil war in December 2013. An August 2015 peace pact and a recently forged unity government have provided some optimism, but violence continues.
The crimes began in the capital, Juba, with massacres of ethnic Nuers by troops loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka. Juba calmed down after the first weeks of fighting, but the bloodshed did not completely subside. It was democratized, putting persons of all ethnicities and nationalities at risk. Last year saw an epidemic of attacks — ranging from home invasions to what appear to be murders-for-hire conducted by “unknown gunmen,” a moniker that the government and the press each claim the other coined. There’s an underlying assumption that many of these crimes can be traced to the country’s security services. In some cases, members of the forces themselves are blamed. In others, police or members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, rent out their weapons and uniforms for a fee and a share of a night’s illicit gains. And there are independent criminal gangs that may sometimes operate with the aid of members of the security forces.
Talk to people in Juba and they’ll tell you about the toll of the gunshots that echo in the night. Take reporter Peter Moi, shot twice in the back and killed while walking home last August, no personal effects taken, days after President Kiir threatened to kill journalists. Then there’s Barach Mayendit, shot dead by an unknown gunman outside his home while brushing his teeth; the attack by gunmen on a man who sold cakes in Juba’s Konyo Konyo Market — they killed him and took his cash, then terrorized his neighbors and stole their cellphones; the incident in which a member of the “777 Police” — an emergency response unit — was killed in a shootout with gunmen, one of whom was wounded and turned out to be a member of the presidential guard; the killing of two people in the Tongping neighborhood one morning and the attack by armed gunmen on a compound in that neighborhood the same night; the elderly woman shot to death in a robbery; the man killed in an armed robbery that netted the equivalent of 2 U.S. dollars; the gunmen who went house to house robbing people in Juba’s Lologo neighborhood, killing one woman and kidnapping three other people (reports indicated that the 777 Police were called but never arrived); the member of the National Security Service shot dead, witnesses say, by fellow members of the NSS; and the case in which armed gunmen raided a home in the Rock City neighborhood but were driven off by gunfire from an SPLA captain who lived nearby (the captain reportedly called the 777 Police for help, and neighbors initially said the 777 Police arrived and killed the captain, but later reports claimed it was the original group of gunmen — suspected to be members of the NSS — who returned to the scene and killed him). Just recently, unknown gunmen killed a father of two at his cellphone-charging stall in Tongping, and the body of another victim, a mother of four, was dumped in Rock City. This past weekend, at 1:45 a.m. on Saturday, a South Sudanese member of the U.S. Embassy’s Local Guard Force was shot while on duty and later died at Juba Teaching Hospital, according to an embassy spokesperson.
Although he was unable to provide me with statistics, Brig. Daniel Justin Boulo Achor, the chief spokesperson of the National Police Service, assured me that crime is on the decline. Outside experts say otherwise. Anecdotal evidence indicates that killings by unknown gunmen have ebbed in recent months, but these are just the most atrocious example of the lawlessness that pervades the capital. Assaults and armed robberies, official shakedowns, extrajudicial detentions, and a host of other crimes have continued. “Our national security agencies are infiltrated by criminals,” says Edmund Yakani, the executive director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, or CEPO, a civil society group that promotes human rights.
Members of the security forces don’t exactly disagree. Police and military officials both blame each other’s forces for the violence. For his part, Abubakar Mohamed Ramadan, the SPLA’s senior judge advocate, says crimes are committed by criminal gangs that wear SPLA uniforms, but they’re not SPLA. In response, CEPO’s Edmund Yakani asks a logical question: “How do they get access to official state uniforms — uniforms that belong to the police or the SPLA? And brand new uniforms?”
In fact, a list of court cases from the last week in March, obtained from an SPLA officer, indicates soldiers are indeed engaged in illegal activity and are sometimes arrested and prosecuted for it. The list shows eight ongoing civil and criminal cases involving crimes against civilians by SPLA personnel, including three murders — one of them involving three soldiers. Also listed were two cases of trespassing, one of “house trespass,” another of criminal intimidation, and one “money demand,” in addition to two cases of SPLA-on-SPLA crime and a case of “cheating” brought by members of the police against soldiers. At the time, three of five cases against members of the SPLA then on appeal before the South Sudan Supreme Court or the South Sudan Appeals Court were murder cases.
The Founder’s Daughter
If anyone should be safe from government harassment, it’s Nyagoa Bany.
The daughter of one of the founding fathers of South Sudan — whom she closely resembles — Bany is forever being stopped by people who greet her with wide smiles and words of admiration for her late father. She is akin to the first daughter of South Sudan. But recently, like many others, she found herself beaten by soldiers.
Drive down Juba University Road at 9:45 p.m. and you’ll find a lively street scene. Knots of friends stroll and talk, they cluster around restaurants, they sit in ubiquitous red or blue or white plastic chairs drinking coffee and smoking shisha at innumerable open-air roadside cafes. Roll down your windows and the sweet smell, the hum of the nightlife washes over you. On March 5, 2016, Bany was driving down Juba University Road at that very time.
After Bany pulled over to let a friend out of the car, a camouflage-colored SPLA pickup truck, its lights flashing, roared up behind her. The street is narrow, filled with motor bikes (called boda-bodas) and parked cars, so with nowhere to go, Bany eased her Toyota RAV4 into a roadside ditch. The SPLA truck, bristling with soldiers in its flatbed, slammed to a stop in front of her. Six uniformed troops jumped down and surrounded her car.
“You’re blocking the road!” one of them shouted.
Bany rolled down her window.
“Malesh,” she said, apologizing in Arabic.
One of the soldiers responded with a vicious slap to her face, she told me. Saying nothing, she looked him in the eye and was struck again.
Michelle D’Arcy, a Canadian aid worker, saw everything from the backseat. Another passenger in the car, a friend of Bany’s, also apologized to the soldiers and tried to explain that they were just heading home after a funeral. The apologetic friend grabbed hold of Bany when a soldier reached through the open window, unlocked the door, and tried to yank Bany out of the car. It was a tug of war, the soldier pulling Bany by the legs, her friend struggling to keep her in the vehicle.
Bany’s friend managed to hold her in the car, so the soldier retreated to the truck, grabbed a metal pipe, and headed back toward the RAV4, just as two other SPLA vehicles pulled up. Bany slammed the door shut, put the car into drive, and wheeled around, making a fast U-turn and racing off into the night. “In the chaos, we got lucky,” she told me.
In the days after the incident, Bany used her government connections to make inquiries, but the local military commander would not give up the names of the men serving in the area that night. He told Bany that she needed to provide him with the license plate number. But the tag, Bany told me, had been removed from the truck — an increasingly common practice for government vehicles prowling Juba’s streets.
“So many people said to her, ‘It’s so horrible that William Nyuon’s daughter was beaten like this,’” D’Arcy remarked as we all chatted at a picturesque spot along the Nile River a couple of weeks later.
“It’s horrible that anyone is beaten,” Bany interjected.
If Juba had a modern or even halfway–functioning health care system, Gorong Ngundeng Teny might have told me about his run-in with the city’s infamous “unknown gunmen.” But it doesn’t, so he couldn’t.
The scion of a prominent Nuer family, the 34-year-old Teny grew up in Khartoum, Sudan. A refugee of the war for South Sudan’s independence, he helped establish an English-language primary school for fellow southern Sudanese in Khartoum. He would later move south and, in his 20s, serve as deputy headmaster of another school before resuming his own schooling and graduating from the University of Juba in 2013. Shortly thereafter, he became a junior geologist with Nile Petroleum, the government oil company.
When South Sudan exploded into civil war and Nuers were being massacred, Teny took refuge, like so many from his tribe, in one of the United Nations Protection of Civilians sites. Teny eventually returned to work in Juba, moving into a residential compound not far from his alma mater, where he lived with his wife and other family members.
In the early morning hours of January 16, 2016, Teny left his room to go to the latrine across the bamboo-walled compound. As was the norm, he didn’t go alone. His wife and a cousin living in an adjacent room also walked through the compound with him. They soon heard pounding on a nearby gate and a voice calling for them to open up. They had no intention of unlocking the door, just as the men on the other side had no intention of waiting for an invitation in. As the intruders forced their way inside the compound, the trio bolted back toward their rooms. The speedier cousin made it first, slammed his door, and locked it. Teny and his wife made it to their room, but not in time to shut out the two men. Teny grappled with one of them, throwing him to the ground. The other, carrying an AK-47, fired two shots. The first one hit the door of the room; the second bullet tore through Teny’s lower back and exited through the front of his right thigh.
The shots shook Ruai Bang from his sleep. Another cousin of Teny’s, his room was next door. He heard the screams of Teny’s bride — they had married just two months before — but he also heard his other relative, locked in a room on the other side of Teny’s, yelling for him to stay put because armed men were inside the compound’s walls. Bang waited for a few minutes, then emerged. Teny was bleeding and in severe pain. They bound his wound and Bang called friends who had vehicles that could take them to a hospital, but fearing for their own safety, the friends were reluctant to lend a hand. Finally, relatives living nearby were able to round up a taxi.
As the minutes ticked by, Teny — who was lucid and talkative — ran through the events with Bang, explaining about the two men, the chase through the compound, the shooting. When the taxi arrived, Teny, his wife, Bang, and three other relatives crammed inside and made their way to Juba Medical Complex, only to find it closed. From there, they went to Juba Teaching Hospital. By now, it was 2 in the morning and only recent medical school graduates — “trainees,” Bang told me — were working. The pharmacy was closed, so medicines were unavailable. The under-trained and under-equipped staff members were unable even to give him a transfusion; the best they could do was offer a few bags of blood.
With the bags of blood, the five loaded back into another taxi and headed to a nearby Chinese-run hospital. The doctors there were in their quarters sleeping and had to be woken up. By the time they finally got to work at saving Teny’s life, it had all but drained out of him. He died sometime around 3:30 a.m.
The Phone Man
Ignatius was sure he was going to die.
Walking home one evening, the Ugandan immigrant was about 15 meters from his front gate when a pickup truck filled with police pulled up, headlights flashing. A policeman climbed down from a bench seat in back and asked what was in his black backpack. Ignatius showed them an iPad and a laptop, which belonged to the company he worked for. A cop asked, How do we know that’s true? Ignatius said he could turn on the computer and enter the password. That turned out to be the wrong answer. He was told to get in the truck, then he was made to crawl beneath the bench seats.
The truck drove through the streets of Juba turning this way and that, picking up three other people — two men and a woman. One of the men, he could hear, was slapped around by the police. Ignatius still had his iPhone and started making calls from beneath the bench. Since he works for a business owned by government officials, he called his boss for help. The man was willing to come to his aid, but needed a location — something Ignatius didn’t know from his vantage point.
“I said my last prayers,” Ignatius told me. “You don’t know where you’re going. You don’t know anything. You have to prepare yourself because anything might happen. At the end of the day, if you’re not lucky, they’ll slaughter you.”
Hours later, the truck finally stopped and Ignatius was ordered to sit in a deserted field with the three other detainees. The police had rifled through his bag and found documents bearing the name of his company, which they appeared to recognize.
“That is what saved me,” Ignatius noted. “I think some of them knew there are bigger people [in the government] who are shareholders in that company.”
They told him to sit on the ground on the side of the truck that was opposite the other detainees. A policeman soon came over and took his money (562 South Sudanese pounds, about $27) as well as his iPhone, but left the laptop and iPad that belonged to his employer. The policeman eventually returned and gave him 2 SSP and a cheap, old cellphone. Allowed to leave, Ignatius felt lucky to escape with his life.
He reported the abduction at a police station — yet there too he was confronted with misconduct. “The guy told me that he needed some money to investigate,” Ignatius recalled. “It’s happening everywhere. It’s normal now.”
Those closest to Ding Col Dau Ding say the notion he committed suicide is preposterous.
He had neither financial nor personal problems. At 39, he was in excellent health, financially secure, in a steady relationship, and part of a close-knit family. He had recently deferred taking a position at a top London hospital in order to spend another year running his medical practice in South Sudan. It was a way to give back to his ancestral homeland and to fulfill the wish of the late John Garang — the leader of South Sudanese in their war for independence from Sudan and a friend to Ding’s prominent family. Garang had asked Ding to help serve the young nation before his own untimely death in a still-murky 2005 helicopter crash.
As near as Ding’s family can tell, assailants gained access to their compound on a night when it was deserted and only one security guard, a member of South Sudan’s police, was on duty. Ding would have entered the compound, walked up a black metal staircase, and opened a door to the compound’s second-story apartment. His attackers must have been waiting in the dark just inside the doorway, his father, Col Dau Ding, told me.
The attackers apparently hit Ding on the back of the head with tremendous force, enough to render him so close to death that when they dragged him into his bedroom, put a gun to the back of his neck, and fired a shot that exited through his mouth, there wasn’t a trace of blood on the walls, the two beds he was lying between, or the nearby wardrobe. Blood only leaked out in a pool surrounding his head. That’s how he was found, the next day, by relatives.
Ding wasn’t especially political; he didn’t rail against the government. In fact, his father says, “He treated most officials in the office of the president.” Some outside observers suggest that, somehow, his treatment of top officials contributed to his demise. Others say it was professional jealousy, a personal beef, a dispute over money, or an armed robbery gone wrong. So far, police investigations have yielded no arrests beyond the police guard present that evening who has, thus far, refused to talk.
Ding’s parents each have different theories, but both believe he was murdered. “This was planned,” says his father. “It was well organized. It was an arranged murder. It was like other murders here in town.”
Zeinab Bilal Lual Ayen, Ding’s mother, is emotionally battered by the violence that stole her son’s life and the lawlessness that permeates South Sudan, a nation without accountability, whose history is consuming its present. “You hear it every night,” she said as we sat in the same room where her son’s killers likely waited for him. “Somebody gets shot. Somebody gets killed. It’s not going to stop.”
Ding’s death has destroyed the family.
“I wish every day that somebody will come up to me and say, ‘Zeinab, I want to tell you what happened in this house.’ … I pray every night that I will find out the person responsible,” she tells me. “If they want to kill me, let them kill me, but I’m waiting for that person. I want to meet him face to face.”
Part 1: Hillary Clinton’s State Department Gave South Sudan’s Military a Pass for Its Child Soldiers
Part 2: “We Can Assassinate You at Any Time” — Journalists Face Abduction and Murder in South Sudan
Reporting for this story by Nick Turse, who is the author of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, was made possible through the support of Lannan Foundation.