by Sarah Malet Kuol
from Africa Watch report: "Sudan:Denying the Honour of Living", pages 92-94, March 1990, ISBN 0-929692-53-5
In the week after Christmas in 1989 several hundred southern Sudanese, mostly Shilluk farmhands, were massacred by an Arab militia at Jebelein, on the east bank of the White Nile river. This massacre has several features that make it unique among the atrocities in the recent history of Sudan, but indicative of what the future might hold.
A Shilluk community had lived in Jebelein since the 1950s, employed as wage labourers on pump schemes and mechanized farms; the recent influx of people displaced by war and famine had swollen its population to some 10,000. Relations with other ethnic groups in the area were generally good, and there was no background of tension or conflict between the Shilluk and local people of Arab descent, who are mostly Ta'aisha. In fact, the Ta'aisha are understood to have been greatly disturbed by the massacre, in which they had played no part. Jebelein is a long distance from the war zone, and the SPLA were not active in the area. The militia group responsible came from more than 80km further north, from a population loosely known as Sabaha Arabs.
On the morning of December 28, a Sabaha Arab farmer came to Jebelein from the nearby village of Um Korta to take eleven farmhands to harvest his sorghum crop. The eleven refused to return to work, insisting that they were still celebrating Christmas. The farmer argued that the farmhands had been paid to work, and called upon the police to force them to work, but the police refused to intervene. A fight broke out and the farmer was stabbed and killed. The police immediately arrested the eleven farmhands. The dead farmer's driver left and reported the incident to the farmer's kinsmen at Um Kueka. The Sabaha then gathered and descended on Jebelein at about 11am in eight trucks, armed with automatic weapons.
The Shilluk areas of the town were cordoned off. Shilluk men, women and children were shot and their houses burned. People could escape only by swimming the Nile, and many were drowned. Ninety-one people took refuge in the police station which was guarded by only three policemen. The militia then attacked the police station, forcing the police to withdraw.
All the people sheltering in the police station were killed. Others were killed in smaller numbers in the fields. Thirty-five were reported killed in the village of Idreissa and 50 on the island of Musran in the Nile. The killing continued on the following day outside Jebelein itself. One small group escaped by sheltering in a school classroom; when the militiamen arrived the schoolteacher told them that the buildings were deserted. The government first admitted to 181 casulaties, and later increased the figure to 214. Over 60 people, injured with gunshot wounds and burns, were admitted to hospital in Kosti.
No reliable estimates are available for the total numbers killed. 190 people were buried by being bulldozed into a mass grave. Eye witnesses counted over 500 bodies, including 100 children, and said that bodies were being recovered from the Nile more than a week after the massacre. All independent reports agree that a minimum of 700 people were killed. In addition to Shilluk, some Dinka, Nuer, and Burun people were killed.
On December 29, an army unit arrived from Kosti and a police unit from Renk, and brought the situation under control. Seventeen people, reportedly including survivors from the original strikers, were arrested by the police. Fewer than 1000 of the original Shilluk community in Jebelein remained: the remainder had fled, mostly to Kosti.
The motive for the massacre remains unclear. The Sabaha have no history of tribal conflict with the Shilluk - indeed, the name Sabaha is little more than an administrative term for a group of deracinated and marginal Arabs living in one sub-district. It may be that the Sabaha felt that the Shilluk labourers were competing with them for scarce labouring jobs, and driving down wage levels. The Sabaha, who live next door to the Mahdist centre of Aba Island, were given arms by the Sadiq al-Mahdi government in 1986, which undoubtedly increased the extent of the bloodshed.
The government formed a committee
to enquire into the events at Jebelein. However, the committee contained
no representative of the Shilluk community, and official government pronouncements
continued to describe the massacre as "inter-tribal fighting", and gave
very low figures for the number of deaths.