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Kenyans’ sad tale in torn South Sudan

By ALPHONCE SHIUNDU | January 5th 2014
               Some of the Kenyans evacuated from war-torn South Sudan. [PHOTOS: BONIFACE OKENDO/STANDARD]


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If you ask Samuel Agwenge, 42,  who ran a food joint in Wau, South Sudan, what he thinks about the conflict in the world’s youngest State, you will be met with a stony silence — he’s lost all his livelihood in the conflict.

His business was to sell breakfast, lunch and dinner to city residents. The business was booming and the money was good. But he had a rude awakening when the fighting broke out — his property was run down, his stock stolen, his pockets emptied and he was also harassed.

“The soldiers looted my restaurant. I was stopped on the road, and ordered to surrender all the money I had. I gave them everything — 1,200 South Sudanese Pounds (Sh30,000),” said Agwenge.

He hitched a lift on a truck that was going to Juba. On the way to Juba, Agwenge came across “several” roadblocks, where the looting spree continued.

“It reached a point where we told the soldiers that we had nothing. They ransacked the truck, checked our pockets, but there was nothing. To save our lives, we gave them a jerrycan to siphon fuel from the truck,” Agwenge said.

They siphoned the fuel. Agwenge and his Kenyan friend from Turkana drove the truck for a few metres. The engine died. They had reached Mundri. They borrowed a phone and called one of their friends in Juba. The friend, apparently, was a mechanic and was known to the owner of the truck. He took a motorbike, bought some fuel, and came to their rescue. For Agwenge, that harrowing journey from Wau to Juba was enough to make him recall everything he had gone through in his three-year stay in the city in Western Bahr el Ghazal state.

“People come to my restaurant to eat, but instead of paying for the meals, they just refuse and tell me to give them change. When you go to report, you find that they are soldiers who were off-duty. You just count your losses… it is really frustrating,” he told The Standard on Sunday at Juba Airport as he waited for a free flight evacuating stranded Kenyans back to Nairobi.

Expectant scene

The scene at the Juba Airport was expectant. A Kenyan military aircraft had just landed. It had come to pick  dozens of Kenyans still huddled at the airport running away from the raging conflict in Africa’s newest country.

There was a group of 30 Kenyans milling around an embassy official verifying their names.

He called out their names; they raised their hands. When he was done, they all followed him — dragging their suitcases and bags — to one of the departure lounges at the airport. They were on the list to be airlifted to Nairobi.

 “If they had not come for us, I don’t know what I would have done. Tell the President that we appreciate. We have never seen anything like this,” said Agwenge as he waited for his chance to board the aircraft.

He was down on the list, because he had just joined a long queue of evacuees running away from the conflict in Bentiu in Unity State; Bor in Jonglei State and Malakal in Upper Nile State. When you look at Agwenge’s eyes, you see frustration and a kind of hollow hope. He hopes when he gets to Eldoret, where he used to stay before he moved to South Sudan for greener pastures, he will pick up the taxi business.

But for Shadrack Kitur, 30, the lessons from the conflict had made him think seriously about making a change in his investment options. Kitur had invested in a power-saw and had a booming timber business.

“I used to cut trees, and make timber. I used to sell the timber pieces to the hardwares here. On a good day, I used to make a profit of SSP300 (Sh8,700), that’s after setting aside money for fuel, and the bribes for the soldiers,” said Kitur.

“It’s not like back home. Here, you just walk into a forest, cut down a tree and nobody asks you. The only thing you have to do is to pay the soldiers, because, they run everything here” Kitur added. Kitur spoke to The Standard on Sunday aboard a Kenya Air Force flight to Nairobi as he sipped water and crunched biscuits that the soldiers had provided for the evacuees --some of them had spent two days at the airport waiting for the transport back home.

Apart from the power saw, which was looted from him, Kitur, said he “did not lose alot of money”.

“I used to send money back home. This place is very unpredictable. The easiest way was to transfer the money via mobile phone back home as soon as you got it. You just stayed with the bare minimum,” said Kitur, who now hopes to go back to Kitale and begin farming.

The impression one gets after speaking to most of the Kenyans who had been left stranded is that most of them are involved in juakali jobs and run small-scale business in the world’s newest country. There are hawkers, barbers, electricians, carpenters, and plumbers. They had to rush to South Sudan, because, they stood a better chance at employment and making good money than in Kenya.

But the informal jobs --a consequence of low education levels-- also meant that most of these Kenyans failed to register with the country’s embassy in South Sudan.

Kenya’s Ambassador to South Sudan Cleland Leshore  told The Standard on Sunday, that the embassy in Juba had 12,000 Kenyans on its register. Yet, when the fighting began, an estimated 20,000 of them fled by bus; 3,000 were evacuated by air, and 7,000 “insisted that they want to stay to protect business opportunities”.

The embassy got to know of the huge number of Kenyans because when the fighting broke out, and people fled into the UN bases and camps, to seek shelter. They registered at the camps, and others registered at the borders, as they fled through Uganda. But others still want to stick it out, because, the conflict may just have opened up opportunities in the humanitarian field. Many Kenyans work for relief organisations and some also have jobs in oil companies.

Security threat

“Not every part of South Sudan is on fire. There are places where there’s no immediate security threat and Kenyans there are still doing their business. They said they don’t want to leave because there’s no danger,” said Leshore, as he pointed out that most areas under government control had relative safety.

That was the case for Janet Wangari, 30, who used to sell wigs in Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal. She said the relative calm in the area, while the nearby Bentiu city was on fire, had caused “tension” and slammed the brakes on her business.

“I had brought in 500 pieces just two weeks to Christmas. When the fighting broke out on December 15 (last year), the customers did not show up. Business was not doing very well, so, I decided to just go home,” said Wangari. “What’s the point of staying when I am not making any money?”

“It’s relatively peaceful. In fact, I left my stock with a Kenyan friend who decided to stay back there. When it gets better, I will return,” said Wangari, as she registered her name with the embassy officials at Juba Airport in readiness for the flight to Nairobi.

Colonel Benedict Mwololo, the Kenya Defence Officer who was coordinating the evacuation of Kenyans stranded in different parts of South Sudan, and Colonel Hosea Oduor, the defence attache at the Kenyan Embassy in Juba, said some of the Kenyans had been escorting their colleagues to the airport for the 12 days that the military was involved in the evacuation.

“When the fighting was very bad, they’d come here, leave their friends here, and go back into the town (of Juba),” Col Mwololo told The Standard on Sunday. That was the case for Michael Odhiambo, who was caught off-guard when the fighting began. Odhiambo, 30, was an operator of the blowing machine at a water company in Gudele.

“I saw soldiers shooting. I ran to the factory. I didn’t care whether I will be shot. But when I got there, the owners had already left. It was closed. I went back to the house, but the soldiers beat me up and told me to leave. I came to Juba. I have been staying here, but three days ago, some soldiers came and looted everything I had...they carried away three suitcases full of clothes and Christmas gifts… I hoped to go home, but this thing was abrupt. I was hoping it would get better, but it keeps getting worse,” said Odhiambo.

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