Two years ago, the shy, lanky son of a South Sudanese army commander was abducted by rebel forces amid the country’s civil war. He said he was held for a month in a roofless, mud-filled compound before escaping through a hole he dug between its bricks.
The 20-year-old hung his head. This was the first time he’d been back to the place he was held prisoner. The northern town is now under government control and the jail is a church.
More than four years into South Sudan’s civil war, fighting between President Salva Kiir’s government forces and opposition troops loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar shows no signs of ending. Many on both sides and trapped in the middle are weary of the conflict. Millions of others have fled.
Border towns like Kuek have exchanged hands multiple times, with hundreds killed and thousands of civilians displaced in what many soldiers call a “dirty game”.
“The warring parties continue to believe they can win militarily and the international community has taken no meaningful action to take the military option off the table. It’s a context where there’s no incentive for political compromise,” said Payton Knopf, of the South Sudan senior working group at the US Institute of Peace. That has emboldened the government, he said, and until the international community changes its balance of power, “I’m sceptical the war will end”.
After Chiong was captured, he said, the rebels couldn’t agree on his fate. They knew his father was a commander and Chiong said many wanted him dead because his father “had killed their men”.
“He is notorious for killing people,” opposition spokesperson William Gatjiath Deng said of Chiong’s father, Colonel James Gatjiath.
South Sudan’s northern war is complex. Gatjiath, the army commander, blamed neighbouring Sudan for supplying the opposition with weapons and refuge, saying the men who kidnapped his son were based there. Sudan has denied arming the rebels.
Fighting in Upper Nile state continues and aid agencies estimate that more than 80 000 people have been displaced since the beginning of 2017.
The opposition accuses Gatjiath of waging a brutal offensive. Gatjiath said the army is just defending South Sudan and maintains the civil war isn’t divided along ethnic lines, despite warnings from the UN about ethnic cleansing.
“Targeted killings can’t happen,” Gatjiath said. He referred to his Nuer ethnicity as proof the war isn’t tribal, though Nuer civilians have accused the president’s Dinka supporters of targeted violence.
Some analysts say although the conflict still has ethnic overtones, the dynamic is changing.
“The fighting has shifted from ethnic fighting to groups fighting for power, resources and a seat at the table,” said Jacob Chol, professor of comparative politics at the University of Juba.
Looking ahead, Chiong said he wanted to become a pilot. “I want to fly far away from here.”