A West Cork priest has described how he feared for his life, and those of his colleagues, when 2,000 rioters attacked the Sudanese refugee camp where he works. David Raleigh reports
A KILMICHAEL missionary priest is now one of just 50 in a compound in South Sudan which was recently attacked by a 2,000-strong mob.
Fr Tony O’Riordan, has given a chilling account of the moment when the mob attacked his compound in South Sudan where he is working with refugees.
Up to 500 humanitarian workers have been evacuated from the Maban region, but Fr Tony, who is leading the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), has remained on to oversee a school building project and a teacher training programme.
The attack by thousands of rioters on eight NGOs (non-governmental organisation’s representatives) has now forced JRS to ‘suspend all but critical activities’ in Maban, to safeguard their staff.
Maban County is home to one of the world’s most isolated refugee camps – a sprawling tent city for over 150,000 refugees.
The camps contain refugees who have fled famine and a raging civil war in the Blue Nile region.
O’Riordan’s compound was attacked on July 23rd and telecommunication links out of the region are poor. Responding via a series of social media messages O’Riordan said last week that there were now 50 left in the compound. ‘The situation is unpredictable,’ he added.
He described how his personal walkie talkie radio buzzed through news of an impending attack on his Maban base. ‘News was filtering through on the radio of serious damage being done to property, buildings and warehouses were being set on fire, cars were being trashed and property was being looted,’ he said. ‘The closest compound to us is only 300m away, so soon we could hear that they were under attack.’
He said they knew it was only a matter of time before a raiding party would arrive at their compound.
‘We had locked up what we could. Local staff had run to their homes,’ he recalled. ‘Those of us remaining in the compound took shelter in our four strongest rooms. We feared the worst.’
The 2,000 strong mob splintered into smaller groups and began targeting NGOs. ‘We could hear the commotion of the 200-300 attackers who set out to cause mayhem,’ said O’Riordan, who fled in fear for his safety.
It was, he added, ‘a coordinated series of attacks’.
O’Riordan radioed UN Rwandan soldiers based in the country ‘to extract us … but the event had caught everyone by surprise and the troops were overwhelmed.’
He described the terrifying moment the violent mob attempted to breach his compound’s perimeter fence, made of zinc metal sheeting. ‘We could hear the (zinc) sheets being pelted. We could hear the shrieks of a baying mob ... we could hear gunshots.’
Eventually, four members of the local parish council convinced the mob to desist and retreat. ‘We were the only NGO compound to escape,’ he said, it was a miracle no lives were lost in the attacks.
However, protestors left a trail of destruction causing damage to the Jesuit learning centre where they deliver teacher training, English language classes and computer training. It was totally destroyed and everything was looted.
‘Beds, books, computers, cooking pots, tables and chairs – everything was taken,’ said Fr O’Riordan. ‘The only thing that remains are the examination scripts of the 500 student teachers who had sat examinations the week before the attacks,’ he said.
He has queried speculation in the region that the protest was fuelled by a lack of access to employment for locals. ‘No one yet knows whether this was an isolated act of organised violence or whether it is a prelude to a larger plan. Why would the protest actually shut down the organiastions that already employ hundreds of locals?’
Fr Tony believes the violence has resulted in the evacuation of 500 humanitarian workers to the capital, Juba. ‘Like other NGOs, we headed under escort and took shelter in the barracks of the UN soldiers,’ he said.
In another recent outbreak of violence 19 unarmed civilians were shot dead, including women and children.
In yet another incident, at a sister JRS project in Yambio, up to 40 children were abducted with the boys to be forced to fight, the girls to be used as sex slaves.
Despite the violence, he said he remains committed to engaging his efforts on rebuilding what has been destroyed.
‘We cannot give up,’ he added.