“It was death,” says Charlie Chiong, tracing his fingers over the jagged stones that once served as his cage. “I thought this is my end of life, this is really the end of me.”
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 hangs his head. This is the first time he’s been back to the place where he was held prisoner. The northern town is now under government control and the jail has become a church.
“It makes me sad,” Chiong tells The Associated Press. “I don’t want to be here.”
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 those 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 therefore a context where there’s no incentive for political compromise,” said Payton Knopf, coordinator of the South Sudan senior working group at the U.S. Institute of Peace. That has emboldened South Sudan’s government, he said, and until the international community changes its balance of power “I’m very skeptical that the war will end.”
After Chiong was captured, he says, the rebels couldn’t agree on his fate. They knew his father was a commander and Chiong says many wanted him dead because his father “had killed their men.”
“He is notorious for killing people,” opposition spokesman William Gatjiath Deng says of Chiong’s father, Col. James Gatjiath.
But the rebels let Chiong live, cramming him into a room with 30 other prisoners. He says his captors would drag him outside on Sundays and hit him with a stick and the butt of their rifles.
“It was so painful,” Chiong says. “I couldn’t stop crying.”
The opposition spokesman confirms that Chiong was kidnapped but denies that he was beaten.
South Sudan’s northern war is complex. Gatjiath, the army commander, blames neighboring 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.
On a visit to the front lines last month, Gatjiath showed the AP two of the seven towns he says the army captured last year as thousands of civilians fled.
Kuek and Wadakona are riddled with bullets and marked by the charred remains of homes. They are now inhabited by 1,000 soldiers.
The fighting in Upper Nile state continues, and aid agencies estimate that over 80,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of this year.
The opposition accuses Gatjiath of waging a brutal offensive. “We will get him one day,” says a spokesman, Nyagwal Ajak DengKak.
Gatjiath says the army is just defending South Sudan and maintains that the civil war isn’t divided along ethnic lines, despite warnings from the United Nations about ethnic cleansing.
“Targeted killings can’t happen,” Gatjiath says. He refers to his own Nuer ethnicity as proof that the war isn’t tribal, though Nuer civilians have accused the president’s ethnic Dinka supporters of targeted violence.
Some conflict analysts say that 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,” says Jacob Chol, professor of comparative politics at the University of Juba.
With another attempt at peace talks set to take place this month, various parties are looking for a chance to assert influence, Chol says.
Those caught up in the shifting conflict say they have been traumatized.
Since escaping captivity, Chiong says he hasn’t returned to school and spends his days with his father on the army base. He says he hates the army but has nowhere else to go.
In July, 12 rebels defected to the army in Wadakona. One of them had been Chiong’s kidnapper.
“I wanted to kill him when I saw him,” Chiong says, holding back tears.
He has yet to speak to the man, who he says won’t look him in the eye.
Looking ahead to an uncertain future, Chiong says wants to study outside South Sudan. He wants to become a pilot.
“I want to fly,” he says. “I want to fly far away from here.”
FOLLOW NEW AFRICA BUSINESS NEWS ON FACEBOOK @ New Africa Business News.com