Chapter III: Nile


In South Sudan the Nile is not just a river, it is the frontline of a battle: it is the line separating two armies.

As people fled the fighting in Malakal, many took to the water in canoes,  often with the sound of the fighting still raging in the city behind them.


“When the war broke out we ran away. We got a canoe and went from Malakal to Wau Shilluk,” says Teresa Hadia, 23, who fled with her son, now 6. “When I arrived here I couldn’t believe it.”

Tens of thousands of people in Wau Shilluk, South Sudan, tell the same story. The fighting forced them to cross the Nile, to seek refuge on the other side. Many did not reach the shore. They were killed as they ran in desperation towards the water.

Upper Nile state, in the northeast of South Sudan, is traversed by the most famous African river. The Nile divides oil fields, refugee camps, swamp land and desert-like scrubland.

The western side of the river, upon which Malakal is situated, was largely populated by the Dinka people, and dominated by government forces. Many Dinka, together with a number of Shilluk people who also lived in the city, were forced to leave during the fighting.

Before the conflict, Malakal was the second largest city in the country. Now, it is a ghost town.

The Nile river as it passes through Wau Shilluk, South Sudan. | ANNA SURINYACH 


On the eastern side is the so-called Shilluk Kingdom, where most Shilluk in the area live. They’re rarely mentioned when there is talk of conflict between the Dinka (the ethnic group of the president) and the Nuer (the ethnic group of the vice-president and leader of the opposition). At the start of the conflict the Shilluk sided with government forces, but later switched allegiance in support the Nuer.

On this side, facing Malakal, is Wau Shilluk, the town across the river which many fled to. “In 2015, there was shelling from one side to the other, and it even stopped the air traffic,” explains Patricia Peinado, MSF’s assistant general coordinator. “The government used a military strategy: they closed the river to traffic, which prevented the entry of supplies and left the population destitute. It meant that the 15,000 people who had fled across the river to Wau Shilluk crossed back over to come to the Malakal camp.”

There are even ships patrolling the Nile, attacking people on the banks. The river is strategic: a battlefield, a trade and transit area, but above all since the war began, a major escape route and a displacement zone. It is the river that nobody wants to cross, the last resort when nothing can be done, when civilians have only one priority: to stay alive.