Opinion | A review of ‘NO JUSTICE, NO MERCY’
The prison inside the Blue House complex in Juba has long held a notorious reputation for its integral role in the secretive system of torture and murder run by South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS). On 7 October 2018, prisoners inside the facility revolted against their oppressors, taking up arms in self-defense and demanding justice for their unlawful detentions. The uprising was shocking for having emerged from the deepest hole of despair and darkness in South Sudan, from proud and courageous voices that could no longer be silenced.
The unresolved cases of former political prisoners continue to haunt the regime. Some have been killed, some have been cast into exile. Yet, these men, in life and in death, remain a unique burden on the ruling elites, for they know in detail the inner-workings of the regime’s corrupt and lethal system of repression. It is impressive that prisoners who survive such an ordeal will feel compelled to tell of it, to give meaning to their suffering by testifying to the written page. Having lived so close to evil, they feel a duty to warn the world of its existence.
For the political prisoner, breaking the silence is the ultimate embrace of freedom. Every word, spoken or written, becomes an act of defiance. Now, William Endley has published a full account of his own experience inside South Sudan’s prisons under the title, No Justice, No Mercy: A South Sudan Story. Endley’s book may offer the most comprehensive portrait yet of the vast system of repression upon which the current regime is constituted.
‘I was monitored, arrested - abducted would be a better word - detained, interrogated, hauled before a sham court, and tried and sentenced to death for trying to help a newly-born African country and its people create a peaceful, prosperous, stable, and viable future.’
From the start, in outlining his own biography, Endley announces his status as a foreigner in South Sudan. He senses the skepticism this will likely produce in his readers. A white South African national, Endley is a retired SA National Defence Force colonel who transitioned to work as a consultant in the private security industry before arriving in South Sudan. It was in this capacity that he befriended Dr. Riek Machar in 2012, described by Endley as ‘the man I believed to hold the key to creating a successful state.’ Endley makes no secret of his loyalty to Dr. Machar, and he is clear-eyed in regard to his partisanship in South Sudan’s central political conflict. Yet, there is little said in the book about how his relationship with Dr. Machar developed, nor does Endley spend pages offering an elaborate defense of the SPLM-IO. For some readers, their attention will be drawn to the things not said. Perhaps it is a story Endley will still write, but it is not the purpose of the present volume. Anticipating this critique, Endley offers a simple rejoinder: ‘I leave it to the reader to determine if I was wrong.’
Instead, Endley’s narrative traces the events leading to the outbreak of civil war in 2013 and the power shifts that produced the 2016 crisis. Endley directs his ire in these pages at the partnership formed between President Salva Kiir and Taban Deng. In Endley’s telling, President Kiir manipulated the ambitious Taban Deng, who had American support from former Secretary of State John Kerry, and the cooperation of officials in the South African government with ties to the South Sudanese oil industry. According to Endley, the coordinated effort was meant to split the power base of the SPLM-IO and cut Machar out of the political process. These intrigues resulted in Machar coming under attack in July 2016. As Machar’s security consultant, Endley maintains he had warned that a return to Juba in 2016 would be like walking into a trap. Indeed, when violence erupted and Machar was forced to flee the capital, Endley himself was targeted by the NSS, having been betrayed by an IO official who joined up with Kiir’s loyalists.
The tone of the volume shifts when Endley begins to describe his incarceration inside the Blue House. The first words he heard uttered were, ‘In this facility, there is no justice and no mercy.’ The phrase ultimately serves as a contract, an organizing principle, the closest thing to a covenant between inmate and jailer. In the initial hours of his detention, as he drifts off exhausted, his dreams and memories are interrupted by swarms of mosquitoes. Through this delirium, William Endley proceeds to draw us into his torment.
Endley catalogues the abuses leveled on detainees, from beatings and electroshock therapy to the sinister extraction methods designed to murder and disappear regime opponents. Duty guards use whips indiscriminately, dealing lashes to the limbs and backs of inmates. Prisoners are found vomiting and urinating blood, scarcely eating the insect-ridden meals they are delivered once a day. Disease is omnipresent, from chronic malaria to gout, dehydration, and malnutrition. On the lack of soap and disinfectant in the Blue House, Endley describes ‘the pungent smell of fear, unwashed bodies, and stale sweat and smoke that was an integral part of the overcrowded NSS detention centre.’ Endley himself is ill for most of his internment, writhing in pain in a filthy cell, falling in and out of consciousness. Chains are clamped around the raw skin and open wounds on his ankles for eight weeks after his transfer to Juba Central Prison. Endley is candid in recounting his own psychological descent into spells of madness and depression, as a ‘combat soldier wallowing in death and the meaningless of one life amidst the thousands of dead and dying in South Sudan.’
After many months in the Blue House, Endley is informed that he has been arrested and detained for alleged political activities. There is total disregard for due process in his case because the NSS operates under the 2014 National Security Services Act. This is the ‘legislation’ that guarantees impunity for the NSS, and arms the murderous agency with a license to kill. The National Security Act underwrites state terror in South Sudan and is the basis for all illegal incarcerations. It is a law that states there will be no law.
Trials are orchestrated at the prerogative of the security officials, who are conspicuous in their ineptitude as much as their wickedness. Endley is taken through threatening interrogations and a clumsy investigation. Finally brought to court in January 2018, he is tried by a ‘Special Tribunal’ for capital crimes in a charade entirely controlled by the NSS. Endley is meticulous in detailing the patterns and practices in the courtroom. Procedural irregularities are prolific, prosecutors stagger through disorganized presentations of disputed evidence and mistranslated documents, investigators are often absent, and hearings go forward without Endley’s defense representatives present. The description harkens to the 2019 sham trial on the 7 October revolt, when six prisoners were dragged to an incoherent tribunal while NSS soldiers menaced and patrolled the courtroom.
In the end, Endley is denied the opportunity to make a closing statement and is sentenced to death by hanging.
It becomes clear that Endley has been convicted as a ‘South African mercenary,’ with the label providing the most critical element of the regime’s public relations strategy. Endley’s story and human dignity are easily buried when he is folded into a well-established continental stereotype. Once the label is applied, the sentence is a fait accompli.
Endley remains cognizant that he was lucky to receive an investigation and trial at all, after so many detainees have been left languishing in detention or killed and disappeared: ‘Many of my comrades never had this opportunity and lie in unmarked graves throughout South Sudan.’ And so Endley receives his sentence with a soldier’s stoicism: ‘The advantage I held was that I could be sentenced many times, but they could only hang me once.’
Disappearances remain a primary tactic of state terror in South Sudan. Endley documents the disappearances in detention and the complicity of those in government - a web of corruption running from President Kiir to the Lieutenant-General of the NSS, Akol Koor Kuc. South Sudan’s unknown gunmen operate as ‘Inside Tiger’ and ‘Outside Tiger’ forces under the direct command of Akol Koor Kuc, in a system of murder integrated from the Blue House to the Riverside facility where the bodies are disposed in secret.
Endley is present for several instances of midnight pickups, the same kind of operation that presaged the 7 October revolt. In his early months in the Blue House, one inmate is placed upstairs in a solitary confinement cell, with the door left open. One night, a group of hooded NSS operatives entered the facility and removed him, the last he was seen by his fellow inmates.
James Gatdet Dok was kidnapped in Kenya in November 2016 and brought straight away to the Blue House. In January 2017, Aggrey Ezbon Idri and Dong Samuel Luak were also abducted in Kenya and brought to the Blue House, to be disappeared days later at the Riverside facility. Both Endley and Gatdet are witnesses to the detention of Aggrey Idri, while others confirm seeing Dong Samuel. Gatdet would also confirm seeing Aggrey Idri taken away by an officer who said they were going to the Riverside facility. The disappearances of Dong and Aggrey exemplify that most sinister form of state terror in South Sudan, reminiscent of the horrors perpetrated by the worst military dictatorships of the 1970s.
After his sentencing, Endley was transferred to death row in Juba Central Prison, where he witnessed further executions that served as their own form of psychological torture. With little advanced warning, rumors would spread of an impending execution, leaving all prisoners on death row with a sense of doom and despondency. Morale is further sapped by repeated betrayals that appear throughout Endley’s book. Promises of rewards lead people to give up their comrades quickly and without remorse. Endley acknowledges that he was repeatedly promised freedom and financial payoffs if he would betray Dr. Machar, which he never considered even in his darkest hours: ‘It would have required not merely the betrayal of my principles, but the betrayal of all other standards I required from myself, both personal and professional. Such a betrayal would have gone beyond the grave and would have been unforgivable.’
Endley does not sensationalize the prison experience. He presents a detailed account of the many turns of fortune in the prison system, unflinching from his moments of humiliation and deprivation to the rare acts of kindness that sustained him and his comrades. Prisoners share food, medicine, and coping strategies. Prisoners sing together and pray together. Many inmates built ties of solidarity in their shared suffering, so that some are only ever able to trust each other. Endley’s family and friends abroad also stand out for their perseverance in working on his behalf, sending parcels of food, contacting media, organizing campaigns, and writing letters to embassy officials and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa. Endley’s loved ones find themselves the target of scams, at times helpless for their lack of information, but determined to never let their bonds be broken.
The arrests of Kerbino Wol and Peter Biar Ajak in 2018 came after Endley had been transferred to JCP. But Endley followed the events of the 7 October revolt while listening to reports on the Voice of America from his prison cell. Endley had been friends with Kerbino Wol before their arrests, and describes Kerbino as the ultimate South Sudan success story: ‘A popular personality in Juba, he played an integral role in uplifting the youth of South Sudan which made him unpopular with some of the political and ruling elite.’ As Endley puts it, the regime cannot tolerate such examples of virtue, and Kerbino’s ‘success was his downfall.’
The 7 October revolt was organized when inmates observed a specific dynamic: government officials were issuing denials in the media of holding any political prisoners, and prison officials were preparing the ground for additional disappearances, in patterns of behavior the inmates had previously witnessed. Kerbino Wol, Diing Mou Aguer, and Abraham Majak were among those leading the uprising. Endley served part of his time in the Blue House with Abraham Majak, and describes Majak as extremely well-educated and articulate: ‘We had become friends inside the detention facility and had a very good rapport.’ Endley heard their demands for justice and the rule of law on the VoA, and marveled at the discipline shown by the leaders of the 7 October revolt to occupy the facility in a defensive position while not returning any fire from the weapons they procured from the prison armory.
Following the revolt, Kerbino Wol would be kept in confinement for another year and several months. But Endley credits the 7 October revolt with raising the pressure that led to his own release: ‘Their plight had finally become known to the international community, and the government could no longer deny their existence. The international pressure on the government to release the political detainees mounted. Indirectly and unknowingly, Kerbino’s actions helped my case by bringing the spotlight to bear on all political detainees in custody, regardless of what the government called them.’
William Endley and James Gatdet were each pardoned by President Kiir in November 2018. When released, Endley had spent two years and two months in prison. He was now free to go home.
Kerbino Wol, Peter Biar Ajak, and 28 other men would also be pardoned in January 2020. But the truth is that no pardon in South Sudan contradicts the organizing principle of No Justice, No Mercy. Rather, pardon is a delivery mechanism into new punishments. The same impunity that facilitates unlawful arrests and disappearances in South Sudan was used as a pretext to hunt down and kill Kerbino Wol and Abraham Majak after they declared themselves opponents of the regime in June 2020. It is the prerogative of a regime that believes any opposition gives it the right to arrest, torture, and kill.
Thus is revealed the true function of the Blue House: to destroy the will an entire generation of activists and leaders. The young men are systematically identified, arrested, and marked for detention or death. In the event of a release, the regime may chase them out of the country, like Diing Mou Aguer and Peter Biar Ajak. Others may be abducted from abroad and brought to the facility to be transferred, murdered and disappeared, like Dong Samuel and Aggrey Idri. And if some who survive the Blue House dare to stay in South Sudan and oppose the regime, they will be hunted down, killed, and disappeared, like Abraham Majak and Kerbino Wol.
William Endley is a witness to this generation of young South Sudanese shuddered inside the Blue House. His testimony in No Justice, No Mercy ennobles the collective struggle they have all been forced to endure: ‘How do you describe or understand those innermost feelings of futility, despair and deprivation if you have not witnessed it first hand or, most importantly, not experienced it at all? The secret is to remain a survivor, and not to succumb to either the mental or physical anguish you experienced when you saw it happen to your comrades and fellow inmates.’ There is a revelation that runs deep in the account of William Endley and the stories of men like Kerbino Wol: facing the evil embedded in such a system, they make the reader understand the fierce urgency to rebel.
Following his release, James Gatdet published an account of his own life in My Painful Story. The full accounts of Peter Biar and Kerbino Wol are still to be written, but surely they will be. Much to the chagrin of those in power in South Sudan who believed the unforgiving walls of the Blue House could hide their sins, these stories are being told.
Endley writes, ‘Loyalty remains the combination of honor, self-belief, and the continued belief in a person or a cause…One’s own life and circumstances must always remain subordinate to defending and protecting what one knows and believes to be right.’
We can each hope that when we reflect on our own lives, we acted with a small piece of the courage and dignity carried by the men who spent time in the Blue House. William Endley is a survivor. His readers can be assured that this book was written by an honest man.
Dr. Robert Portada is an Associate Professor at the Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached via email@example.com
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