5 January 2014

Ugandan Family Jewel Buried in South Sudan Mass Grave

When South Sudanese rebels attacked a UN camp in Akobo, Jonglei state and shot dead 40 people, the incident hardly made news in Uganda.

As they are reportedly won't to do, they quickly buried the evidence of this massacre. But as Shifa Mwesigye writes, that incident has left one Ugandan family devastated

The family of Steven Takunya, who died in the December 19 attack on a UN camp in South Sudan, has a sad story to tell. It is a story of a high-flying jewel of the family lost in tragic, clouded circumstances.

Family members said that when they contacted Fred Opolot, the ministry of foreign Affairs spokesman, about the attack in Jonglei, he assured them that there were no Ugandans killed by the rebels. They would find out days later that in fact their own Takunya had been killed and buried with over 40 people in a mass grave.

The family says the Ugandan embassy in South Sudan is not helping either because officials there are not picking their official telephone lines. Takunya, 43, was a monitoring and evaluation officer with the International Labour Organisation.

His wife, Tracy Takunya, says he went to Sudan on November 28 to do a baseline study for three weeks. When the fighting started, he kept in touch with his family, updating them on the status of his safety until Thursday, December 19.

"I talked to him at around 2pm and he said the situation was not bad. Once in a while they would hear gun shots. In the evening when I called his phone again, some other person picked it. He was speaking either Arabic or Dinka, I could not understand. When I got home, I saw on the news that the very place he had told me he was in, had been attacked. I contacted my in-laws and we tried to call his number but after some time it was switched off," Tracy recalls.

When the family realised he was missing, they contacted people in South Sudan. On Friday, December 20 they went to the ILO offices in Kololo and talked to the accountant who is also in charge of security coordination.

The accountant then contacted the UN as well as the ILO office in Cairo, Egypt. When they didn't get results, the wife went to the embassy of South Sudan in Kampala, which did not help. She then went to the ministry of Foreign Affairs where she obtained the telephone contacts for the Ugandan embassy in Juba.

"I met Fred Opolot and he said he was directly in touch with Juba and South Sudan and there were no casualties from that attack. He gave us his number and that of the Ugandan embassy in South Sudan. We called for two days and no one was picking [or] they were engaged," Takunya's brother Sauce Waigonda says.

After two days of searching for answers and finding none, Tracy used her husband's email and sent out SOS to his friends and colleagues in South Sudan. Further inquiries found that Takunya had been killed and buried in a mass grave. The body was exhumed, then Tracy was contacted.

"It was on Saturday night after 8pm when his boss Yusuf from Cairo called us and he asked 'Are you Steven's brother?'" Waigonda says.

"I said yes. He introduced himself and said 'How is Kampala?' I don't remember what I replied because I was shaking. He then said, 'I'm sorry I want to confirm your brother did not survive the attack'. So I asked where the body was and he said it is in the UN camp. After that I did not understand anything else he was saying."

The family's agony, anxiety and waiting, tells of the suffering many Ugandan families are going through searching for relatives. At least Takunya's family has some hope that the UN will bring their 'father' home. But the manner and circumstances of his death have not helped the family's pain.

The story is that he was shot within the UN camp. That, when the rebels took over, some Dinkas went to seek refuge in the UN camp and the rebels followed. When they refused to release them, the rebels attacked and killed almost everybody who was there.

"His boss calls me daily; he is committed to see that Steven comes back to us. UN offices in Geneva and New York know about Steven's death in Jonglei. They want to study the situation before they can send a plane.

That place is not habitable now, you don't know what state the body is in, remember it was buried and exhumed," Tracy says. "The UN has assured us that they will ensure that it is him who will be brought back home. If he is in a state that cannot be recognised, they will do a DNA test."

Good man

Tracy is bouncing their year-old son Zach, the fruit of their marriage. Tracy massages her wedding ring, and then says that late last month, the Takunyas would have celebrated their first wedding anniversary having formalised their six-year relationship on December 28, 2012.

A staffer of Centenary bank, Tracy stares into space and shifts to the edge of the chair when I ask her what type of husband Takunya was. She then sighs and shakes her head and pauses a bit.

"He was very loving, very kind and generous. He had plans for almost everyone. He has about 20 dependants in Kampala and in the village, whose lives are going to be affected by his death. The kids are going to miss him as their father.

They do not understand the impact of his death even if they know that he has died. When I told them, the older ones understood but the younger ones don't. Gabriella asked me, 'So Daddy won't be around to buy for us chips?'I didn't know what to say. That is how she understands it," Tracy says of her husband's sudden demise.

Steven was born in 1970 to the late John Tojole and Grace Kituyi. He is the eldest of 22 children. He was also his father's heir and the family's elder and confidant. He studied at Namirembe Boarding Primary in Budaka and went to Bukedi College Kachonga. Then he went to masaba SS where he completed his high school before joining Makerere where he studied Bachelor of Social Sciences degree. He attained a Master's in Economic Policy and Planning.

He started working with Uganda Revenue Authority before working successively with Nkozi University as a lecturer, Right to Play and World Bank as a monitoring and evaluation officer in South Sudan, and ILO.

He has been working in South Sudan for nearly four years. His contract had ended but they would call him back for short assignments.

Said Tracy: "My only prayer is that we get his remains and we give him a decent burial because I want the children to see and know where their daddy is buried."

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