The Congolese authorities have arrested 18 South Sudanese refugees suspected of being members of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army -In Opposition (SPLA-IO), which has been fighting the government for four years, in a civil war that has left tens of thousands of people dead and devastated the country.
The move comes as hundreds of refugees seek sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following President Salva Kiir’s government army’s attack on the SPLA-IO headquarters in southwestern Lasu.
It is the first time Congolese authorities have detained a significant number of South Sudanese and may signal a change in Kinshasa’s policy towards the neighbouring country, riven by a devastating four-year power struggle.
“As of now 15 have been released. They were refugees who were arrested because they had returned to South Sudan without authorisation. Three who remain in custody are suspected of being rebels and investigations are ongoing,” said Alexis Kabambi, who heads the National Commission for Refugees (CNR) in the Congolese town of Aba.
Until recently, members of the SPLA-IO were able to move relatively freely across the border to Aba, a town they depended on for supplies and medical treatment for their wounded.
But after South Sudan’s ambassador visited Aba together with DRC’s defence minister in April, local authorities began restricting movement across the border, according to a South Sudanese community leader in Aba and an SPLA-IO official who asked not to be named.
Officials in the DRC suspect a close link between the refugee community and the opposition fighters.
“We know that the women and children are here in the camp while the husbands are part of the rebellion,” a police officer said at a recent community gathering in Aba’s refugee settlement.
The officer called upon ex-combatants to report themselves to the army “for their own protection.”
But young men who are sympathetic to the rebellion back home don’t trust Congolese authorities.
“I don’t know their position, that’s why I’m at risk. If I’m arrested, they could torture me and hand me over to the South Sudanese government,” said one rebel currently seeking refugee status in Aba.
The young man plans to install his family in the refugee settlement and then return to South Sudan to resume his role in the SPLA-IO.
Elsewhere in the DRC, in Goma, some 400 mostly former SPLA-IO rebels have been living confined to a camp since fleeing with Machar in 2016.
They live not quite as prisoners and not quite refugees, accepting restriction of their movement in exchange for food and protection from a UN peacekeeping mission.
The SPLA-IO inked a ceasefire deal with the South Sudanese government last week but the truce is already floundering as both sides accuse each other of multiple breaches of the accord.
President Kiir in his Christmas message to the country reiterated his government’s commitment to pursuing peace for the young nation he leads.
According to international law, third party countries are obliged to disarm and intern ex-combatants until a ceasefire comes into force or until they genuinely renounce military activities, at which point they qualify for asylum.