The Freedom Fighter: Remembering General Chagai Atem Biar

Posted: August 13, 2019 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Junub Sudan

Remembering General Chagai Atem Biar

By Atem Yaak Atem, Australia

Comrade Salva Kiir, Comrade Kerubino Kuanyin and Comrade Chagai Atem Biar at the founding of the SPLM/SPLA in 1983 - photo by Comrade Atem Yaak Atem

1. Chagai the freedom fighter

Tuesday, August 13, 2019 (PW) — For most young people the phrase “freedom fighter” may be a general expression but in the 1960s it stood for an armed Anya Nya soldier or someone who stood in solidarity with the cause the Anya Nya guerrilla movement was fighting for. The cause, of course, was justice and freedom for the people of what is today the Republic of South Sudan.

Anya Nya had a network of its members within cities and towns across Southern Sudan. Those members and supporters carried out secret activities such as information gathering and dissemination; establishment of secret cells; recruitment; mobilisation of resources particularly funds, medicines, clothes and when possible, ammunition. Anya Nya agents operating in towns, and who were known as scouts, were the main links with Anya Nya bases in the bushes and rural areas of Southern Sudan.

Those underground operations carried high risks for those involved in them. In most cases those caught in the act were summarily killed by government security agents; very few suspects accused of collaboration with the rebels, officially known to the Government of Sudan as outlaws, were ever arrested and taken to courts of law.

2. Member of secret cell

Late Chagai Atem Biar was one of those Anya Nya undercover operatives working in Upper Nile. I came to know his involvement with Anya Nya from the then Captain John Garang soon after the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972. In 1973, while I was in Malakal after the closure of the University of Khartoum due to student unrest there, I came in contact with Captain John Garang I had known since his student days at Rumbek Secondary School while I was attending Atar Intermediate School, 25 miles south of Malakal. At the time he was stationed at Malakal army garrison where he and former rebel offices, NCOs and men had been absorbed into the “National Army.” Garang clearly lacked a company he would find to be congenial.

Almost every evening, Garang would drive to pick me from Haya Jallaba- where I spending my forced leave with a family of a relative and friend- and take me with him to the army mess at the city’s eastern outskirts where we would spend much of the time chatting after a meal. His constant companion was Major Stephen Madut Baak, a quiet man who was a confirmed teetotaller. By choice, our company consisted of three of us. At time, Garang would suddenly cut short his conversation whenever he realised someone at a nearby table was listening: Garang was very suspicious of most of the officers who frequented the mess. That included his former comrades from Anya Nya. He did not make secret his distrust of some of them. On three occasions he referred to two among them as traitors. He did not give reasons. I did not ask questions about what I saw as paranoia, true or not.

Years later, Garang’s distrust was justified when after sending a copy of the SPLM’s manifesto to a former colleague then commanding one of government army garrisons in the South, responded by attacking the small SPLA’s unit that had camped outside the garrison, waiting in vain for the defection of Garang’s former comrade during the Anya Nya days. Garang who was with his forces, hoping to receive the garrison commander into the ranks of the SPLA, he instead had to be hastily evacuated as his bodyguards fought off the unexpected attack by the government forces. The officer commanding the garrison had promised the SPLM/A leader he would desert if there was an SPLA presence in the area. It was a trap.

It was during those sessions when Garang made me privy to the correspondence that was going on between him and the Anya Nya command then based in Juba. From one of the letters Captain John Garang later gave me to read was about Chagai Atem. The subject of the letter bore the title “Captain Chagai Atem.” The letter was typed as Garang used to carry a typewriter even in the bush.

The letter written by Garang and addressed to Major General Joseph Lagu, the Anya Nya commander and by the time had been confirmed in the same rank in the Sudan Armed Forces, SAF, and in Juba where he was being prepared to become the commander of Southern Command, eloquently argued the case for the inclusion of “Captain Chagai Atem” in the absorbed the integrated forces. Chagai, the petition argued, was a member of Anya Nya in eastern Upper Nile during the war.

One may guess the fact that Chagai did not become an absorbed member of former Anya Nya fighters integrated into the SAF is a proof the appeal written by the then Captain John Garang did not succeed. However, Chagai is known to many people from Malakal and eastern part of region to have been active in supplying medicine, clothes and information to Anya Nya forces operating in areas of Bailiet, Nasir, Akobo and Pochalla. At the end of the war, he chose to engage himself as a self-employed businessman. His sufficient means meant that he was independent and not in want.

4. Origins of the SPLM/A

The rebel organisation that later became known as SPLA/SPLM (the order was later reversed to SPLM/SPLA or SPLM/A for short), began as an underground movement masterminded by former Anya Nya officers who were dissatisfied with the terms of the peace agreement with the Government of Sudan, and the implementations of its clauses. Among those former Anya Nya officers who were involved in the underground activities to resume the struggle for full rights for the people of Southern Sudan included John Garang and many other colleagues too numerous to be listed here. Late Chagai was an active secret cell member. This fact has been confirmed by President Salva Kiir his recent statement during Chagai’s funeral in Juba. Upon the formation of the SPLA, Chagai Atem Biar became captain in the new insurgency. The rest, as it is said, is history.

5. Commander of SPLA GHQs

Captain Chagai Atem was the commander of the SPLA GHQs at Bilpam when I visited in May 1984 the team that had been trained as future staff of the proposed Radio SPLA. Bilpam served as a centre for short military training courses; a prison and detention centre; base of Katiba Banat (Girls’ Battalion) as well as headquarters.

Captain Chagai Atem was a competent and humane administrator. During his tenure at Bilpam, mistreatment of prisoners only occurred due to rogue officers taking law into their own hands, as he had ordered that both prisoners and detainees should be humanely treated.

During my visit to Bilpam I requested Captain Chagai Atem to allow me visit and interview for Radio SPLA the members of former Unity Region’s administration who had been captured by a renegade Anya Nya II officer and who had handed them over to the SPLA in the area. The captives were being held in a thicket about half an hour’s walk from Bilpam.

The commissioner of Unity, Charles Chatim, was a personal friend of mine. When we reached the detention centre, Captain Chagai Atem decided that he should meet the prisoners in person because he did not like to alarm them. Indeed, when they heard of his arrival in the area, there was a report indicating that some of the detainees had become nervous; fearing that the commander of the HQs had gone there to have them executed.

Some months later, the prisoners were released, with some of them, including Charles Chatim being sent to train to become officers in the SPLA.

6. The photo of the three

The photo showing three officers from left to right: Major Salva Kiir Mayardit, member of the SPLM/A Military High Command and commander of Tiger and Timsah Battalion, Lt. Col. Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, deputy leader of the SPLM/A, member of its Military High Command and commander of Jamus Battalion, and Captain Chagai Atem Biar, commander of the SPLA GHQs at Bilpam.

Comrade Salva Kiir, Comrade Kerubino Kuanyin and Comrade Chagai Atem Biar at the founding of the SPLM/SPLA in 1983 - photo by Comrade Atem Yaak Atem
Comrade Chagai Atem, Comrade William Nyuon, Comrade John Garang, Comrade Kerubino Kuanyin and Comrade Salva Kiir, respectively, at the founding of the SPLM/SPLA in 1983 - photo by Comrade Atem Yaak Atem

I took this photograph at Tedo, an Anyuak village on August 6, 1984. On that day, the SPLM/A was releasing two German nationals brought from Aweil in Bahr el Ghazal by a contingent of SPLA unit from Jamus Battalion under Major Kawach Makuei. There were conflicting stories, which still remain clarified to this day, about why the Germans were arrested and were forced to walk all the way from northern Bahr el Ghazal to the Sudan Ethiopian border in the east.

There were three other detainees, among them, late Mario Muor Muor and late Arop Achiir who later escaped to Khartoum. The former SPLM/A leader, John Garang (not in this picture) had come from Addis Ababa accompanied by Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, Costello Garang Riiny Lual and myself, to release the Germans to a representative of the Ethiopian Government and Costello Garang, SPLM’s representative to Germany at the time. Forces of Tiger and Timsah under Major Salva Kiir had been in the area since their brief capture and occupation of Pochalla post some three months earlier, while Captain Chagai Atem went to the function to pick the detainees brought from Aweil and who were destined for Bilpam detention centre.

7. Chagai Atem was a caring and modest person

Late Chagai Atem was a very kind person who valued the right of every person to life and humane treatment. He always advocated fairness and honesty. He was always ready and willing to help those in need.

During the first SPLM National Convention in 1993 the then Commander Chagai Atem Biar vehemently argued against the decision by the SPLA command to retire some of their officers. As volunteers receiving no pay, there was no convincing reasons why those officers should be dismissed from service when they were willing and able-bodied to carry out their mission of liberation for which they joined the movement in the first place. The order was rescinded, thanks to Chagai’s protestation.

I also became a beneficiary of Chagai’s pursuit of justice and fairness for others. In 1992, Dr Lual Achuek L. Deng, an old friend of mine who was a senior manager at the African Development Bank at Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, had found a job for me as an editorial consultant at the bank. The office of the SPLM Chairman told Lual I could not be “released” since I was busy carrying out an assignment for the Movement in the liberated area of Southern Sudan. Cdr Chagai Atem learned of the rejection which probably the Chairman did not know. Chagai could not believe the story being bandied about me on the subject: I had no assignment while I was living in a camp for the internally displaced persons, IPDs, in Eastern Equatoria.

I was not even receiving food rations given to the displaced person because my family was not with me at the time; I lived on charity from friends. Aware of the fact there was something which did not add up about my story, Cdr Chagai Atem approached the then deputy leader of the SPLM/A who was also in charge of security of the Movement, Cdr Salva Kiir, who immediately confirmed that I was doing nothing at the IDP camp. Cdr Salva Kiir immediately released me to travel to Nairobi and then to West Africa. However, the minions at the Radio House (or “State House in Exile”) came up with another roadblock: that I must surrender half of what I would earn from the consultancy to the SPLM department of information from which I had effectively been dumped. That was not a problem neither to me nor to Chagai; what mattered was that I would be able to leave the IDP camp. I was released and travelled Abidjan where I did a four-month consultancy, editing the Bank’s conference documents into books.

8. Family reunion

My travel to Kenya and Abidjan enabled me to process the reunion with my family who had been “stranded” at Nasir, which was then under the control of Riek Machar’s faction of the SPLM/A. My efforts were rewarded. During my second consultancy with the African Development Bank in 1994, members of my nuclear and extended family were finally allowed to leave Nasir for Kenya, thanks to the involvement of International Committee of the Red Cross’s programme of family reunion, the United Nations World Food Programme office in Nairobi and of course Cdr Chagai, Dr Lual Deng and Cdr Salva Kiir, who had made it possible for me to leave the hell-hole that was the IDP camp in Eastern Equatoria.

9. Amazing courage in suffering

When late Chagai was struck down by a massive stroke in 2009, the head of the then Government of Southern Sudan, President Salva Kiir ordered his office to release funds for the treatment of Chagai outside the country. When I visited him in 2016 at his rented home in Nairobi, Chagai was already bedridden. His face looked bright and very much alive while his voice was clear as normal, but the rest of his body showed little sign of life. Yet, he was consoling anyone visiting him in that sorry state. One of his devoted wives, Nyaboth, was at his side that day as had been the case every hour, every minute and daily up to the end. I was moved by the strength of character and dignity shown by the patient and devotion of the loved ones from his large family, near and far, by all his comrades in arm within the divided regrettably divided and feuding SPLM/A.

One complaint though: Nyaboth told me several young visitors, some of them academics, repeatedly blamed themselves for not getting the story of early beginnings of the SPLM/A from Chagai while he was in good health. They privately feared that when he would be gone, few from his team would be left to tell the public and posterity the inside story of the SPLM/A’s birth.

Now that General Chagai Atem Biar has gone and given the national funeral which recognised his contribution to the liberation struggle, the public should acknowledge the role played by the State of South Sudan in general and President Salva Kiir in particular for shouldering the medical bills and other expenses including a grant of a house to the family. Chagai gave his time, energy and resources to the struggle; in turn the country he fought for and its leaders have repaid the debt. May Chagai Atem Biar rest in peace and may his selfless example inspire members of the younger generation.

Atem Yaak Atem who is a journalist and author was founding director of Radio SPLA.

The opinion expressed here is solely the view of the writer. The veracity of any claim made is the responsibility of the author, not PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website. If you want to submit an opinion article, commentary or news analysis, please email it to PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website do reserve the right to edit or reject material before publication. Please include your full name, a short biography, email address, city and the country you are writing from.

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