South Sudan has Killed its Best: In Memory of Kerbino Wol, South Sudanese Businessman and Philanthropist
By Dr. Robert Portada, Pennsylvania, USA
On 5 June 2020, Kerbino Wol announced that he was standing in solidarity with fellow citizens deep in the sacred land of South Sudan and launching the official manifesto of the 7 October Movement. Nine days later, Kerbino and a group of men were captured and killed by state security forces. The army spokesman stated that the “SSPDF had succeeded in containing a rebellion at infancy.”
To date, Kerbino’s remains have not been returned to his family for burial. Rumors persist that his body may have been desecrated and disappeared by the National Security Service (NSS). The life of Kerbino Wol was much too short. But it was legendary, nonetheless. It was a life he devoted fully to a dream that South Sudan could be great.
Born in 1982, Kerbino’s childhood was consumed by war. He was forced to flee his homeland with his family during the liberation struggle and was trained as a child soldier in Ethiopia, where he became a member of Dr. John Garang’s Red Army. Before reaching adulthood, he would traverse the length of his country many times over, and spend years in the cattle country where he learned the customs of his people.
He stood out among his colleagues for his discipline and his knowledge of languages, which allowed him to communicate with people from every corner of South Sudan.
As South Sudan’s independence approached, Kerbino was already frustrated by the corruption and violence perpetuated by the SPLA leadership. He decided to leave active duty and strike out on his own as a businessman.
In 2010, he founded Kerbino Agok Security Services (KASS) while employing a handful of private security guards and using a shipping container as an office space. Kerbino sought to build a company that would offer high standards of training for his guards and reliable payment and job security for all of his employees. He hired guards from every tribal background. He hired women and trained them as guards.
Soon, KASS was providing high-level security services to local businesses, NGOs, international organizations, diplomatic missions, and high-profile visitors to South Sudan. Kerbino created thousands of jobs for his fellow citizens, and was revered and respected by all who worked for him. Always impeccably dressed, when Kerbino entered a room it was as if the future had arrived.
I met Kerbino in January 2013. I was doing academic research on private security companies, and our early interviews spawned a lasting friendship. Kerbino told me about the hopes and dreams he had for his country, but he was already convinced that the leadership had failed to deliver on the promises of independence.
Later that year, South Sudan would descend into a civil war that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives.
As the years passed, Kerbino grew more and more disturbed by the devastation unfolding in his homeland. But his efforts were undeterred. When South Sudan broke out in further violence in 2016, Kerbino opened his company headquarters to shelter people fleeing for their lives. He created the Nile Foundation, a humanitarian organization with the mission of promoting youth empowerment and national reconciliation.
The Nile Foundation would go on to organize business training workshops for students and multicultural football matches for IDPs. In June 2017, I participated with Kerbino in a series of public lectures on peacebuilding and conflict resolution sponsored by the Nile Foundation at universities across Juba.
When speaking with young students who were coming of age in conditions of civil war, Kerbino stressed that he too was born into a life of war, and that like him, all South Sudanese could overcome their obstacles and contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous future. The last project I was involved in with Kerbino was an idea he had to build an institute for the comparative study of law in Juba.
Then, without charge or cause, Kerbino was arrested by the NSS on 27 April 2018.
Detained inside the Blue House, Kerbino was not formally informed of the reasons for his arrest. He was not brought before a court. He was denied access to his lawyers and his family. For a regime that requires its people to live in fear and destitution, it seemed Kerbino’s only crime was to demonstrate a model of success and charity for all.
For this, he was locked up and beaten. His captors sent agents to abduct him from the prison on multiple occasions, though Kerbino in one instance fought them off with his bare hands.
Months later, after carefully observing the regime’s methods of abduction, Kerbino and a group of prisoners noticed that a new round of disappearances was being planned inside the Blue House. In the early hours of Sunday, 7 October 2018, they decided to act. The prisoners opened their cells, disarmed their guards, and broke into the armory. For one day, they turned the Blue House into South Sudan’s Bastille.
They had a simple demand: they wanted their silenced voices to be heard.
The prisoners protected the inmates and established rules of engagement. They informed the government of their position, enumerated their grievances to international news outlets, and called for justice and the rule of law in South Sudan. Though weapons were fired at the facility, the prisoners never once returned fire. They never attempted escape and they continued to insist on a mediated resolution to the standoff. Upon laying down their arms, they willingly returned to their cells.
For their faith in their ideals and the dignity by which they conducted themselves, the prisoners made the 7 October Revolt one of the greatest single expressions of freedom in South Sudan’s history. Kerbino felt so strongly about the bravery of these young men that he decided to name his movement after this date.
I can only speak to the authenticity of the Kerbino Wol whom I knew and admired. We became so close we regarded each other as brothers. After he was transferred to Juba Central Prison in June 2019, Kerbino and I began work on a book about his life. I recorded countless hours of conversations with Kerbino while he was in jail, in sessions that would go long into the night.
We discussed the major moments that defined his childhood, from the endless days marching as a child to Ethiopia and back, to the tender nurturing that bonded him to his mother. We discussed the books he was reading, the historical figures he held as his heroes, and how he came to believe that citizenship was both a right and a responsibility. We discussed everything that happened during the 7 October Revolt and the stories of the men who participated.
We discussed how the regime nearly starved Kerbino to death in the aftermath, and the circumstances surrounding his trial. And we discussed in minute detail the numerous crimes and cruel methods of torture he witnessed inside the prison system, the abduction and disappearance mechanisms of the NSS, and killings committed on the orders of top officials in South Sudan.
In due time, I intend to publish every word of what he told me on these subjects.
Kerbino was released from Juba Central Prison on 4 January 2020, a moment of triumph and euphoria for his loved ones. But an internal crisis was soon apparent. His choices seemed limited to complying with the dictates of a corrupt and murderous system. Indeed, his own efforts to regain his confiscated properties through domestic legal procedures were blocked by the NSS. Perhaps in time he could rebuild his businesses and his foundation. Doing so would have required him to lock hands with his oppressors and keep his voice silent, placing him back in the same position he was in April 2018.
Another choice was to leave permanently, which Kerbino simply would not do. He loved his country too much.
The constant surveillance and spying led Kerbino to remark to me on several occasions that he felt like he was still in prison. But Kerbino’s real trauma was rooted in the suffering of his people. The worst forms of torture he described to me were not the ones he experienced, rather it was the torture he witnessed.
In the jails, he saw prisoners beaten, humiliated, starved and killed. After coming out he saw rampant pessimism, young people dying of communal violence, old people dying without care in rundown hospitals. He told me once that he felt the liberty and integrity of his people were being held hostage by the regime. He always tried to walk in the shoes of the poorest around him, and to see life through their eyes.
What a good and selfless man he was. For Kerbino, South Sudan was a sacred land and the freedom of his people was a sacred cause. The idea of falling back into old patterns hung heavy on his soul. He would not cooperate, but he would not leave. He felt instead a deep calling to act.
When Kerbino announced the formation of the 7 October Movement, he stated that he wanted to greet his fellow citizens in the country. He stated that he was standing in solidarity with young people who had taken the lead to liberate themselves from repression and the failed leadership of South Sudan. He stated that his movement was inclusive of all tribes. He stated that peace should prevail over the entire country.
The regime’s response was swift and brutal. We do not yet know what diabolical things they may have done to Kerbino and the men who died with him. But after congratulating themselves on the speed by which they carried out their assault, the SSPDF spokesperson stated they had received intelligence that provided justifiable reasons to launch preemptive offensive operations, without specifying the nature of these reasons.
Did they pause to ask themselves what drove a man who had been a child soldier, businessman, and philanthropist to declare himself an opponent of a repressive system? Did they pause to ask themselves whether their own powers of persuasion could yield a peaceful solution or a negotiated truce? The answers are obvious. Their only instinct was to hunt him down and kill him. Little did they know, his voice, his example, and his life story would only be amplified by this merciless killing.
Kerbino considered himself a good citizen of his country. He was all too modest. Kerbino Wol was the best citizen of South Sudan, a fervent believer in freedom and equality, defiant in the face of despotism, willing to give his life to confront an unjust system. As protestors around the world shout Black Lives Matter to give voice to victims of state violence and repression, Kerbino shouted his principles to give voice to the victims of state violence and repression in his own country.
The young people of South Sudan should look to the example of Kerbino Wol with pride. They should study his life and his ideas. Kerbino had so much pride in the young people of South Sudan, and such high expectations of what they could achieve if their collective energy could be harnessed to lead the country.
Evil exists in this world because the vast majority of us do not have the strength and courage of Kerbino Wol. He was a freedom fighter and genuine revolutionary, pure of heart and forever young. He stared evil in the eye and did not flinch. When Kerbino was killed, God was the first one who cried.
His loved ones remember his kindness, his gallantry, his laughter, and his boundless generosity. Many will suffer with the memory of just how much they depended on Kerbino’s love and support. They will be left with a giant chasm in their lives. Losing someone like Kerbino is like losing the moon and stars.
They can take a small measure of solace in the knowledge that Kerbino lived and died as a free man. I suspect that in his death, with the wings of an angel and the roar of a lion, he will continue to watch over and protect his loved ones, and he will haunt the weaklings who conspired against him, as well as all men who profit from tyranny.
On the day Kerbino was killed, the last message he sent to me was, “the spirit is strong, my brother.” His hope and optimism remained with him until his final moments. Surely he died in a state of grace.
It hurts to tell this story because it ends with me losing a brother. But as a sacred promise to my brother, I will never stop telling his story.
South Sudan has killed its best. And yet, his spirit is strong. I remain standing eternally in solidarity with Kerbino Wol.
The author, Dr. Robert Portada, is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science & Public Administration, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, USA, and can be reached via his email address: email@example.com