The sister of a young man who vanished on a family holiday to South Sudan believes her brother was kidnapped by rebel soldiers. Why then, she asks, is DFAT doing nothing to find him? By Santilla Chingaipe.

Australian missing in South Sudan

Kenyan-born Australian Sabit John Mayar, who went missing in South Sudan in 2014.
Kenyan-born Australian Sabit John Mayar, who went missing in South Sudan in 2014.

Sabit John Mayar’s older sister describes him as a “funny kid”. He loved entertaining his five siblings, growing up in a tight-knit family in Perth’s outer suburbs, raised by a single mother.

Rebecca Mayar says her younger brother, known as Akol to his family, was a helpful, caring, kind-hearted teenager.

In November 2013, the then 17-year-old was to embark on a family reunion, travelling to newly independent South Sudan with his mother and three siblings to see his father.

The Kenyan-born Australian had not seen his father – who had stayed back to fight in what was then Sudan – for 15 years. It was also his first visit to his parents’ homeland.

After spending Christmas in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the family travelled north to the South Sudanese capital, Juba.

The same month, South Sudan descended into a civil war after President Salva Kiir Mayardit fell out with his deputy, Riek Machar.

A few weeks later, Mayar would journey with his uncle north-west to Wau, one of South Sudan’s largest cities, to reunite with his father.

After a few months there, it was time for him to begin his journey back to Australia.

Rebecca remembers speaking to her brother for the last time a week before he was to leave Wau to be reunited with his mother and siblings before returning home.

“He said, ‘Oh my god, we’re so fortunate to live in Australia and I have learnt so much that I won’t take anything for granted when I return to Australia’,” Rebecca says.

But that wasn’t to be.

On April 15, 2014, Mayar’s world changed forever. He was ambushed by rebels while making the journey with his uncle and was forced to run to safety.

Mayar became separated from his travelling companion, and his family was unable to find him.

Rebecca, who had remained in Australia, contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to report Mayar missing.

A month later, he was located at a United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) camp in Bentiu. He had sought refuge there and, after going through a process of identification, officials began organising to have him flown back to Juba so he could return to Australia. But Mayar disappeared from the camp – a month shy of his 18th birthday in September.

Rebecca again contacted DFAT and the Red Cross to help find her brother. This time, she did not hear back.

Mayar’s mother travelled back to South Sudan to try to locate her son but to no avail. She was told he was taken by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to neighbouring Sudan. However, the family and Australian officials have been unable to find him since.

“He was seven when he arrived in Australia. He doesn’t speak the local language,” Rebecca says. “I can’t imagine what he’s going through.”

Australia does not have a diplomatic embassy in South Sudan. The nearest embassy offering consular support is in neighbouring Ethiopia.

The family say they are frustrated by the way DFAT has dealt with the case. Rebecca says they have not heard from the department in more than a year.

“I don’t think they’ve done anything at all,” she says, “aside from the call that he was found at UNMISS … I’ve asked, ‘What are you doing as Foreign Affairs?’ 

“It breaks my heart. A family is missing a sibling; a mother missing a son. How is that not a good enough case to do something? What is the difference? Fair enough if he wasn’t a citizen, but he is and has lived here all his life. It baffles me. It makes me sick to my stomach.”

A spokesperson for the department told The Saturday Paper they could not give further details about the case due to privacy concerns. They said DFAT has been in contact with Mayar’s family and the case remains open.

Dr David Beirman is a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney and serves as a member of the Smartraveller advisory group, which consults with DFAT on government travel advice.

“If they haven’t heard from DFAT in a year, that’s extremely unusual,” Beirman says.

But, he says, there is very little consular support that Australian officials can provide to citizens in South Sudan.

“Their resources, particularly in Africa, are spread pretty thin. For example, the embassy in Kenya is quite responsible for looking after a lot of countries.”

The recent federal budget reduced Australia’s foreign aid, including expenditure on Australian embassies and embassy activities throughout the world.

“When you’ve already got a very scantily resourced outfit in Nairobi, and their budget is probably going to be staying the same or probably even being reduced, their ability to actually do things is fairly limited,” Beirman says.

The continuing conflict in South Sudan also reduces DFAT’s chances of finding Mayar.

Despite a peace agreement in 2015, the country slipped back into conflict after renewed clashes between rival forces. According to the UN, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been forced from their homes.

The organisation has declared a famine in parts of the country, triggered by the escalating violence.

DFAT strongly advises against Australians travelling to South Sudan, due to the conflict and instability.

“Aid workers have been kidnapped. People are disappearing,” Beirman says. “There have been ambushes here, there, and everywhere. I would have to say that the prognosis for this poor guy is not all that great. And that’s a real understatement.

“It’s a situation in which you’re effectively operating in a failed state. There are probably, tragically, thousands of cases like this one of a person who has gone there on a family reunion and just plain disappeared.”

Back in Australia, life for the Mayar family has never been the same. Every day, they wait for news.

“It would be better to know if he was gone – that pain is easy to deal with,” Rebecca says. “Not knowing is the worst pain.”

Asked what the family thinks might have happened, Rebecca hesitates before saying she believes her brother was kidnapped and recruited as a soldier by the rebels.

According to the UN’s children’s agency, about 16,000 children have been recruited by armed groups and forces since 2013.

Adults, too, have been forcibly recruited by government and rebel forces.

Human Rights Watch has recorded accounts of forced recruitment that included cases of young adults.

In one account near the UN base in the town of Malakal, where 20,000 people were being sheltered at the time, many witnesses “saw groups of armed and unarmed men, some in uniforms, forcibly recruit both adults and children outside the gate of the base in late December 2014 and January 2015”.

But despite this grim outlook, Mayar’s family is hopeful he will return home safely one day.

“People will tell me, ‘Are you serious you think your brother is alive?’ ” Rebecca says. “But we have not lost hope at all.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Missing inaction".

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Santilla Chingaipe is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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