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Monday, March 4, 2024

‘They attacked us. They displaced us’: grieving Sudanese confront Swedish oil giant over their days of slaughter

‘They attacked us. They displaced us’: grieving Sudanese confront Swedish oil giant over their days of slaughter


Before the arrival of Lundin Oil in the town of Leer, now part of South Sudan, life there was peaceful, says George Tai Kuony. His childhood was that of a “typical village boy”, driving cattle, helping his family and going to school. But in June 1998, when he was 15, armed forces entered the town and changed his life for ever.

He fled, became separated from his family and hid for seven days before he was able to return. “When we got there, Leer wasn’t the town I had left seven days ago,” says the 40-year-old lawyer and human rights defender. “Everything was burned down, everything was destroyed. I could see the bodies of dead people lying in the street.” As a result of the conflict, he lost his father, and later his mother and one sibling.

At the time, he says, the community had no idea why people were fighting. They had never heard of the Swedish oil company. Now, a quarter of a century later, Kuony hopes that he and the other victims will get justice as two former executives of the company go on trial in Stockholm accused of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sudan between 1999 and 2003.

In Sweden’s largest-ever trial, Ian Lundin, a Swede, and Alex Schneiter, who is Swiss, stand accused of asking Sudan’s government to make its army and allied militia responsible for security at one of Lundin Oil’s exploration fields. This led to aerial bombings, civilian killings and the burning of entire villages, according to the prosecution. Both men deny the charges.

The trial, which follows a decade-long investigation, hundreds of interviews and an 80,000-page report by the prosecution, started in September. But its most significant moments are expected in 2024, when 61 witnesses – including victims, Lundin employees, former UN staff and high-profile politicians – are due to appear. They include Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, who sat on the company’s board for five years until becoming the country’s foreign minister.

Sudanese rebel soldiers march to the front close to newly-developed oil fields in the south of Sudan. Photograph: Reuters

“My life has never been the same,” says Kuony, speaking to the Observer from South Sudan’s capital, Juba, where he now lives. “Oil came to our area: it should have been a blessing. It should have been for the benefit of the community.” Instead, there was “a massacre. They wanted us dead. They wanted us to go away.”

Kuony has been trying to get justice since 2006, when the group unsuccessfully sought redress at a court in Sudan. He hopes the trial, whatever its outcome, will set a new legal precedent for global corporations working in foreign jurisdictions, sending a “very strong message” that they cannot act with impunity. “That one day they will be prosecuted in the same way.”

But the victims have already been dealt a significant blow. Ebony Wade, a legal adviser at Stockholm-based human rights organisation Civil Rights Defenders, said Stockholm district court’s decision in November to separate the plaintiffs’ damage claims from the criminal trial would make it “significantly harder” – if not impossible – to have their cases heard, and would considerably delay the justice process.

While the plaintiffs’ testimonies were still expected to be included in the criminal trial, she said, this could push the civil claims back until the criminal trial was over, which would not be until February 2026. However, May 2024 will be a historic moment: for the first time the court will hear the experiences of plaintiffs and victims from South Sudan.

“It’s incredibly rare for corporate executives to be held accountable for grave human rights violation,” says Wade. “For the first time, the leadership of a multinational company is being put on trial in a European country on allegations that they were complicit in war crimes in the conduct of their business activities.”

She adds: “There are very few opportunities for victims of grave international crimes to seek redress, so in that sense this is an incredibly important trial.”

Reverend James Ninrew Dong outside the district court building in Stockholm.
‘What made me sorry is that people came to the church seeking safety and were not able to get it’: Reverend James Ninrew Dong outside the district court building in Stockholm.

Rev James Ninrew Dong, of the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan, fled Leer after religious buildings were targeted. The priest, who is a witness and a plaintiff in the case, said he felt compelled to testify: “They attacked us. They displaced us. What made me sorry is that people came to the church seeking safety and were not able to get it. They were also displaced.”

For him, the case demonstrates the different standards applied by European companies operating in Africa. “Sweden is the champion of peace in the whole of Europe and this is where the Nobel prize is always done,” he says. “We were surprised to see that some citizens of the same country do not even care and do not even listen to what the history is.”

For the case to finally be in court is a relief, he adds. “Can they do that in Norway? Can they do that in Sweden? Can they do that in any of the European countries? Of course no – the answer is no.”



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