Saving South Sudan
Volume 21 Number 4
Sudan was once home to a great civilization that was the most advanced in all of Africa-but centuries of colonialism and conflict, and a post-independence period ravaged by coups, dictatorships, and incompetent rule, mired Sudan in a series of never-ending wars. This timeline details how by 2013, the oil-rich, fertile nation was falling apart.
It started as a simple idea: visit the world's newest nation with Machot Lat Thiep, a gangly 32-year-old Sudanese former Lost Boy who wants to help his nation, a homeland that is less than three years old and already in danger of becoming a failed state. Our simple trip to South Sudan quickly became complicated.
Our driver's name is Edward who had agreed to fly our motley crew into war-torn South Sudan, specifically the volatile rebel-held region. Weeks before our arrival, the government had imploded after a series of events that resulted in the ousting of former vice president and current rebel leader who was now running for his life.
The carefully etched border lines found on modern-day maps of the vast continent have nothing to do with the ancient tribes and civilizations that continue to rule over Africa. They are territorial remnants of foreigners' greed, good intentions, and brutal wars. Our ultimate destination‐South Sudan‐lies within the newest lines on the map, and our mission is to find the secret hideout of ousted vice president Riek Machar and get his version of the truth.
We consulted a few regional experts about Machar's location, and the answers always varied. All we knew for sure was that Machar was in the bush, and the government of South Sudan had just dispatched roughly 2,000 men to hunt him down and kill him.
In the midst of the convoluted battle for South Sudanese independence, about 3,800 of these young boys, many of whom are permanently scarred with tribal markings of the Dinka (the ethnic majority) or the Nuer, were fostered in American homes.
Dinka and Nuer tribesmen have composed the majority of the rebel groups operating in the area since the First Sudanese Civil War began in the 1950s. By the time George W. Bush was elected, Sudan had become a geopolitical quagmire.
We arrange a meeting with a group of Nuer politicians who introduce us to a thing young man named Amos. They ask us to take him with us, and our group grows by one.
For centuries, slavery emptied out much of Central Africa. Slavery is so endemic to Sudan that religious groups were still buying back slaves in the north who had been kidnapped in the south as late as the 1990s.
After numerous dead ends, our fixer, Edward, finds a pilot to take us into the bush to find Riek Machar. The one-way flight will cost us $17,200‐more than double the charter rate when the country isn't about to cannibalize itself.
Despite the first major uprising in 1955, Sudan was eager to begin oil exploration, and in 1959 a collection of European and American companies began their search in the north.
We've made it to Akobo, headquarters of the new Nuer rebellion. We have pissed off our hosts, bickered with one another for over 150 bumpy miles, hunted food, traded jokes, and destroyed Tim's laptop.
In September 1983, Riek Machar and his associates discovered a powerful ally: Muammar Qaddafi. Earlier that year, President Ronald Reagan of the US had called Qaddafi “the mad dog of the Middle East,” but he was a mad dog with billions in oil revenue to play with.
Machot blames the UN for many of the problems in the south‐complaining that the UN's rationing of flour and grain did little for his people, whose diet consisted mostly of meat and fish. None of it makes sense, but hey, this is South Sudan.
In April 1996, spurred on by promises of support from China and desperate to increase production, Sudan signed a vaguely worded agreement called the Political Charter with Riek Machar to end his rebels' attacks on the oil fields.
Parastatals, they are called‐deep-pocked corporations seemingly immune to the international criticism about the human rights violations involved in extracting the oil out of southern and central Sudan.
Lesson one: Riek Machar is more of a geek than a soldier. Lesson two: Machar likes people to do things for him. Lesson three: Running a remote-access revolution requires a table full of Thurayas, internet access, and stacks of phone cards.
When I talk to Riek Machar's wife, Angelina Teny, the war doesn't seem so large and confusing. Even though she's a former minister of energy and mining, she takes pleasure in cooking and serving food to those in the camp. Her view of recent events is more personal than political.
Riek Machar can seem like an enlightened Westerner, with his casual English accent, Christian values, and genial dismissal of conspiracies, superstitions, and other things that are not backed up by logic and facts.
I still haven't gotten a clear answer on what, in Machar's view, lies at the core of his troubled relationship with President Kiir. And I'm determined to get there.
After spending days talking to Machar, we learn that the White Army is heading north to stage an assault on Malakal. So we need to get there‐first by boat to Nasir, then by vehicle to Malakal.
Few if any journalists have been with the White Army in combat. Any outside knowledge rests in a few academic papers that generally describe it as an amorphous mob capable of great violence and destruction.
The next day the ravaged city of Malakal seems quiet‐“quiet” meaning fewer looters, gunshots, and burning buildings. I am up before dawn, watching hundreds of civilians trying to board a single, battered bus.
Evidence of war crimes is all around us. Dinkas murdered in their hospital beds. Girls raped and thrown away like garbage. The elderly gunned down. The Rebels walk away without noticing the carnage.
Robert Young Pelton wrote the VICE Saving South Sudan Issue after he traveled to South Sudan with Tim Freccia, the photographer for the trip, and Machot Lat Thiep, a gangly 32-year-old Sudanese former Lost Boy who wants to help his nation.