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saving south sudan doc

Dead Calm

This is chapter 21 of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus-word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. You can skip ahead and read the full text here or

The line of people leaving Malakal has no start or finish. It is a continuous stream of humanity fleeing the destroyed city. All photos by Tim Freccia.

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. They swarm it, handing off bags and bundles and climbing through every open door; a man on the roof catches a suitcase as others toss theirs up. Exasperated, the driver pulls 100 yards away, but more people squeeze inside.


A blue light illuminates the town. Someone is firing an antiaircraft gun at nothing in particular. Fifty yards away a building goes up in flames, and the sun struggles to pierce the pall of smoke.

At 6 AM a bugle is sounded by someone at a loss to play the simplest of brass instruments. Rebels stumble around in wrapped blankets. Some have already progressed to a nearby field, where they drop their pants and shit or brush their teeth, spitting on the ground. Everyone has that deep cough that’s a hallmark of dust, grease fires, and respiratory infection.

Like a drunk awaking from a bender, the town and its remaining inhabitants seem somber, confused, and embarrassed. No one seems to know whether the government troops have retreated for the time being or are out there planning a counterassault.

As the light increases, I see a mind-blowingly long throng of people making their way across an open field and out of town. I can’t pick out the front or the rear of the line. It is endless. It is cinematic. It is biblical.

Each person is carrying something. One man hauls a piece of lumber; another drags a bicycle. Most have sleeping mats and plastic chairs. It seems critical for everyone to take plastic chairs out of Malakal—in a land of trees and reeds, the $3 plastic chair is considered valuable.

The White Army is escorting the trapped families out of the UN compound. I start to count, but since the line has no end, I can only assume I am watching 5,000 people every hour. As they walk into the rising sun, the refugees shimmer like a hazy mirage. All are looking at a full day’s walk in the blistering heat to a river camp 12 miles away. The vast number of soldiers leaving makes this seem less a victory than a retreat.


Our genial General Gatkuoth is holding court inside our wattle-and-daub house. Outside, babies run circles around tired mothers. Soldiers come in and out of the compound looking for their friends or trying to find out what is happening. There are no radios or other means of communication. Even the general’s Thuraya is acting up. Today he wants us to tour the liberated town of Malakal, to prove that he has taken it for good (Gatkuoth will lose Malakal in a few days… and then take it back again).

The morning after, members of the White Army head south with their families and possessions in tow.

A jet flies over town at exactly 7:28 AM. Aircraft could be heard overhead the night before, and no one seemed too bothered by it. This morning the rebels are firing their guns and RPGs into the air once again, as they finally have a target, albeit one that’s well out of range. The hair-trigger sense of tension is gone and has been replaced by confusion.

An eloquent new friend of ours, a Nuer teacher named James, has learned that his house has been torched to the ground. His wife and children are already at the UN camp. He returned only to see what’s left of his belongings, which is not much. On the way into the city, we passed burned and abandoned Dinka villages in as bad a state as Malakal, if not worse. James knows what to expect next, none of it good. “The enemy has nothing to fight for,” he tells me. “We are defending ourselves and fighting for our homeland.”


Simon, a 26-year-old student, is another Malakal resident who suddenly needs to find a new place to live. “This is an old thing, the Dinka and the Nuer,” he says, while a soldier in the background reads dozens of names off a roll call as conscripts in mismatched uniforms stand in front of him. Simon points out that many members of the White Army are actually former or perhaps even current SPLA who have simply ditched their uniforms to participate in a little recreational looting.

Riek Machar has only three counties in the north left to conquer before he controls the oil. Although Malakal essentially gives him control of the Nile, Machar and his men have yet to reach the heart of the oil-producing areas in Paloch and Bentiu, the source of Salv Kiir’s money.

Our looted Toyota appears, and we jam in. The general, in the midst of lecturing some rebels, slides into the front seat. He wants to castigate the troops milling about and get them to move north. But the White Army is too busy checking out their plunder, firing weapons into the air, or bailing their families out of the camps.

As we take our tour with Gatkuoth, he stops to check in with the numerous clusters of White Army members gathered in small camps. Many encampments fly tribal flags outside their villages. The general tells the fighters to stop sitting around and continue pressing the front line northward. The men push back, demanding food, ammo, and water. Others want to know if we brought doctors; there is a lot of wounded and no medical care.


Women carry water from one of the few working boreholes. The Nile is polluted by corpses.

“Why are you still here?” Gatkuoth asks. “We need to chase [Kiir’s] troops far away so our children can be safe.”

Each group we visit has a nice cache of what appears to be looted goods. The spoils surrounding them include a variety of generators, motorbikes, and household supplies. The general’s Thuraya keeps ringing, but he’s having trouble picking up the calls. Bad signal. He gruffly hands the phone to his aide. The meet-and-greets become increasingly contentious, and finally the general just tells the driver to head into town.

The smoking ruins of Malakal prove that boredom and vengeance have replaced strategic purpose. Though the wounded elsewhere need a doctor, one group is setting a clinic on fire.

All around us is clear evidence of the extrajudicial killing of civilians and other heinous war crimes. Dinkas murdered in their beds at the hospital. Young girls raped and thrown away like garbage. The elderly gunned down. An old woman with her brains blown out. An older man with a bundle of corn lying facedown in the dirt. Rebels walk by without noticing the carnage, eager to pose for victory photos.

One traumatized old Shilluk woman sits catatonically amid the backdrop of smoke and fire. I give her something to drink and some money. She just sits and stares some more. The general is displeased, and his bodyguards shake their heads. I can’t save her.

One of our tour companions, a thoughtful man with a deep, melodious voice who says he is an information officer for the White Army, answers any question I have with a canned response: “At this time I do not have enough information to answer that question.” He says he studied theology in Canada up until two years ago. He lived in Calgary, Toronto, and many other towns across the country. He didn’t like Canada, so he returned home and worked with NGOs in Nasir. He is not proud of what he sees, or at least what we are seeing. “This is a real war,” he says. I ask him about troop counts and some other things. He apologizes and says, “We are having problems accessing information from their side. We are not that professional yet.”

Walking around, I begin to tally the dead civilians. I stop when I count seven within just a few minutes, realizing that it’s pointless. No one will ever admit to killing them. No one will count them. There will be no graves. The soldiers sheepishly insist they were “caught in the cross fire.” Most victims are crumpled, keeled over, the scant possessions they were trying to escape with lining the street, minus what has already been sacked. One man is facedown with his rear jutting into the air. Violence like this only begets more violence as people find out how their relatives were murdered. By the time the media flies in with the NGOs, the world will read stories about vultures and the smell of rotting flesh and jot down the eyewitness accounts. We are here in real time. Like a child caught in the act, the White Army has nothing to say, only lame excuses.

The dead soldiers we see are about a day old, in a more advanced state of decomposition—not bloated but stiff and blackened. They’ve been here perhaps a day or two longer than the civilian corpses. The locals have been turned over and awkwardly posed in rigor mortis, their underwear pulled down, revealing the large gash wounds from when they were still alive and begging for mercy—mutilations caused by spears and Russian-style bayonets. Some of the bodies are by the river, one with a spear broken off in his rear. Another is frozen in time, as if he is still begging his tormentors to stop. A soldier lies scorched beyond recognition. Others are still half-submerged in the river. Only the crocodiles know how many died there.

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