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Fixing South Sudan

This is chapter 12 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

Photo by Tim Freccia

In 2011 Machot was invited to the capital of Juba, where he spent six months working on the constitution that would solidify the looming independence of South Sudan.

As a Nuer from Bentiu, he saw the opportunity to integrate his knowledge and experience into the constitution. Machot would help save South Sudan, he figured, by linking the establishment of a new country to the still-conflicted Nuer and Dinka diaspora.


Although Machot pays lip service to not having tribal affiliation, his affiliation is as plain as the scars on his face. During the writing of the constitution, there were always comments along the lines of “Well, our spokesman is a Dinka.” To which Kiir or one of his supporters would respond by pointing out that their top general had been a Nuer. But the reality was that war had long fractured Machot’s country—not only at the tribal level but deeper, at the clan level. Each “side” trusted only its brothers, its immediate family.

While we were in Nairobi, Machot had warned us not to request an interview through Machar’s official spokesman, Taban Deng Gai, “because he will block us.” The bad blood between Machot and Deng Gai ran deep, notwithstanding the fact that our new friend Amos had worked directly with him. It also became apparent through our lines of communication that Machar had no clue who Machot was and assumed he was a businessman, who was “welcome to come back and invest in this country.”

Instead of the warring factions of Machar and Garang, 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. He’s also keenly sensitive to the disparity between those in the UN camps and those outside them, all the while insisting that the international community be alerted to the direness of the situation so they could do something. None of it makes much sense, but hey, this is South Sudan.


“I feel in between,” Machot says. “I see my people dying with nothing to eat. I don’t want to go back, because that will be in my mind every day. I can’t believe this is happening. I was excited to come here, but people here look like they are dead… This is caused by Salva Kiir.”

The complexity and enormity of the problems at hand frustrate him. When asked to look for ways to solve what has happened, he shakes his head.

“It could be fixed but not soon,” he says. “It’s going to take a long time for people to trust each other. They can have peace, but the issue is not solved. From generation to generation it’s going to come up. They are going to give each generation the names of who was killed.”

This observation was spot-on. How many southern orphans had indignantly crawled trees to die of hunger or thirst? No one knows. How many Lost Boys were never found? No one knows. How many have died in South Sudan since the mid 1950s due to brutal rebel factions and the interest of foreign governments in search of oil? No one knows. How many died between 1983 and 2005 during the Second Sudanese Civil War? Some estimate 2 million. But that is just a guess. The truth is, no one knows, and only a few outside the region would even care to know: Journalists, government agencies, and NGOs who quantify atrocities, hunger, starvation, and the wrath of war carry out an inexact science, even at the best of times.

Amid the chaos of war, South Sudan’s tall black tribesmen and women simply endure the pain until they can no longer walk. Then they collapse in the dirt. All that’s left is their animal-picked bones and bits of rag fluttering in the wind.

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