Photo by Tim Freccia
The events that led to the recent instability of South Sudan culminated on December 14 and 15, 2013. At the December 14 meeting of the SPLM’s National Liberation Council (NLC), amid mounting tensions within the government, President Kiir lobbed thinly veiled accusations of treachery at Machar, who was sitting next to him.
“In light of the recent development in which some comrades have come out to challenge my executive decisions, I must warn you that this behavior is tantamount to indiscipline, which will take us back to the days of the 1991 split,” Kiir was reported as saying at the council meeting by the independent news site SouthSudanNation.com.
The following day, leading opposition members Machar, SPLM Secretary Pagan Amum, and the late John Garang’s wife, Rebecca Nyandeng, publicly boycotted the second day of the NLC meeting. Kiir immediately classified their actions as an attempted coup and called for the arrest of several cabinet members who had been removed from their positions the previous summer. He then ordered that all members of the Tiger Battalion presidential guard in Juba be disarmed, after which Nuer members were rearmed. A bloodbath of infighting would ensue, quickly spreading throughout historically troubled regions like Bor in the months and weeks to follow. Political alliances became tribal as Nuer commanders aligned themselves with Machar for self-preservation.
On December 19, Nuer commander Peter Gadet attacked Bor and seized control of SPLA bases there in apparent collusion with Machar, even though the two had feuded in the past. No one could deny it now: South Sudan was officially at war. Traditional peacekeeping mechanisms like the UN, African Union, and Intergovernmental Authority on Development did not have the resources—or gall—to take action.
Two days after Gadet’s attack on Bor, a massive evacuation of foreigners began when a US rapid-reaction force attempted to enter Bor, where they immediately found themselves taking fire from Gadet’s rebel troops. Expats, members of the UN, and NGOs were now under attack from those whom they had worked so hard to save.
In January 2014 organizations like the UN and the International Crisis Group estimated that, over the first ten days of fighting in Juba, Dinka combatants had massacred some 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Nuers. At first many considered the estimates to be exaggerations, but the sobering reality became apparent with the UN’s report that more than 500,000 had been displaced by the conflict and with UNICEF’s warning, on April 11, that the region was at serious risk of famine that could result in the deaths of up to 50,000 children.
By January 10 Mayom and Bentiu had been torched and looted by rebel forces. Malakal had been razed a second time, and an influx of mortars, gunships, and heavy fighting had flattened Bor. In late December Uganda dropped cluster bombs on the masses of rebel fighters outside Bor. The Ugandans insisted they were preventing ethnic cleansing, while the Nuers attacking the towns also insisted they were preventing ethnic cleansing. It was a new, even darker epoch for South Sudan. When everyone is committing genocide, things tend to get confusing. The country wasn’t just at war; it seemed hell-bent on annihilating itself.
The Juba government reclaimed Bor on January 18, with the help of the better-trained and better-equipped Uganda People’s Defense Force. Five days later, a ceasefire was signed that effectively locked down government troops inside the city, allowing the rebels outside to amass and hone their points of attack. The US-trained and -supported Ugandan soldiers were suddenly the bad guys after the UN confirmed their use of cluster bombs in February. At first they denied their presence inside South Sudan, but they finally owned up to it when they ran out of funds and were forced to ask the Ugandan government for additional support. Kiir promised to pay back the $48 million Uganda had spent to keep him in power.
The Nuers trapped in refugee camps and the thousands of rebels poised outside the towns had every reason to fear an oncoming slaughter of immense proportions.
In early February Machar announced that the seven SPLM party members detained by Kiir were not part of the “new rebellion” he was leading, further complicating matters. In the same month, to make sure Machar knew this was personal, Kiir commanded his forces to destroy Machar’s hometown of Leer, in Unity state. In a depressing moment of déjà vu, civilian oil workers were then attacked on Block 5A in Unity.
Short of a miracle, there was nothing that could save South Sudan now.
Things weren’t going so well for Machar and his Nuer sympathizers, either. By the time I arrived at Machar’s secret headquarters, the rebels—or “resistance,” as he prefers to say—had lost control of Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal, and they could not enter Juba for fear of triggering another massacre. Somewhere around 60,000 people, mostly Nuers, had been sheltered in UN compounds, straining the resources of the world’s largest intergovernmental organization. Machar’s only hope, or so he thought, was to seize the oil fields by force and try to bargain his way back.
In the peace talks set up by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, it was clear that Machar was being outmaneuvered by Kiir—not in the hotel rooms of the Addis Ababa Sheraton where the diplomacy was happening, but in the media. The government of South Sudan had successfully portrayed Machar as a desperate fugitive, on the run and hiding from retribution in the bush.
President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, center, giving a televised address on December 16, 2013. Kiir claimed the military had foiled a coup orchestrated by soldiers allied with Riek Machar. By December 19, South Sudan was at war. AP Photo/South Sudan TV
When I talk to Machar’s wife, Angelina Teny, the war doesn’t seem so large and confusing. Despite her education and political background, she takes pleasure in cooking and serving food to those in the camp. Even though she’s a former minister of energy and mining, her view of recent events is more personal than political.
She and Machar are dressed in matching green uniforms. The sight of the happy rebel couple chatting side by side creates a photogenic Mr.-and-Mrs.-Che-Guevara-in-the-bush look. But the truth is, she has only one dress with her; as she told me earlier, the oversize uniform is her only other outfit, the one she fled in. Teny’s polite English upbringing shines through, even in her descriptions of the events that forced the couple to seek refuge in the bush.
“I didn’t even take my purse,” she says and starts to tense up. “We drove, and there were people in front of us fighting at the roadblocks. One man was shot right in front of me.” She measures her distance from the shooting with her hands, her face pained and wincing.
“People called from the house, terrified because they were using a tank to break down the back wall. They killed our people in the house.” She pauses and begins to choke up. “Over 500 people were killed. Hunted down and murdered. Mostly Nuer.”
She is at a loss for words. The small generator sputters to a stop.
“We are out of petrol for the generator,” she says. “They will go to town and see. There is irony in the idea of a fuel shortage in an oil-rich country.”
Both “Dr. Riek”—as he is called by his people—and his wife are at once completely Western and completely African. But under their professional facades and their larger agenda is something ancient and mysterious.
Just outside the compound is an elder giving a passionate speech. He, like Machar’s fathers, is a spearman. A man who has more than simple political influence. A man who has the undivided attention of his peers. A man who has the power to forge steel with fire. A man who has spiritual influence over his brethren.
Dressed in traditional garb, the spearman has brought out a beautiful skinned bull. His fiery speech is translated from Nuer for me. He is chastising the gathered soldiers and tribesmen fleeing Juba, Bor, and other strongholds, running away from Kiir’s advancing troops.
“This retreat was a problem,” the spearman says. “From today on, no more retreating! It’s time for Kiir to get out. God is on our side. We praise God for getting Riek out and leading us to victory.” He waves the spear as he exhorts the crowd.
“This month is a good time for fighting. When was the last time we ran from the Dinka? You look like a bunch of little babies. You will be slaves if you give up your country.”
To make his point, he severs an artery of the tethered animal, and the bull slowly bleeds out in a torrent of bright red.
The elder invokes the White Army, the force that rises out of the ether whenever the Nuer are threatened by other tribes. A force that exists only to do violence. A force that is linked to God via prophets, who live fewer than two hours away by a giant mound that was once considered the holy center of Nuer culture.
What I discover from Machot is that Machar has been sitting in intense meetings with the latest prophet, a man who has visions and instructs Machar and his generals on the correct movements and timing for attacks. Machar’s military strength is puny compared with the power of the hordes of armed Nuer minutemen who will pick up weapons and burn down villages at a moment’s notice. Their impetus for and methods of killing do not come from a Special Forces counterinsurgency manual but rather from the predictions of seers and ancient war songs.
According to embassy cables published by WikiLeaks three years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, Machar secretly met with the government of Khartoum to discuss what might happen if Salva Kiir were “assassinated.” The classified cable describes a meeting in which Machar and Sudan’s second vice president, Ali Osman Taha, agreed that Machar would assume the presidency of South Sudan if Kiir somehow met a violent end. Machar also tentatively secured funding for militias in Equatoria, Upper Nile, and Unity.
Peace had blocked Machar from taking control of the oil and emboldened his desire to loot his country. If democracy and reason would not work, then Machar would try war.