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saving south sudan doc

Life Under the Trees

This is chapter ten 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

Riek Machar chats on a satellite phone near Akobo, South Sudan. All photos by Tim Freccia.

We’ve made it to Akobo, headquarters of the new Nuer rebellion. Akobo is on the eastern edge of South Sudan, directly across the river from Ethiopia, and is part of the area that Riek Machar once controlled in a triangle that extended to Bor, up to Bentiu, and over to Malakal, on the Nile. Since leaving Waat in our stolen vehicle, we have pissed off our hosts, bickered with one another over 150 bumpy miles, hunted food, traded jokes, and destroyed Tim’s laptop. We’ve been in Akobo for scarcely a day, and our hosts are eager for us to meet Machar, the leader of the insurgency. Machar is no stranger to media dog-and-pony shows.


We jump into the bed of yet another battered, blood-soaked Toyota pickup and drive the short distance to the airstrip. Ahead, under the shade of a tree, is a large assembly silhouetted against the harsh light.

Machar and his wife, Angelina Teny, are sitting side by side, anchoring the gathering. They are wearing matching pressed green army uniforms: classic African bush-war garb in a classic African bush-war setting. Machar has been married to Teny for 33 years.

Machar holds a notebook in one hand and in the other an ornate wooden rod that could easily be mistaken for a fancy walking stick. Its round ivory tip is decorated with small black bull’s-eyes. This is the famous dang, a magic wand of sorts that was purportedly wielded by the Nuer prophet Ngundeng Bong at the turn of the 19th century. Bong is revered in the region, both for his fierce resistance to Anglo-Egyptian forces and for his cautionary soothsaying.

Many here believe Bong predicted the violent split of Sudan, which he said would then be followed by the ascension of a bearded man (President Kiir, some say) who would be ousted by an unscarred, left-handed Nuer (this fits the description of Machar). Legend has it that Bong’s power was closely associated with the dang. He would invoke its divinity by raising it to the sky, repelling his enemies (mostly colonial British troops and their proxies) or simply causing them to drop dead.


Once the British finally got their hands on Bong, they confiscated his spiritual stick for fear that it was what had made him such a formidable opponent. It was shipped to the UK and wouldn’t be returned to Sudan—into the hands of Machar—for more than 80 years.

To Machar’s right are the paramount chiefs with their sashes; to his left are soldiers and bodyguards squatting with brand-new PK machine guns and braids of sparkling brass rounds. He interrupts himself to take a phone call. An aide pivots Machar’s chair, positioning him away from the prying eyes of the audience.

We are shushed, and then Machar waves his bodyguards away. There are too many people around. One aide is visibly agitated by Tim snapping photos and rolling video. This is a private call. It should not be documented. Machar waves the aide away and says, “Let them take pictures.”

While Machar talks on the phone, I sit with his wife and make small talk. Most of it concerns civil war. The threat of war is constant here. “We fled in our pajamas,” she says, explaining their uniforms. “So we wear this.”

Despite her severe haircut and oversize male uniform, Teny is soft-spoken and motherly. Her roots are more urban London than the bush, and spending the past three decades with Machar has sharpened her inherently diplomatic demeanor. She is still deeply upset by the murder of her household staff and friends by Kiir’s militia on December 15, 2013.


“Something fishy there,” she continues, speaking to Kiir’s almost instant and brutal response to the mounting dissent among his leadership. Teny believes that forces loyal to Machar would have defeated Kiir’s conscripts if it weren’t for the thousands of Ugandan troops, planes, and tanks that pushed the Nuer rebels out of the towns of Bor, Malakal, and Bentiu. She thinks it should have been impossible for them to launch such an operation in the three days it took for the front lines to literally reach her and her husband’s front yard. It all seemed very premeditated to her. “The government is using the people to kill. People were stopped and killed because they couldn’t speak Dinka… The people who shot them couldn’t speak Nuer.”

A group of defected SPLA soldiers who are loyal to Machar

Machar sums up their current position more succinctly: “It is a predicament.”

His first name, Riek, means “trouble,” and Machar is anything but the traditional fierce, tribal-scarred Nuer warrior. He once even attempted to ban the traditional scarring but was rebuffed by locals who cited his foreign education, deft political maneuvering, and shifting alliances as having little linkage to traditional tribal structure. His slow, thoughtful delivery forces listeners—especially Westerners and journalists—to lean in while he’s speaking. His gap-toothed smile is infectious, not quite the stereotypical appearance of a hardened guerrilla and lifelong rebel.


Machar’s persona is very different from the dark scowl affected by the Nuer and by Dinka leaders like Kiir. These days, the former vice president of South Sudan can usually be found sitting—or, more specifically, slouching—while talking softly over one of his many satellite phones, playing with his ivory dang, or sprawled out somewhere napping. In person he is happy to make chitchat or launch into a lengthy explanation on a subject as the mood strikes him. That is the public-facing Machar. The politician.

But his affability does not distract me from the fact that Machar is hiding here in the bush because he has effectively declared war on his old boss and government. And there will likely be deadly repercussions for those involved.

Machar has found his success by mastering three roles: the Western politician, the tribal leader, and the mystic warrior. He is a master of the Nuer tradition of tribal meetings in which each participant is allowed to offer his view and talk as long as he wants. Many Nuer elders also follow a line of mystical reasoning, believing that important matters of state and war are prophesied and can be solved by spiritual cleansing. Machar constantly walks a contradictory line that blurs educated Western pragmatism and the spiritual traditions of the many illiterate tribesmen who fight under him.

Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon was born as child number 26 to a prominent Nuer family on July 27, 1952, in Leer, Jonglei. According to Machar, his grandfather Dhurgon was a mystic—a healer who channeled spirits. Machar’s father was a subchief who sired three dozen children by five wives. Machar tells me that his mother, Nya-gu-Nyang, made sure that he was baptized and that he learned to read and write at an early age. She also insisted that he abstain from the gaar, the traditional facial scarification that so many Nuer youth look forward to. (A Nuer child will sit silently while an elder with a razor carefully makes six deep horizontal cuts through the flesh of his skull. The scars take months to heal and turn from bright pink to black over a period of years, forever marking the recipient as a member of the tribe.) Machar’s mother was related to the head of the Anyanya rebellion, and brewed beer as a supplementary source of income, which earned her enough money to send Machar’s brother to study in Ethiopia under the rebel leaders. She sent Machar to the Atar Intermediate School just outside Leer. Among his teachers there was the father of his future wife, Angelina Teny. He graduated to Rumbek Secondary, studying alongside classmates who would go on to become influential in achieving South Sudan’s independence.


At 16, Machar was sent to Omdurman in the north for further education. In 1972, after the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement that ended the First Sudanese Civil War, Machar was part of an elite group of 100 southerners who were admitted to the University of Khartoum. He enjoyed studying mechanical engineering and leading left-wing political groups for southerners, with names like the African Nationalist Front.

Future SPLM/A leader John Garang soon caught wind of the eloquent young Machar. A Dinka and an ardent Marxist, Garang came from a hardscrabble past. He was also noted for being bright and was selected to attend the same high school in Tanzania where Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni were educated as future African leaders.

Garang had joined the Sudanese military and begun to show promise. He won a scholarship to Grinnell College, in Iowa, and returned to join the Anyanya rebel group. In 1970 he was sent to Israel for military training. After the peace treaty in 1972, he was selected in 1974 to attend the School of the Americas at Georgia’s Fort Benning, a controversial program colloquially known as “the School of Assassins” due to its intense counterinsurgency training. He then rose up the ranks of the Sudanese army until May 16, 1983, when his commanders sent him to put down a garrison mutiny near his hometown of Bor. Instead of doing Khartoum’s bidding, Garang joined the rebels, launching the SPLA and the Second Sudanese Civil War.

After college, Machar’s life was also successful. While his country was falling apart, he was attending graduate school in Northern England. He managed to attract one of the smarter, more attractive, and well-connected women from his home area: Angelina Teny. Her father insisted that his 18-year-old daughter be married in a church, and he also demanded that Machar pay the traditional 50-cow bride price. And there was another stipulation: Angelina’s father wanted Machar to take only one wife. They were married in 1981, cementing their reputation as a political, ideological, and Western-educated power couple. By 1984 Machar had a brand-new PhD in strategic business planning from the UK’s University of Bradford. Faced with the decision to get a job or participate in the new revolution, Machar chose to join the SPLA and run their office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Riek Machar had decided to save South Sudan.

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