The White Army

This is chapter 20 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 <a href="http://www.vice.com/read/saving-south-sudan">read the full text here</a> or <a href...

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Jun 11 2014, 10:15am

Upon arriving in Malakal there is a sense of joy as rebels celebrate and hoard their loot in encampments. All photos by Tim Freccia.

After the boat ride we need to find a vehicle from Nasir to Malakal—a straight-line distance of less than 120 miles but another painful, all-day journey along winding bush tracks. Yet there are few vehicles here other than looted NGO cars, all of which have been press-ganged for the big assault on Malakal.

A local journalist named Ruot has heard that we were heading to Malakal, however, and he offers to drive us if we chip in for fuel. We set out at 6 AM, maneuvering along dirt roads through forests of thorn trees. As we approach Doma we decide to stop briefly, ducking into a church. The pastor greets us. He is kind and helpful, telling us that a garrison recently passed through on the way to Malakal. Things are happening; we’re getting closer. We give the pastor our best and return to the car.

Soon we hit what looks like a mirage: a road, abandoned long ago in the midst of construction, about 15 miles south of Malakal. Mounds of dirt from when it was being paved still remain, and trees have grown among them. As we drive into the city, a straggling long line of soldiers and civilians is headed in the opposite direction. The road widens as we approach the rebel base. We pass an abandoned tank, and soldiers drive by at insane speeds clinging to looted NGO Toyotas.

We pull into a commandeered road-construction site with neat rows of large backhoes and a group of men resting under a tree. We are looking for General Gathoth Gatkuoth, the former commander of the area, the former commissioner of Nasir, and the man Machar has tapped to retake Malakal.

This strategic Nile port is at the northern edge of the great swamp and anchors the oil region to the north. It is also where the rebels can receive support from Khartoum—if they can take it and hold it.

Gatkuoth and his command staff are thrilled to meet us. He has a big announcement to make, but first he has to make himself appear official and attach his epaulets.

After squaring away, he returns to deliver his news: “At 7 AM this morning, after a short battle, the resistance has taken control of Malakal. They attacked from the south and from the north, pushing the government forces north and across the river to flee.”

The general has no idea of the casualty count yet. He insists that there are no civilians in the city, because it has now been leveled three times over. He plans to continue pushing north and to take control of the oil. Gatkuoth lists Machar’s talking points against Kiir—calling for an end to corruption, tribalism, and so on—and credits the White Army with today’s victory. But where is the White Army?

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.

And then, as if summoned on cue, the White Army begins to arrive.

A battered white fleet of repurposed NGO station wagons rumbles into the construction compound, the dust blooming up behind them. Hyper and adrenaline-addled, the soldiers are making a wild return from battle, yelling and shouting, hanging out of, surfing on top of, and stuffed inside of the stream of vehicles. They’re dressed in no particular uniform but all wear red headbands, fashioned out of cloth, plastic, or string. They grip battered rusty weapons, have painted nails, wear flip-flops and dirty T-shirts. Streams of encrusted blood run down the windows and doors. It appears that inside there are wounded.

As they slam to a stop, dozens of soldiers pour out of the vehicles, many of them children. Parts of butchered animals get tossed out the back, along with backpacks, empty water jugs, and other gear.

It turns out that many are injured. Some have been shot in the face. Others have sustained wounds in their chests or limbs. They are lifted down painfully and handed to a man dressed in scrubs. Inside the hot building that functions as a clinic the men sit patiently. There are no medical supplies. The fighters ask us for painkillers. Tim Freccia hands a man a packet of morphine pills, and the man is surprised that the entire packet is his to keep.

Each group that rolls in has its own story. The first is elated, saying they killed more than 20 men. The next group is angry, because the men next to them refused to hold the line, avoiding the brunt of the battle. Some men on the clinic’s roof are hollering and waving their RPGs and AKs to pose for pictures. Smashed windows and bullet holes decorate their hot-wired trucks. Some other men insist they heard gunships and are positive the Ugandans will try to take Malakal back that night. As more and more groups roll in to dump their wounded, it’s clear the only thing they have in common is the high of taking Malakal.

Gatkuoth tells us that 35,000 members of the White Army are currently fighting 10,000 of the Sudanese Armed Forces. We estimate the real numbers to be in the low thousands, but tallying is obviously difficult. It seems prudent to divide everything by ten.

A dump truck approaches, packed with rebels suffering more grievous wounds than the previous groups. All of them have bloodshot eyes, are tired and covered in dirt. They’re coated not in the insect-repelling white ash that gave the White Army its name but in road dust from the high-speed, two-hour trip from the front lines. Blood soaks one man’s shirt as he stares at the sky in a daze. Another breathes with difficulty through clenched teeth. Gut-shot fighters endure the pain without yelling out. There is no screaming, crying, or complaining. The wounded fighters simply wait in silence for treatment.

When Ruot, the journalist, checks in to file his story, his employer advises him that it is too dangerous to be here. Ruot tells us that he must return to Nasir for the night. Frustrated but pragmatic, we resign to making the long drive back with him. The next morning we immediately find fighters heading to Malakal. We hitch a ride with them and return to the battlefield.

Looter or liberator? A White Army soldier in Malakal carries off the spoils of war.

This time, there are no people streaming out of the town carrying household items and personal possessions. We speed toward the dark plumes of smoke and barrel into the inferno.

Stolen Toyota trucks with wounded aboard blast by, kicking up dust, rebels hanging on for dear life. Rollovers adorn the road, their crushed front corners a sure sign of an off-road upending. Some have already been stripped of their tires.

Entering Malakal is surreal. The town is filled with disjointed scenes of chaos: buildings ablaze set to the soundtrack of constant gunfire, exploding RPGs, and incessant shouting. Rebels are everywhere, wandering with stacks of looted goods or burning down houses to flush out the enemy. During this time, some are happy to have their photos taken, while others fly into a fury at the sight of Tim’s lens. There is no organization, no structure—just fighters walking in random directions and the freshly killed lying where they fell, their goods scattered around their corpses. Nearly all of central Malakal has been scorched. We are told the SPLA troops stationed here ultimately retreated, running into the river to find boats or drown. The rebels killed many in the marshes along the Nile, but how many they don’t even care to guess.

As we cruise the town looking for whoever is in charge, we see that each house has been overtaken by a group of a dozen or more fighters. They point the way to the general. Women and children stick together in clusters, seeking a way to get out. The electric feel of warfare is in the air—but the SPLA soldiers have fled, leaving the White Army to take their revenge on civilians.

We push past a metal gate and find our grinning general in a mud house. Gatkuoth is discussing the situation with a council of officers. Among them is the field commander of the White Army, Odorah Choul, who has been shot in the left arm. He wears a green beret with a brass cobra insignia.

Gatkuoth is pleased to see us again. He warns that there are mercenaries lurking in Malakal, recruited from the Blue Nile and Darfur rebel groups.

I ask whether he or his men have encountered opposition from Ugandan troops while fighting here.

“No, but if we find a Ugandan soldier we will catch him and show you his ID.”

The general takes a harder line than he did yesterday. His demands include that Salva Kiir “step down from the presidency and pay $50,000 for every Nuer he has killed.” Uganda’s Museveni must also be held accountable, or else, the general warns, this war will continue until it envelops the entire country and then some. He tells me that his plan is to seize the oil-rich areas, clear them out, cancel all the contracts, and give the profits to the Nuer, because it is their oil. “All contracts will be canceled because they are corrupt!” he booms.

We tell the general that we want to look around town, but he warns us that there are still snipers hiding in the buildings above. He points to the main road a few yards away and says, “A man was shot just over there.”

Malakal aflame. While some people rape, burn, and kill, others look for water or dance.

If one wanted to find one place and time that evokes the true nature of war, it would be Malakal this evening. Tens of thousands of young men high on violence are celebrating, burning, looting, and posing for photographs.

Firsthand accounts from the fighters I talk to capture the surreal passion of revenge-fueled violence. After the SPLA soldiers fled to the river and were gunned down, the White Army went from house to house to murder, rape, and pillage. Soldiers are being burned alive. Some have been stabbed in the rectum with spears. Others have been impaled on top of one another. I notice one car that is not hot-wired: “I shot the driver,” a rebel tells me with pride.

Some are embarrassed by the bloodlust around them. James, a 27-year-old student who was studying biology before joining the White Army, sums up the chaos that his life has become: “Before this I was studying; now I am just shooting people.”

Beyond the calm discourses on strategy that Machar gave under the tree by the river, Malakal is payback for what happened 400 miles away in Juba. The White Army is the thing we hate about humanity—pure violence, greed—the thing the West insists will never happen again but is happening here and now.

Machot tries to give context to the chaos. He reminds us that many Nuer came here to retrieve their families from the local UN compound to which the violence between the Dinka and the Nuer had spread. That doesn’t explain the red-banded fighters who wander around firing their weapons into the air, laden with looted objects, with no clear idea whether they’ve come out ahead.

Groups of men menace the town in increasing numbers. Some gather to ignite straw buildings and then fire their weapons into them, even when no one seems to be shooting back. Machot explains that they have to burn the houses so that the people inside will “give up.” I point out that the only people here are Machar’s men, the White Army, and the dead. It’s obvious that he is very uncomfortable with what he’s seeing. His personal mission to save Sudan has been short-circuited by the events around him.

As dusk falls the scene is complete: a dark blue horizon with a glowing red line of burning homes, a sort of painting of hell. Hundreds of young men mill about, randomly firing their weapons into the air, still high and jubilant, but with no one left to kill and nothing left to loot. Thousands of Khartoum-supplied bullets stream overhead, and dozens of RPGs boom into the night and light up the sky. There is no shortage of ammunition here. PK machine guns and their green tracers arc into the air. The staccato burst of AK fire is omnipresent.

In the courtyard of the general’s house, soldiers lay out their bedrolls among scattered belts of empty ammo. We are invited to stay in Gatkuoth’s room, which is ostensibly safe but in reality may be the most dangerous lodging in the city if Ugandans decide to zero in on his Thuraya.

At 10 PM the adrenaline is flushed, the gunfire subsides, and the flames on the burning buildings flicker out.

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