The day had begun well for the forces of the South Sudanese government. Two battalions of fresh infantry had been sent up the Nile by barge to the forward base, some 12 miles south of the heavily contested town of Bor. They'd jogged there in formation, singing war chants, before eventually gathering in the center of the camp to listen to a rousing speech from the general in command.
When he'd finished speaking, they waved their Kalashnikovs in the air and made battle cries before jogging back to the barges waiting to send them upstream to war. "We'll have dinner in Bor," the general assured me and my photographer. "You will see, then we will send you back to Juba by helicopter to show the world what we have done." Mark, our driver, was less keen for the onslaught to begin. He'd spent the morning swigging from a liter bottle of gin, and when the signal came to move forward, it was with reluctance that he turned the key in the ignition. "I've only been a soldier two weeks, you know," he said as we trundled off to join the convoy. "In my real life, I'm a journalist. But when the war started they gave me a uniform and made me join the army. These rebels are killing all my people, we have to fight them. But it's not so bad. My uncle, there, two cars ahead of us, he is a general, the most popular general in the whole army. He is the only general who leads from the front." His uncle wasn't the general in command. Between us, a Land Cruiser packed with the general's retinue jostled its away along the pitted road, his personal plastic garden chair and washing tub clattering against its bumper.
You could smell the frontline before you saw it. The closer we drove to Bor, the more bodies lay along the sides of the road, bloated and stinking in the fierce sun. "These are the rebels we killed two days ago, when they attacked us at the base. But we beat them," Mark said with pride. "And there, look—a woman." Her legs lay splayed wide beneath the remnants of her brightly colored dress, her head and torso charred beyond recognition. The soldiers grimaced as they held their breath against the stench. "It is terrible, these things the rebels are doing," Mark murmured.
We were driving in the HQ convoy, a long line of air-conditioned SUVs for the generals interspersed with a motley assortment of Land Cruisers for their bodyguards, infantry, artillery, and supply troops, as well as a ramshackle militia force of Dinka tribesmen given uniforms and rifles and packed off to war. Ahead of us, the Commando Division had taken up positions surrounding the city, and the first wave of infantry had swept through the dense bush, clearing the way for the slow, vulnerable convoy behind. At least, that was the plan.
The first ambush was just a pinprick, a short burst of rifle fire cracking over our heads from the lush undergrowth to our right. Soldiers leapt from the beds of their pickup trucks, aiming their weapons into the dense treeline in a vain effort to find a target. After a few minutes of confusion, a colonel ordered them all back into the vehicles and on we went, passing burned-out tanks that had been abandoned by the government forces fleeing Bor a few days ago.
"They are not even real soldiers," shouted Mark across the roar of engines, "just Nuer youths with guns and uniforms they looted from us. I tell you man, it makes me so angry to think what they did to my town. They looted all of Bor and set all the shops and houses on fire. I tell you, they won't even fight us now, they just took everything they could carry from Bor and went back to the bush."
Bor has already changed hands three times since the war began just over two weeks ago. The capital of restive Jonglei state, the city lies between the Nile and the long unpaved road that goes 125 south to the capital Juba, making it a strategic prize for both the rebels and the government. The theory is that whoever possesses Bor when the elusive ceasefire is finally called will hold the upper hand in the peace negotiations to follow, and both sides are ready to fight for it. But while the government had the strategic advantage of air support and superior logistics, the predominantly Nuer rebels still controlled the bush.
More than 30,000 Dinka refugees had fled their villages to the relative safety of a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic just across the Nile, and the convoy slowly weaved its way through abandoned mud hut villages while flocks of scavenging birds and contented looking dogs watched. One village lay in flames, half an hour's drive south of the river village of Pariak, the last major settlement before Bor. A burning church emitted a thick plume of white smoke. Abandoned tatters of uniforms, shoes, and cooking pots filled with freshly cooked rice lay scattered all around the place. The eerie silence prompted a lull in our small talk, until the machine guns opened up.
Again, the rebels hit us from the bush on the right side of the road, but this time in greater strength. Long bursts of automatic fire punctuated by rifle shots stopped the convoy in its tracks. Mark froze, and we pushed him through the door into the ditch beside us, the only cover. The soldiers and policemen we were travelling with squeezed off long burts from their rifles, and the trucks carrying the support weapons careered up and down the track, firing point-blank into the bush with anti-aircraft guns and salvos of rockets, which resulted in dull thuds and jarring booms.
After a few minutes of confusion amid the roar, the bush fell silent. We joined the soldiers walking in the ditch to Pariak, our rest stop, trudging along with vehicles between us and the hostile forest. It was hot now, and the smell of sweat hung heavy in the air as the soldiers filed along with loose-limbed strides, ammunition belts draped around their necks, swinging their rifles jauntily by their sides. We lit cigarettes from each other, returning the thumbs-up signal to soldiers driving past us, shouted back to soldiers' cries of "Quays? Tamam?" that all was fine, everything was good, alhamdulillah. We could see Pariak a short walk ahead of us now and we quickened our strides to reach the shade of mango trees. The general's car revved up and overtook the slow-moving truck ahead of him, making for the village in a plume of dust. He'd nearly reached Pariak when the first burst of heavy machine gun fire hit him.
This time, the rebels attacked us from the front as well as the right flank. Machine gun teams and marksmen strafed the convoy, scything through the soft-skinned vehicles from positions in the bush and from behind the thin wall of rushes surrounding Pariak. The general was wounded in his hand, his car immobilized, his driver killed. When his men dragged him into another vehicle, that too was hit, and the general was killed along with two more men. Soldiers ran around a dusty, wide-spaced hamlet of huts in fear and confusion, trying to find a target, the untrained recruits firing wild bursts of automatic fire straight into the air, or into the backs of the soldiers ahead of us. One soldier sustained a neck wound when a bullet passed through his back and glanced upward off his shoulder blade. It was hard to tell if the bullets whistling overhead were from the enemy positions or from the green troops behind us.
An armored police vehicle roared toward Pariak and returned a few minutes later, three of its tires shot to pieces and its thick windscreen cracked by rifle fire. Its driver asked us, ludicrously, if we had any spare tyres for its gigantic wheels. We shrugged him away helplessly and crouched with the soldiers hiding behind mud huts for meager cover. A thick plume of black smoke rose from Pariak as rocket launchers pounded the enemy positions and AA guns shredded the treeline ahead. To the right flank, the thick crackle of rifle and machine gun fire reached a crescendo before dying away to the shrill whistle of an officer regrouping his men. The young platoon commander who cleared the rebel positions on the flank later told me six of the enemy had been killed, two by his own hand. "I got the guy who killed the general, and the guy beside him," he said. "I even took his machine gun. It's brand new. Motherfucker."
When Pariak was clear, we trudged forward into the village, past the smoking ruins of tin shacks into the shade of the mango trees beside the river. The soldiers loaded their dead and dying comrades onto the flatbed of our truck, their sticky blood coating our equipment. Wounded men lying in the shade gasped for water, while others roamed about cadging cigarettes, some dazed, others laughing in exhilaration. "Will we reach Bor tonight?" we asked the general in command.
"Tonight? I don't think so," he replied. "Maybe tomorrow afternoon now, it is already late. But our forces are ahead, and tomorrow we will hear the good news from Bor."
The barges had reached Pariak now, and the infantry jumped off, splashing onto the riverbank to clear the bush while the dead and wounded were loaded onto speedboats heading down the Nile to Juba. The generals conferred on plastic garden chairs beneath a tree while men milled around the empty village, catching and killing chickens for lunch or fishing in the river. A sort of order asserted itself as ammunition trucks drove up to Pariak, escorted by a tank clanking along the road. As the soldiers reloaded their magazines and chatted in the shade, or dozed, or argued, or gutted fish, we wandered to the riverbank where a dead rebel lay with his feet dangling in the still blue river. He was about 16 or so, in camouflage SPLA uniform, a single bullet hole drilled neatly though the tribal scarification on his temple, wet blood pooling under his head. "You see," said a junior officer, "they wear the same uniforms as us, how can we tell who is a rebel and who is one of us?" Beside us, naked soldiers washed themselves, splashing each other and whooping with glee in the Nile.
Pariak is divided by the road to Bor, and while the soldiers made themselves at home in the side of the village lining the river, the other half of the village lay undisturbed. "Shouldn't you be clearing the village over there?" we asked a soldier, who'd just returned home to fight after 13 years spent living in Iowa. "I gotta tell you man, that's a great idea. That's exactly what we gotta do, man, exactly that. Secure this whole place, just like that." He flopped back into his plastic chair to enjoy the shade. "That's exactly what we gotta do." But no one did, busy as they were with their domestic tasks: cooking, boiling tea, and loafing idly in the shade. And when the sun began to set, the rebels hit us from the uncleared half of the village.
Pariak was now the headquarters for the entire front, the brain of the assault on Bor. The rebels must have known all the generals were concentrated here, and all the ammunition trucks for the infantry slogging through the bush ahead. It was the division's weakest point, and its most important.
When the attack came, a roar of rifle and machine gun fire thicker and closer than any ambush yet, from only a hundred or so yards away, the entire gaggle of troops froze for a moment in utter dread that was swiftly overtaken by panic. The officers fled first, their SUVs roaring away down the road back to Juba, leaving their men directionless and terrified. This time, hardly anyone fired back. The whole force disintegrated as soldiers flung their rifles into the dust and ran away or chased after speeding vehicles to hurl themselves aboard, away from the fighting. With the crackle of gunfire all around us, we hurtled away in our Land Cruiser until a soldier stopped our driver by thrusting his rifle barrel into his throat, demanding a lift in a manner that was difficult to argue with. Other soldiers wrenched open our back door and shoved a soldier in, bleeding from his chest, his eyes wide with shock, then clambered in over him while begging us to save them. The rocket launchers fired thunderous salvos into the huts across the road behind us as we drove off, our new passengers shaking with fear, one vomiting out of the window.
The attack was beaten off after a while, but it was too late to salvage the convoy as a coherent unit. Trucks drove slowly up the road, asking the knots of stragglers on foot whether it was safer to head down the Juba road or go back to the village. Swarms of terrified soldiers surrounded every vehicle, begging for escape, Bor visible in the gloom as a dense wall of orange smoke—the city was succumbing to flame. We picked up a brigadier and two of his men, as well as the young platoon commander, whose men had all driven away from the battle in his vehicle. He shook his head at the uselessness of his troops, repeating, "This is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous," in plummy tones picked up at the Sandhurst military academy. A few hours later, we found the convoy at the rear base we'd left that morning, their vehicles parked in a circular formation in a dusty clearing. They all seemed calm when we arrived, asking us for cigarettes and water with beaming smiles, until something—nothing—spooked them and they all revved their engines and drove off, racing each other back to Juba in the darkness.
We drove most of the night, the convoy snaking for miles along the lonely bush road home, blinding headlights shining through the sea of dust as each vehicle tried to overtake the one ahead, an army crawling home bumper-to-bumper in defeat. We parked, eventually, in Mangalla, a garrison town barely 50 miles from Juba. Checkpoints were set up along the road to prevent deserters escaping even further back. At dawn, shamefaced, the convoy moved back along the long road to Bor. According to the army, the government's infantry have now reached the city center. We didn't join them this time around.