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saving south sudan doc

The Park Ranger

This is chapter 15 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 <a href...

by Robert Young Pelton
Jun 4 2014, 10:40am

All photos by Tim Freccia

Here in his secret bush camp Riek Machar holds court atop his plastic chair while his wife Angelina Teny cooks. On our arrival I gave her a candelabra, some sugar, an array of Indian spices, and rice—true luxuries in the bush. The spices intrigued her. “I like to cook,” she said.

Later, Teny invites us to dinner and dishes out Nile perch and tilapia caught from the river below us. Fish on rice with a starter of fish soup. I give Machar a military folding knife of my design, but he is more intrigued by his new iPhone and Thuraya SatSleeve. Lesson one: Machar is more of a geek than a soldier.

Lesson two: Machar likes people to do things for him. This is evidenced by photographer Tim Freccia’s growing frustration with Machar’s inability to activate his new phone. Tim puts his camera down for a minute and picks up a satellite phone to call a customer-service hotline so a technician in Nairobi can make Machar’s new phone work. Which is how we get to lesson three: Running a remote-access revolution requires a table full of Thurayas, internet access, and stacks of phone cards.

The humorous scene before me is also a metaphor for the state of things in South Sudan: complex and untenable. Machar is working his Thurayas, keeping in touch with defecting commanders, and looking for a sugar daddy to support his latest civil war. There aren’t many deep-pocketed sympathizers left. These days wealthy visionaries who know the art of squeezing profits from calamity are few and far between. Tiny Rowland died in 1998. Qaddafi’s legacy amounted to a corpse that had been dragged through the streets by his former subjects, his head and rear end ventilated just to make extra sure people got the point. Nimeiry is long departed, even though his declaration of Sharia law still haunts Sudan and South Sudan. And Uganda’s strongman, Museveni, is backing Kiir. This leaves one real option for Machar: the 70-year-old president of Sudan, Omar al Bashir.

A firebrand once accused of embezzling $9 billion in state funds by the International Criminal Court, Bashir helped negotiate the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to get his hands on the south’s oil. Less than a decade later, Machar has kicked over the apple cart, promising to shut down the oil fields if his far-reaching demands aren’t met. Unsurprisingly, a significant number of phone calls that Machar walks away to make are in Arabic.

Machar spends the day sitting in his tidy uniform under a tree in this peaceful place, picnicking off river fish and living without money. In this setting Machar comes off like a benevolent park ranger than like an angry rebel leader in exile. The unmolested nature of the herons, pelicans, storks, ducks, and African fish eagles in the distance makes it seem as though the rebels’ mission is to protect the untouched beauty of the countryside, with Dr. Machar manning the information desk (his lawn chair) from which he explains his country’s history and culture to ignorant visitors.

While he is careful never to attack President Kiir on a personal level, Machar paints a picture of South Sudan’s leading man as a not-so-bright and frequently inebriated former soldier with PTSD who is packing the government with his minions while robbing the country blind.

Machar, on the other hand, portrays himself as the calm academic, a Mandela-like voice of reason amid all the insanity. He doesn’t even flinch when I press him on certain questions, many of which challenge his self-narrative of victimization.

So why is he looking to repeat the horrors of 1991, when his actions plunged the country into wanton ethnic violence and mass starvation? At this point Machar’s sound bites are well rehearsed. He lays most of the blame on Kiir’s corruption, stating that as president Kiir has provoked tribal violence and alienated the international community.

The most pressing problem is that South Sudan is quickly approaching total disaster. The UN estimates that 3.7 million people living there are at risk of starvation, and this time there are no English boy bands or Grammy winners singing songs about it.

Riek Machar and his wife, Angelina Teny, are the perfect Marxist-dressed, English-educated rebel-government-in-exile-in-the-bush power couple. Teny loves gourmet cooking, and Machar can educate visitors with his vast knowledge of the history of South Sudan. And of course, in between delicious, locally sourced dishes and PhD-level discussions, they are running a brutal war for survival.

Like a spurned spouse, Machar has a list of demands that must be met—or else. He’s repeatedly voiced these conditions via satellite phone in interviews with the BBC, Al Jazeera, Reuters, and so on. He consistently expresses shock and surprise at his situation, as if the long-standing and unresolved bad blood between him and Kiir is a new and inexplicable development. It’s also apparent that Machar is operating on the belief that Kiir actually cares what the former vice president says or thinks. Ever the intellectual, Machar elucidates the need for “democratic process”—somehow building a consensus among the public that will truly hold the corrupt accountable. He seems to have forgotten that power in this country is lost and won through force. And that he has been living in the bush for months now because a tank flattened his home and almost killed him in the process.

After we arrive and settle in, I talk with Machar about the circumstances in which he finds himself. In conversation he is erudite and humorous. Our first chat continues into the late afternoon.

An academic and architect who helped draft the framework for an independent South Sudan, Machar is a respected scholar of his country’s history. But he isn’t aware that I know this, so instead he gives me the South Sudan for Dummies version. According to Machar’s simplistic summation, the current fighting stems from the ancient stigma that the people of the south are simply destined to be slaves. The discovery of oil on their land served as the perfect excuse for the Sudanese government to indiscriminately clear the pastoralists from these areas.

This is all ancient history to Machar. Boring. Irrelevant. His recollection is selective, skipping over uncomfortable twists and turns he took to survive. He does not mention starving masses of children, or his failed attempt to overthrow Garang in 1991 by calling up the BBC and simply declaring that Riek Machar was now in charge. He can focus on only one thing: his next civil war, which will once again undermine the foundation of his battered nation and star Kiir as the bad guy and Machar as the valiant underdog fighting for the people.

“If there was peace in South Sudan I think the Juba mountains and the Blue Nile would be part of South Sudan,” he continues. “I think the north will grow tired of the fighting. They are naturally aligned with South Sudan.”

This scenario—in which peace is achieved only by incorporating these oil-rich, embattled regions into South Sudan—would increase cash flow for South Sudan while further marginalizing Sudan. But part of Machar’s charm is that he is pragmatic. He blames much of the current fighting on shattered expectations.

“You can see they have nothing,” he says, waving his hand across the horizon. “The people in the oil state are worse. There is a big bottomless pit in Juba.” He explains that while the fat cats in the capital were driving around in SUVs, hustling land grabs and oil deals, the majority of the country saw little change. Then again, Machar rode to many meetings in Juba inside an SUV, and a lot of them had to do with oil.

It was supposed to be different, Machar tells me, accusing Kiir and his government of making false promises that have stalled necessary development in the country.

“Three percent of the revenue was to go to the communities and 2 percent to the state,” he says. “The caretaker governor signed all the deals in Juba—deals that he gave to his own construction company. It is decided in Juba who works and who doesn’t. I have campaigned for a local contract. Most of the oil work is labor.

“These people can be trained,” he says, nodding to the people seated around him. “But everything in the oil sector has to go through the president.”

What about help from the outside? Third-party negotiations?

Machar tells me that humanitarian work always has a political agenda—whether it’s draining the people out of rebel-held territories or feeding one side while ignoring the other. “The relief people are very political. Most will sit back. But some will jump in.”

Throughout our discussions Machar retains an air of calm reconciliation. At first he is careful not to openly insult or level accusations at Kiir, as he has in previous satellite-phone interviews with media from his bush hideout. I wonder whether he perhaps hopes this skirting of direct opinion, coupled with his selective interpretation of history, will lead me to demonize the president for him.

“John Garang warned me about Salva Kiir,” he says. “He split off once, and it took days of constant negotiation to work out a deal.”

I ask him whether he thinks his insurgency will be successful. “I was trained by your ‘First Group,’” he says, referring to his combat training conducted long ago by US Special Forces. He even has a copy of The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, albeit an old edition.

The White Army is a collection of synchronized Nuer tribesmen motivated by their common goal of revenge and looting.

So has Machar come full circle? Has he reverted to rebellion?

“I am not a rebel. I view myself as the legitimate government. We are resisting Salva Kiir… We are not rebelling against anything. We want democracy.” He flashes a gap-toothed grin; he’s almost able to make starting yet another civil war sound like a good time.

I ask who is supporting this resistance. “Many,” he answers, so I get more specific: Who is officially providing financial, political, and military support?

He insists that he has no such supporters but hopes to find a solution to this dilemma soon. “There is no money. The oil companies have shut down or pulled their employees out. My people are volunteers.”

A thought crosses my mind that it was perhaps this low-key, passive-aggressive, chuckle-and-shuffle approach to answering questions that made Kiir finally snap.

Machar’s lighthearted, dismissive view still doesn’t explain the 500 or more murders of Nuer by Dinkas the day after the incident at the presidential garrison. He feigns innocence and surprise at the violence even though it was his increasingly belligerent stance against Kiir that triggered the split. Machar knew very well that Kiir’s rhetoric was mirroring the horrible days of 1991, when Machar simply declared himself leader of South Sudan and forced Garang to go after him, fleeing all the way to the border of Ethiopia, where in a panic Machar joined with Khartoum. History seemed poised to repeat itself.

“Most of the violence was against Nuers,” Machar says. “They went from house to house killing people. [Kiir] must answer for these crimes. He wants to be a dictator, but he is in a democracy.”

I ask whether he feels similar to Joseph Kony, once a governor of Jonglei under Khartoum but now living in the bush, demonized by the media, and classified as an enemy by a recognized government. Machar doesn’t see any correlation.

“I met Kony many, many times. He is a complex person bordering on paranoia. I forged a peace deal when he entered South Sudan in 2006, and Museveni should thank me for finally bringing peace to Uganda.” Machar doesn’t mention that he was fighting for the same Khartoum paymasters who had hired Kony to fight Uganda.

“Kony is like a cat. Sometimes he scares himself. I met him five kilometers from the border with Sudan. I said I would talk to Museveni. I brought two trucks of food. I set up the meeting through [the Lord’s Resistance Army’s second-in-command] Vincent Otti. [Kony ordered the shooting of] Otti during the discussions because he thought he was being bought.

“I told [Kony], ‘You must agree not to steal. Not to take children, or I will fight you.’ I gave him $25,000 to buy things so he wouldn’t steal. And maybe also to corrupt him a bit with Western things.” He laughs. “I met him many times. He agreed, but in the end he went back to the jungle. The Americans won’t find him in that area—it is very thick. It is a failure of technology with their drones.”

Machar conveniently fails to mention that it was his alliance with Kony that brought the Lord’s Resistance Army into South Sudan. Or that he was quoted in 2008 as saying that the $25,000 he gave Kony was supplied by Kiir.

Our conversation is interrupted constantly by the ringing of at least four Thurayas by his side, and those are sometimes interrupted by calls handed to Machar by his minions. He seems too comfortable in this role—a wild card that when dealt has mostly resulted in dramatic violence and hardship.

In the cool evening, it’s clear to me that Machar is happiest in this role. He is in charge, making deals, and looking north to the vulnerable oil fields sitting on Nuer land. He knows Sudan needs to break away from Kiir’s southward vision and find a new leader who will ensure that the oil is pumped into the north.

Come twilight, villagers and refugees are burning grass. Rebel scouts who have been out in the field all day trickle back to the camp. The billowing fire sends up gray smoke. Off in the distance, in the north, is the massive red-orange glow of the undeveloped horizon. Southern Sudan is on fire literally and figuratively. We sleep well.

Dusk in the rebel camp. The dull red glow of grass fires mixes with the sounds of cooking, laughing, and the chatter of shortwave radios.

Just before dawn the camp springs to life. Soldiers flap their blankets, brush their teeth, and fold up bedrolls. Small cook fires are lit, and men sweep the areas clean to have their breakfasts of sorghum and tea. Around 9 AM shortwave radios crackle in the distance as they are tuned in to the news from Juba. Juba has no problem making up news. Just like Machar, the government has no problem telling Western journalists fictionalized accounts of South Sudan’s past and future.

Machar is back in a plastic chair, sitting at a plastic table where he fields calls on his Thurayas. Teny serves us a breakfast of boiled pumpkin and sweet tea. She is used to caring for soldiers and seems content in this role. A modern woman educated in London, she appreciates our compliments on her cooking.

I continue my line of questioning from yesterday. Machar tells me that John Kerry and Susan Rice recently called him to urge a diplomatic solution with Kiir. These tentative peace talks have allowed Machar to stall. He needs guns, bullets, fuel, and manpower. And he needs a victory to show that he still has some sting. Just as in the old days, he’s planning to attack Malakal, the gateway to Juba, along the Nile. Even more critical to his mission, the oil sits on his ethnic homeland. Grab the oil, and Kiir’s government will wither and die. Yet Machar still talks about the oil as “the people’s.”

“We are trying to get over this dependence on aid. The oil generates $2 billion a year, and there are 13 million people here. At full production there will much more.”

A harsh, hot wind blows in, pushing the dust across the barren ground. Machar decides to decamp to a greener area by the river, and we take a break from our winding conversation. Wanting a local perspective on the subjects Machar and I have been exploring, I ask for 27-year-old Amos’s take on my back-and-forth with the former vice president.

One of the big moves Kiir made in the wake of the current round of scandals was firing Taban Deng Gai, the former governor of Unity state, Machar’s official spokesman (whom Machot had warned us not to go through), and Amos’s boss. This is the same Taban Deng Gai who, in a previous life, oversaw dubious SPLA interests at a camp where Machot had been placed as a young orphan. Teny was once bitter enemies with Deng Gai in the race for governorship of this oil-saturated area. Machot is related to him. Amos is his bodyguard. The vast reaches of Africa can be a very small place at times. Enemies become allies, and vice versa.

Amos, now light-years away from even attempting to complete his mission, describes Deng Gai’s life as governor of oil-rich Unity state, based in Juba. “Taban has four Escalades. One is armored. He also has four Suburbans. He has a blue Lamborghini that was gift from a rich Chinese American businessman who said he has companies in 97 countries.” Deng Gai doesn’t even drive the Lamborghini. There simply aren’t roads beyond Juba.

Amos thinks all of this is par for the course. “When you come from the outside, you give gifts. If you don’t give gifts, it’s up to you. Those that give gifts, get gifts. That’s the African way.”

Amos succinctly sums up what he believes to be the main problem with the politics of his country: “All of the money is owned by the Nuer. The Dinka don’t have any oil states. And so they kill us.” When I ask him what he means by “kill,” he answers, “They went to Juba University and dragged out Nuer with the marks on their foreheads. They dragged them to the road, lined them up, and shot them. They question you in the Dinka language, and if you can’t answer they shoot you.”

After chatting with Amos, I notice Machar taking a call away from the crowd. He is speaking Arabic and seems more animated and pleased than normal, his gestures somehow more optimistic. I continue to watch while his bodyguards shoot me dirty looks.

Considering all the shiny new weapons in the hands of Machar’s men, I begin to wonder whether Khartoum has gotten back into the divide-and-conquer business. Machot tells me that the Sudanese government is airdropping munitions to Machar’s rebels in Akobo, a claim that was relayed to him over his numerous satellite-phone exchanges with commanders outside Bor. Perhaps it’s why shortly after landing in South Sudan we saw men test-firing the weapons to make sure their barrels were still true after the impact of the drop. It might also be why small units strapped with brand-new and fully stocked ammunition belts were being trained in the distance across the river. They were proud to pose for Tim with their new guns, some of which had their serial numbers scratched off.

I ask Machar about the weapons, which become even more interesting as he idly speculates that Khartoum has no reason to arm the Nuer, because this would undermine Sudan’s participation in the current round of peace talks. But his vague dismissals of Sudan’s support do nothing to negate Machar’s former alliance with the government up north—an alliance that resulted in the bloodshed of people whose freedom he had once claimed as his cause.

Later on I take pictures of Machar in his lawn chair, catching a few winks. The man likes his naps. His bodyguard chucks a rock at me, and Machar is startled. His eyes open, and he waves off his bodyguard, falling back to sleep while a goat examines the ground under his chair.

Continuing our conversation, I try to get personal. We talk about sadness and the past. Machar tells me that the last time he and Teny cried was on July 30, 2005, when they traveled to Bor to commemorate the sixth anniversary of Garang’s death.

The journey to Bor turned into an emotional apology for the November 15, 1991, murders of 2,000 people in the region, most of them Dinka. There was also residual anger over the unrestrained ethnic violence triggering the famine that followed, which claimed an even greater number of Dinka pastoralists.

Garang’s widow, Rebecca Nyandeng, had organized the meeting. She had long been critical of Machar’s 1991 decision to split away from her husband to fight alongside the Khartoum government.

As Machar and Teny stood outside the house of the late Garang, the normally grinning vice president broke into tears. “I should take squarely the responsibility of the events of 1991,” he said. Teny also sobbed heavily as the crowd began to wail.

What Machar didn’t talk about that day or during my visit was his relationship with leaders of the White Army—men who rely on advice from gods rather than a Thuraya to make their decisions. This violent and unpredictable mob had recently reassembled at Machar’s behest, and they were preparing for battle.

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