The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
In Unity state, the frontline of the ongoing war between the South Sudanese government and members of the opposition is hard to pin down. As is often the case in African wars, troops do not build defenses but, instead, move back and forth looking for spoils. But the stretch of dirt road leading to the village of Guit, 15 miles from the state capital of Bentiu, bordering Sudan, looks like the closest thing to a frontline. As we approached the village, we saw a burned armored vehicle, which was destroyed in May when opposition forces captured it during an attack by government forces. Unable to use the truck themselves, the rebels set it on fire to keep government soldiers from taking it back. As we inspected the wreck, some 30 uniformed figures emerged from the grassland off of the road and made their way toward us, rifles strapped to their backs. We were not sure which side of the war they were fighting on.
In June 2014, I traveled to Unity state’s frontline with two opposition soldiers and two researchers to try to understand why and how the region was once again at war. We had watched the conflict in Sudan leading up to the country’s partition in 2011, and then we watched the current one that erupted in the new nation, South Sudan, just ten days before Christmas in 2013. The fighting first erupted between members of the Presidential Guard. Dinka soldiers, loyal to President Salva Kiir, also a Dinka, attempted to disarm their Nuer colleagues, accusing them of staging a coup on behalf of former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer whom Kiir had dismissed several months earlier.
Since then, cease-fires and peace deals have been brokered but then immediately broken on the ground, since South Sudanese leaders seem increasingly disconnected from troops that often choose to keep fighting. The most recent agreement, signed on February 2 in Ethiopia, looks just as fragile. The warring leaders agreed to share power again—Kiir would stay as president and Machar would be reinstalled as vice president—even though deep differences still remain between them, as well as with members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the regional organization that oversaw the cease-fire agreement. Only a week earlier in Tanzania, they had consented to reunifying their ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. But Khartoum, which fought the SPLM during the war for South Sudanese independence, now presents itself as a peaceful mediator between the two groups, even though it has been accused of supporting the opposition to counter Uganda’s support of Juba.
It was hard to identify the soldiers that were barreling toward us. In South Sudan’s latest war, combatants on both sides were once comrades in the government army. They still wear the same uniforms even though they are now split, largely along ethnic lines. Our two South Sudanese comrades hid in the car and suggested that we walk up to the uniformed men to identify ourselves as white civilians.
As we got close, the men ordered us to line up. "Who are you?" they shouted. "Are you coming from Bentiu?" We hesitated. Bentiu is in government-controlled territory—it had been recaptured in May 2014 after the rebels had taken hold of it for two weeks—and we were coming from the rebel-held town of Leer, 93 miles south of Bentiu. In the end, we told the truth, and to our relief, the soldiers relaxed. They were with the opposition.
The group of men guided us on a bush path to the nearby camp, a circle of huts with shell-shaped straw roofs. It was half village and half insurgent camp, where fighters coexisted with civilians and cattle. Everyone belonged to the Nuer community—from the shepherds (mostly children) to the leader, General Carlo Kuol, second in command of the opposition.
Previously, Kuol had fought in South Sudan’s war for independence. Rather than fight for the south, however, he and others formed informal militias that were supported by Khartoum and battled fellow southerners, Dinka and Nuer alike, in order to clear the oil fields of rival factions and civilians.
But Kuol believes that this war is different. “It became tribal right from the start,” he said. He may be correct: Machar denies planning a coup and says that Kiir was moving to consolidate his power by engaging in targeted killings of Nuer residents of the capital city. “Only the Nuer tribe was killed,” Kuol said. “I was with the government and told them that they were doing wrong. They were not happy with me, and so I had to join the antigovernment forces. I had to stand by my tribe.” Since then, the Nuer have also engaged in revenge attacks against Dinka civilians.
After a night in Kuol’s camp, I filled my bottle at the nearby pump. Hundreds of cows passed by, ushered by kids carrying guns, a familiar sight in both of the Sudans’ wars. The herdsmen, known as “the white army,” are now armed once again to fight the Dinka.
The rumbling of detonations from a few miles away broke the calm of the morning. Dozens of insurgents from the camp rose quietly but quickly, rushing toward the shelling. Some carried their flip-flops in their hands so as not to lose them in the mud. "The government shells the other side of the river with mortars," said a soldier who stopped at the pump to drink some water with his hands.
Kuol argued that the government had broken the cease-fire and believed that gave him the right to retaliate. Indeed, in Unity state—and in the neighboring Upper Nile and Jonglei—the cease-fire was constantly violated by both sides in spite of the international community’s repeated condemnations. In May and July 2014, the United States and the EU put Peter Gadet, an opposition general (Kuol is his deputy), under sanctions. But that has had little effect, since the travel ban and asset freezes don’t affect field commanders such as Gadet and Kuol—they don’t fly to Europe or hold bank accounts in the United States.
As the shelling continued, the sky grew increasingly leaden, and we decided to leave the village before the rain began to come down. Our car, likely stolen by the rebels from a nongovernmental organization, had no ignition key and, even under normal circumstances, required jumper cables and some pushing to start. With the ground muddy from recent rains, the car soon became bogged down, and it took 15 fighters and several hours of pushing to dislodge it. As we drove off, the men broke out into a Nuer war song, but John, our interpreter, was reluctant to translate for us, since he found the words offensive. Indeed, it mentioned President Kiir having sex with one of his generals and ended with: “Between us and the Dinka, no reconciliation, no apologies!”
John doesn’t think reconciliation is impossible. He wants to become a teacher, he told us, so he can “teach the new generation to reject tribalist behaviors and simply be South Sudanese.”
The road south seemed the only stretch of dry land in the vast, bright green marshes that make up the Sudd, Africa’s largest swamp during the rainy season. Nothing rose above the plain except for neat lines of electricity poles and flares from the Thar Jath oil field. We did not see a single person except for three children, armed with slings, roaming the abandoned base of the Malaysian-led Sudd Petroleum Operating Company, already looted by all sides.
At its peak, Unity state produced 100,000 barrels of oil a day, 29 percent of the total in South Sudan. After the war erupted, the plants in Unity ground to a halt as Dinka and Nuer oil workers began killing one another. While production continues in the Upper Nile, bringing in $1.7 billion in revenues for Juba, the government uses the money largely to fund the war. Judging from the mud houses in the villages near Thar Jath, the people there have not yet benefited from the oil under their feet.
Oil has always been a key motivation for fighting and led to the very birth of Unity state. In the 1980s, Khartoum was keen to exploit its newly discovered oil reserves, and with financial backing from companies wanting to do the same, the central government armed proxies—anti-SPLM Nuer militias and Arab horsemen known as the murahaleen—who killed and displaced local communities. In the meantime, Khartoum attempted to create a state (in hindsight poorly named) that would encompass the oil fields in the north and the south. Southerners objected to the idea of the new state, but the name stuck. Now, Unity—with Nuer occupying the south and Dinka in the north—has become one of the main theaters of war, divided largely between Nuer areas, which are run by the opposition, and Dinka counties, which the government holds. With both sides aiming to control their tribal areas as well as strategic oil fields, there seems to be no end to fighting that, in Unity alone, has killed thousands and displaced 400,000—two-thirds of the state’s population. A total of 1.5 million have been displaced throughout South Sudan.
From the oil fields, we drove on to Leer, largely destroyed by pro-government forces in February 2014. As government forces approached, many villagers in Leer had fled toward the Nile. “Some [of our neighbors] were laughing at us as we prepared to run,” said Ruth, an 18-year-old girl originally from Leer. “But we were cowards for a good reason. Those who stayed were all killed.”
Ruth, and those who had escaped the massacre, spent three months hiding under the trees along the Nile. When government troops eventually attacked their refuge, Ruth and the other villagers hid in the river with water up to their shoulders, at risk of attack by crocodiles and hippopotamuses. For days, they ate fish and water lilies to sustain themselves. Some walked back to Leer to search for food (the villagers had buried grain distributed by the World Food Programme before they fled). It was extremely risky—men were likely to be killed and women raped—and all for naught. “We found all the earth within our burnt house had been dug up,” Ruth told me. “There was no more food.”
When asked why Nuer civilians had been targeted, Ruth explained, “The rebels came to eat our food and be protected by us. We didn’t like it. But because of this, government forces thought all of us civilians were rebels.” The local chief of Leer, Gideon Bading, provided a second reason. Machar “was born here,” he said. “We thought the conflict was about political differences and would be limited to Kiir and Machar. We were surprised when government forces reached Leer and burnt our houses. We and all the civilians ran to the bush. It was a miserable life. Government forces were searching to kill us. As a chief, I should be first to die." Bading supports Machar, in part, because he believes in an old prophecy by the nineteenth-century prophet Ngundeng, who predicted that a left-handed man from west of the Nile, called Riek, would one day rule the country. Others do not believe this prophecy and accuse him of exploiting the Nuer’s traditional religious beliefs.
Government troops left Leer in April, but most villagers still slept in the bush, coming to town only to fetch food dropped by Red Cross planes. A few camped in their roofless houses or were trying to rebuild them. Though some attempted to farm around the ruins, food remained scarce. During the previous rain season, over 300 malnourished children were admitted to the town hospital each week, compared with 40 before the crisis.
In April, Ruth and her family managed to escape the area for Bentiu, the closest place with a United Nations base where they could seek protection. Two days later, though, rebels descended on that city.
Before the war, Bentiu looked like a slum, not an oil-rich state capital. Today, it is no more than a ghost town. Even destroyed, pillaged, and emptied, Bentiu is still Unity’s capital and thus a target that is frequently attacked by opposition forces. Some 46,000 people have taken refuge in the United Nations base in Bentiu’s outskirts since the start of the war. Set up at independence, the UN Mission in South Sudan saw its primary task as supporting the new government, which included containing possible threats from Khartoum. It was largely unprepared for the new civil war. The blue helmets rarely leave the compound. The civilians venture out only by day. On the road into the capital, there was a steady flow of men, women, and children lugging beds, office chairs, garden tables, fans, and televisions. For security, Bentiu’s inhabitants have tried to rebuild their houses behind the UN compound.
In downtown Bentiu, heaps of gray, loose earth barely concealed the bones underneath. The city smelled like rotting corpses. The hospital and the mosque, whose floors were covered in blood-splattered clothes and used cartridges, were inhabited now only by bats, cats, and howling dogs. It was the site of a gruesome April 15 attack on Darfurian refugees.
The day before, “we heard the rebels were about to attack,” Bashir, a Darfurian trader, told me. Along with other Darfurians and South Sudanese of all ethnicities, he headed for the UN base, only to be turned back by government forces. The soldiers told them not to panic and that they were in control of the city, so most of the Darfurians went to sleep in the mosque. At dawn, the Nuer rebels entered town, surrounded the building, and stole money and phones. A second group of rebels followed shortly after, shouting, "You’re not civilians, you’re Darfurian rebels, you killed our people!" They positioned themselves around the mosque and opened fire. "Who died and who didn’t was a matter of chance," Bashir said.
The Nuer attacked the mosque, believing that they were taking revenge against Darfurian rebels who had fought alongside South Sudanese government forces in Bentiu and Leer, among other places, and, according to witnesses, were involved in the killing of Nuer civilians. For years, during and after the previous war for independence, the SPLM supported Sudanese rebels at war with Khartoum. When the current war began, Sudanese rebels fought alongside the South Sudanese government in the hope of keeping their bases of support in Unity and various other South Sudanese cities, while the South Sudanese opposition looked for support in Khartoum and targeted Darfurian civilians. In spite of South Sudan’s separation from Sudan, conflicts in the two countries remain interwoven and threaten to escalate as the war progresses.
After the attack in Bentiu, nine survivors, including Bashir, were asked to load dead bodies onto trucks. They spent all night working. The UN estimates that 287 civilians were killed during the attack, and Bashir said he had counted at least 200. On the afternoon of April 16, UN vehicles finally arrived to bring survivors to their base. Even there, some Nuer civilians beat the Darfurians.
Before I left Ruth at the crowded, razor-fenced UN base, she had told me, “I keep praying: God, may these guys sign peace. I’m tired. This war won’t end. I wish I could become a citizen of another country. I hate South Sudan.”
Three years ago, I had seen a rare moment of cease-fire: the Nuer, Dinka, and others had danced and sung together to celebrate the birth of South Sudan, waving the new flag in their hands. Now the world’s youngest nation is once again at war. While some civilians told me that they wanted peace and democracy, they also said that if they got it, they would “raid our enemies, take their cattle,” and essentially continue the ways of war. All those I spoke with seemed to have a reason for seeking revenge, no matter how often their leaders put their names on a peace deal in a five-star hotel of a foreign capital. As much as the frontline of the war is elusive, the divisions among the South Sudanese are even more so: civilians have taken up arms, armed young men openly brave veteran commanders, Nuer fight other Nuer, forces that had fought Juba for years have now become the government’s fiercest allies, and the staunchest advocates of southern secession are again looking to Khartoum for help. Indeed, unity is the last thing you will find in Unity state.