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