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The ongoing conflict in South Sudan is often seen as a power struggle between the “big men,” as the South Sudanese call their political and military leaders, namely President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar. But intertwined in the politics at the top are the local “cattle-camp politics,” the intertribal tensions that existed long before the start of the civil war.
On the surface, the fighting in South Sudan began at the end of 2013 when Kiir’s camp accused his then vice president, Machar, of plotting a coup. The truth behind this allegation is unclear, although Machar never hid his presidential ambitions. Indeed, tensions within the new government were there from the day South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. The internal struggles were not obvious, though, so most outsiders did not predict that the new country would so quickly degenerate into interethnic violence between Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group and Machar’s Nuer.
The Dinka community is the largest ethnic group in South Sudan, and it dominated the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its armed wing (SPLA) since the 1983 rebellion against the government in Khartoum, which turned into a war that lasted over two decades and ended in the division of Sudan into Sudan and South Sudan. Machar, Kiir’s main rival, is a Nuer, which is the second-largest tribe in the country. Since the 1980s, Machar’s struggle, like those of many Nuer, was as much against the SPLA as it was against the Sudanese government.
The two groups’ leaders, fighters, and communities were never fully unified after they signed a peace agreement in 2005. In the wake of the turmoil in 2013, some of the government Dinka forces conducted targeted killings of Nuer residents in South Sudan’s capital city of Juba, and the cycle of enmity resumed, with Nuer members of the army taking up arms against the government and winning control of large swaths of the country inhabited by Nuer—in the states of Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei. Deaths on both sides now stand in the tens of thousands, and there are said to be two million displaced.
But alongside the power struggle are the tribal conflicts that play out over land and cattle.
In South Sudan, the short dry season, which begins in November, has always been for fighting and cattle raiding. For as long as people can remember, Dinka and Nuer have been raiding each other’s villages across the grazing areas that now constitute the borderlands between Unity and Warrap states—the latter is inhabited by Dinka and is the home of Kiir.
In 2014, South Sudanese thought that they had been granted a reprieve from the dry-season fighting. In the Doroal cattle camp, close to the city of Leer in the Nuer-controlled area of southern Unity state, citizens remember well the day on which they thought that both Kiir and Machar had died. It was November 4, 2014, and Kiir had traveled to Khartoum to try to rally support for his new war, or at the very least to persuade Sudan not to support Machar. While boarding his plane back to South Sudan, Kiir slipped and fell. Immediately, rumors spread that the president had died. Some claimed that Kiir was the victim of a curse cast by a hostile South Sudanese prophet. That night, young cattle guards in Doroal, all armed, began celebrating in their usual way: firing into the air. One of the bullets accidentally struck a young soldier who was sleeping in his hut. The young man, who was named Riek Machar, died. But by the morning, the cattle guards learned that Kiir was still alive and that the war had not ended. When I visited on May 1, 2015, a cow was slaughtered for the late, young Riek Machar, whose father was still grieving. It was clear that what mattered to the village was their loss, not the remote bargaining of Kiir and Machar senior.
A week later on May 8, armed Dinkas attempted to raid a herd of Nuer cattle grazing at the border near Kweriak. The cattle guards reacted quickly, and neighbors soon came to the rescue, repelling the attackers, who left six dead behind. The guards told me that the dead wore military uniforms, and they showed me the PKM machine-gun bullet belts that the raiders had abandoned. The cattle guards had also captured a machine gun, which they then gave to the local police, and what they claim was a cursed fishing spear that a local witch was now attempting to neutralize. “They had three machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher,” a guard lamented. “Those weapons are not normally used by civilians.” A few days after the incident, tensions remained high in the area. There were rumors that Dinkas were hiding in the grazing lands, looking for revenge for their dead.
I have seen on a regular basis young men in arms running toward what they call the “frontline.” It’s a cattle war that began long before the current conflict, one of them told me. “Since we were kids, our fathers told us Dinkas are enemies. When we asked why we lost cattle, we were told Dinkas raided us. When we asked why our relatives died, we were told Dinkas killed them. Our fathers told us we’re better than the Dinka. Even nowadays one will thank God he was created Nuer, not Dinka.” These youths have long been encouraged to take revenge and loot Dinka cattle. But there are also some influential local leaders—including widely respected “prophets”—who are trying to break the endless cycle.
“What’s happening now is not raiding,” Prophet Gatdeang told me when I visited him in the middle of May in his small village close to the Dinka borderlands. “It’s war. Modern weapons have turned raiding into war.” Considered the most powerful spiritual leader in Unity state, the roughly 70-year-old man now worries about his many cows. “These days, since we heard the sound of guns, we’re anxious when our cattle are in the grazing area and we’re expecting bad news at any time,” he said. “When the country became independent, we thought there would be no more raids. We were wrong.” Warrap’s Dinka youths were gradually recruited into militias known as Dot ko beny (Protect the President) that are now fighting alongside the SPLA.
In the years preceding the conflict, well-armed Dinkas raided thousands of Gatdeang’s own cattle. Yet at that time, as it is now, the prophet notoriously refrained from retaliation. “Even if all my cattle are brought to Dinka land, I will prevent my own children from taking revenge,” said Gatdeang. “I refuse to spill the blood of people for cows. I’m father of all, Dinka and Nuer.” That is literally true of Gatdeang, whose family is a mixture of both tribes. Among his many wives, 30 are Dinka and even more are Nuer. Each has her own house, which is crowded with children and grandchildren taking care of his many cattle herds. Gatdeang is said to be the richest man in Unity state, thanks to the many cows he has received as gifts in reward for his blessings.
Over the years, Gatdeang’s prowess attracted both Nuers and Dinkas. “The blood is one,” the prophet is known to say. During the last civil war, he also blessed Sudanese Arabs and asked them to stop fighting, but without much success. Both Kiir and Machar have also sought his advice.
Gatdeang’s wealth and influence also arose from strategically marrying his daughters (in exchange for more cows) to the most powerful men in the state, including the current governor and the former one, now a senior rebel leader. His sons, sons-in-law, and nephews are among the main commanders on both sides of the current conflict. This may be why he told me, “This war is very painful to me. I can’t take sides, between Riek and Kiir. If they come again to me, I’ll encourage them to make peace.”
There is no shortage of “prophets” in South Sudan, old and young, influential and obscure, peaceful and bellicose. According to the historian Douglas Johnson, they seem to have multiplied among the Nuer since the coming of the prophet Ngundeng Bong in the nineteenth century, who, like Gatdeang, is said to have “owned” Deng, the most powerful divine force among the Nuer and the source of the rain. As Johnson warns, “Ngundeng’s songs and prophecies are notoriously difficult to tame,” yet their many interpretations remain influential. Many Nuer believe Ngundeng foresaw much of South Sudan’s recent history, including that civil wars would divide the country and that a ruler with a big beard (much like Kiir) would be toppled by a left-handed Nuer from the west of the Nile, such as Riek. In the 1980s, the young commander Riek, back from the United Kingdom with a Ph.D., opposed various Nuer traditions he saw as archaic. Yet the prophecy seems to have benefited him, enabling him to build his power base among the Nuer. Today, both the elders and youths whom I met in Unity still see him as their destined leader.
It is easier to be a prophet of war. Today, the most influential prophet in South Sudan may be Dak Kueth, a man able to mobilize armed Nuer cattle guards from the east of the Nile. They are known as the “white army.”
At times of war, being a prophet of peace like Gatdeang is not easy. I met another old prophet, dressed in a leopard skin, who was preaching a similar peace message. But he had no influence on the Nuer armed youths, who sought blessings to protect them while fighting, rather than the ones he gave to farmers so that it would rain. In fact, several times young men had tried to kill him with their spears and had left him for dead.
It is easier to be a prophet of war. Today, the most influential prophet in South Sudan may be Dak Kueth, a man able to mobilize armed Nuer cattle guards from the east of the Nile. They are known as the “white army.” In late December 2013, when thousands of those youths were marching toward Juba, UN and nongovernmental organization expatriates, fearing revenge killings in the capital, were on high alert. For the first time, some of them warned, “The Prophet is moving with them!”
The anthropologists Sharon Hutchinson and Naomi Pendle have compared Gatdeang with Nyachol, an armed prophetess similar in orientation to Dak Kueth. Both Gatdeang and Nyachol, the anthropologists argue, seek to provide the South Sudanese with a sense of security—they just have very different methods. Before this conflict, while Gatdeang was seeking to contain Nuer-Dinka raiding, Hutchinson and Pendle wrote that Nyachol “blessed the incursion of a large raiding party deep into Luac Dinka territories in Warrap State . . . attracting the media’s attention as well as that of UN and NGO personnel.” In taking sides, they write, Nyachol had “certainly aggravated Nuer-Dinka hostilities.”
At the beginning of the rainy season in May, the path toward the sacred byre of Prophetess Nyachol, in the rebel-controlled rural areas of southern Unity state, crawled with small red insects that appear for only a few hours when it rains. Known as Trombidium by entomologists, they are called “God’s cattle” by the Nuer. It had rained the day before my visit, and that morning God’s cattle were countless. A long walk led to a house decorated with colorful flags and inhabited by the prophetess’ bodyguards and cattle guards, young men with a reputation for violence and ruthlessness. I was told that they beat and kill anyone they even suspect of being a thief. So without hesitation, I complied with the strange custom where visitors have to wear short sleeves, roll their trousers up to their knees, enter barefoot, empty their pockets, and leave behind any item, like a watch, that is considered “modern.” Only then can one be escorted to the byre, in front of which lie bones and horns of sacrificed cattle.
After entering the dark room, I noticed a presence just to the left of the door. It was the prophetess, who was sitting on the ground. I was invited to sit as well, and as my eyes slowly adjusted to the relative darkness, I observed that she had an angular face and wore her hair unusually long. She must have been about 40, and she was wearing a leopard skin. Spread out in front of her were tobacco leaves that she put in her long smoking pipe and also threw on visitors’ heads to bless them. In the middle of the room sat a big heap of ashes from burned cow dung. Her assistant, a young man, entered and put ashes on his face. It’s supposed to protect him from all harm. These ashes are also given to young men going off to raid or fight.
I asked Nyachol if, by chance, I could be allowed to pick up the notebook and pen I left outside to help me remember her words. Visibly unconvinced by my attempt to smuggle such “instruments of modernity” into the byre, she only replied, “You will remember.” Then she proceeded to tell me, “It’s not your choice when you become a prophet, but when God chooses you, what can you do? I’m not very happy with all this. Sometimes I won’t sleep all night. If I had the choice, I would not choose to be a prophet. Mani [the spirit said to inhabit the prophetess] disturbs me a lot, obliges me to sing, dance, and run around for entire nights.”
Nyachol alternated between speaking and puffing on her pipe, sending smoke rings my direction. She also sang, and her assistant would respond, singing, in a louder voice. Guards and women who came to consult with her sang in response as well, and the women sometimes ululated. John, my translator, said he could not understand all of Nyachol’s lyrics but that he liked the singing. He added that he was sometimes afraid of the songs because they were so aggressive. From the few lyrics he remembered, he relayed that a lot of them were about war and raiding. One line went, “Go to Dinka land and bring back cattle.” Others translated as, “We’re just sitting in our byres and the government wants to attack us, but Mani will deal with it,” or, “Mani is a powerful God that can rescue all Nuer.” Before the war started in 2013, Nyachol blessed raiders and eventually predicted their success. Those who did well in the war then brought her some of the cows they had captured. It is thanks to these raids that she became, as many say, one of the richest cattle owners (if not the richest) in the area.
Nyachol is also said to have predicted the current war since shortly after it began. She “foresaw” in a dream Machar’s forces marching on Juba (although she did not predict that the Ugandan air force would turn them back). She mobilized youths to attack the Dinka in Warrap, but before they could go, in January 2014, government forces retook most of southern Unity. Her house, like many others, was burned to the ground. Like all civilians and rebels, she ran away.
“We ran together,” a villager from Leer remembered. “After 20 kilometers, she tried to sacrifice two cows, but before they were killed, government forces began shooting and she ran up to the Nile. She was surprised. The gun had chased away her God. She had no more God. No more than anyone else.” Nyachol and thousands of Nuer survived in the swamps for more than two months, until the rebels managed to retake the area. “Nyachol had not foreseen that the attack would come from the North,” said the same villager. She had also not predicted that forces from the Bul, a major subset of the Nuer, would play a crucial role fighting other Nuer alongside Dinka government forces.
Since the 1980s, Khartoum has recruited many Bul into proxy militias to fight against southern Sudanese rebels. Some also fought alongside the Janjaweed forces in Darfur and more recently in the Nuba Mountains. Then, midway through 2013, most of the Bul finally rejoined the South Sudanese government. When the new war began a few months after, many of the Bul chose to remain on Juba’s side. Because of this, other Nuer now call them “Bul Dinka,” and rebel songs insult their main commander, Matthew Puljang, calling him “Kiir’s wife.”
During my visit, Nyachol explained to me that she’d had a dream the night before: Bul women came to visit her, asking for blessings. “Why are you coming when your people betrayed us?” she asked. “Please forgive us,” they begged. And she forgave them. Clearly for Nyachol, peace among Nuer is what matters. “Killing another Nuer is worse than killing a Dinka,” she told me.
But things did not turn out as the prophetess dreamed. Later, after speaking with Nyachol, I learned that government forces, including Dinka and Bul Nuer, had burned the rebel-held town of Guit while Bul armed youths raided cattle in Koch county and had gotten dangerously close to where we were.
On May 8, the same day of the Dinkas’ attempted raid of Nuer cattle near Kweriak, I learned that Koch town, only a two-hour drive from where I was in Leer, was under attack by government forces.
The next morning, UN planes evacuated me, together with more than 30 humanitarian workers. One of them told me about a scene she had witnessed in another rebel-held town a few days before, when a rebel commander asked some kids for their names.
“I’m innocent,” one replied.
“Don’t be stupid! Why do you say you’re innocent? You must have done something wrong!” The rebel commander then locked the kid inside a large container.
I sometimes wonder: Is no one innocent in South Sudan? On July 1, the UN Security Council sanctioned six individuals accused of committing war crimes and protracting the conflict. On the rebel side, they picked Peter Gadet, the commander reputed to be one of the most ruthless, accused of violent reprisals against non-Nuer civilians in Unity (where he had been leading the rebellion in mid-2014) and of violating the cease-fire agreement signed in January 2014. Gadet is famous for his propensity for switching sides, his old habit of summarily executing undisciplined soldiers, and his many victories, including against the reputedly invincible white army. In the 1990s, an old man had promised him his daughter and a calf if he took Akobo, a white army stronghold, which he did, burning houses and looting cattle in the process.
When I had met Gadet earlier in March 2015, he had laughed at the threat of sanctions, which consist only of a travel ban and a freeze on assets. “I don’t have money,” he had said. “I don’t have a company. I have only cows. I don’t move anywhere but stay in South Sudan with my cows. They eat grass and don’t need anything else. The politicians like Riek are different. They are traveling and they have money.”
Gadet was deputy chief of staff of the SPLM-in-Opposition at that time but had made it clear he was not fighting just for Machar to become South Sudan’s vice president again. “Riek was vice president for a long time, and we Nuer were killed,” he had explained. “When [Nuer] were killed [in December 2013], he ran like a woman. We told Riek if you sign peace, we can choose other leaders. If it’s just because of him, we will not fight. For us, Nuer were killed and we fight to defend the Nuer.” Maybe these sorts of declarations, more than the sanctions, are what prompted Machar to dismiss Gadet on July 21.
Like Gadet, many Nuer rebel commanders, prophets such as Nyachol, and traditional chiefs and civilians do not appear ready for peace. They still seek justice, or revenge, for the December 2013 killings in Juba and want guarantees that Nuer blood will not flow again. But their views have been largely excluded in the discourse over South Sudanese peace. As Hutchinson and Pendle have warned, “Political discourses and perspectives that ignore local, ostensibly ‘nonpolitical’ actors also overlook, and perhaps intentionally narrow, the diversity of possible solutions available. The international community’s reluctance to engage these prophets and other leading local actors in current discussions about how best to ‘cool’ South Sudan’s intensifying violence may represent a mistake that needs correction.”
For more than a year, peace talks in Addis Ababa have stalled, with Machar and other politicians stuck between the demands of their people on the ground and international mediators’ threats of sanctions. Both sides signed various commitments to cease fire, and if these agreements sometimes seemed respected, it was only because of the rains. As soon as the ground was dry enough, both raced to fire the first shot.
I heard that on May 18, government forces came back to Leer and started looting and burning again.
Leer was just beginning to recover. People were rushing to farm and rebuild byres for their cows before the rains grew heavier.
I remember that the day before my evacuation, John, my translator, and also a teacher, told me about last year’s attack. He was at his school with his fellow teachers when the tanks arrived. “We surrendered, hands up,” he said. “A tank hit one of my colleagues with its gun and he fell down dead. Then I was nothing but fear.” He ran without stopping until he reached a place that seemed safe, the village of Prophet Banyeng. Later, he learned that eight of his colleagues who had surrendered were killed.
That day, John also took me to Prophet Banyeng’s village, telling me, “Even here, many of us were so scared, we went to hide in the swamps every day.” Yet the village was never attacked. Every morning, the prophet sent his messengers to throw “magic” tobacco in the direction of the government forces in Leer. “People in Leer told us the village seemed invisible.”
John, I hope you managed once again to run to Prophet Banyeng’s village and that you are in a safe, and invisible, place.