The Bloodiest Conflict No One Is Talking About
Part I—Nameless, numberless and dead in South Sudan
The culture of impunity in South Sudan — the world’s youngest nation — has spawned a civil war with no official body count. While government forces and rebels kill, rape and terrorize civilians, the United Nations refuses to estimate the death toll and ignores sites of mass burials.
Forgotten among the carnage is a new generation of trauma victims, waiting for peace and justice or, at the least, a time and a place to mourn the ones they’ve lost.
This is part one of a four-part series. Read the rest here.
by NATHANIEL ROSS KELLY
Okot made his hand into a fist and watched his blood flowing out from the needle in his vein.
His eyes were usually filled with a kind of serene curiosity — a warmth and intelligence that told you he had a question, an observation or a joke on the tip of his tongue. Now they were derelict. Almost every part of his face — the wide, flat cheekbones, the sealed lips, the rigid jawline — gave the impression of composure, but his eyes betrayed how hard he was trying to hold himself together.
A mango tree caught the sunlight in its canopy and painted shadows across his button-up shirt and faded jeans. Two days and two nights worth of sweat and grime caused the fabric to cling to his skin. Six other donors sat haphazardly around him, and each of them looked like he’d rather give every last ounce of his blood than make small talk. At random intervals a curse or a shriek punctured their silence.
As his offering collected at the bottom of a plastic bag, Okot tried not to think about the things he’d witnessed since entering the Juba Teaching Hospital.
Women and men crying soundlessly in the 90-degree heat. A young man with his intestines spilling out as he was rushed to surgery. A woman in a brightly colored hijab wiping vomit from the edges of her mouth. A child with a bandage wrapped around his stomach wound. His mother or sister with eyes that were seeking something far away. And the dead in the middle and dead at the periphery of every image in Okot’s mind.
They filled the mortuary to capacity. They were heaped together inside shipping containers, like goods that had expired or become obsolete. And they were resting one atop another out in the open, because the nurses had exhausted places to store them.
“In my life I’d never seen such a big number of dead bodies, not even in my past experience during the liberation struggle,” Okot tells me.
The bodies couldn’t stay there much longer, competing for space with the living. Soon they would be moved to a neighborhood called New Site, lowered into mass graves, covered up and forgotten.
I came to know Okot years ago when I looked after him and dozens of other kids at a home for orphans in South Sudan. He was hardened by the time we met, thin as one of the papyrus reeds that grows along the Nile River, and smarter than just about anyone else, child or adult, whom I encountered during my first months in one of the poorest places on earth.
Losing his parents could’ve turned him into a beast or a bitter young man. Instead, he flourished into the type of person who gives blood when the world ruptures.
“I personally dropped my tears,” he tells me now. “The whole hospital was smelling like a carcass or a butcher.”
A nurse plucked the needle from his arm and offered him a bandage and a Mirinda soda. He rested for 10 minutes, sipping the drink and watching new patients stumbling and being carried through the hospital’s iron gates. When he felt he’d regained the energy needed to face the city beyond those gates, he stood up and began his long walk home.
He moved cautiously along the asphalt streets and dirt roads of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. He cut through areas that resembled overgrown villages rather than urban neighborhoods. He passed red-roofed hotels and stores with gaudy signs written in English and Juba Arabic, the unofficial lingua franca of the country. Not far from his home he saw a man aiming his assault rifle at nothing in particular in the sky and pulling the trigger, repeatedly.
“Everybody was traumatized, everybody was crazy,” Okot says. “Everybody wanted to do whatever he wants as long as he has the gun.” The date was Dec. 17, 2013. His nation’s new war had started inside the city less than 48 hours ago.
He experienced a small measure of relief when he finally crossed the threshold of his room, but the feeling didn’t last. By the time his eyes adjusted to the dim light, the solace in his chest had dissolved into a cloud of agitated particles. Standing in a circle of his belongings, he tried to calm the dust storm enveloping his heart and lungs and history. He tried to talk down the ache in his stomach, knowing food would only make him feel worse.
As he collapsed into a chair he realized he still smelled like he’d been lying down with the dead.
The war’s human toll
In 2014, approximately 8,000 people succumbed to the Ebola virus, almost 2,000 were killed during Israel’s month-long assault on Hamas, and roughly 5,000 lost their lives in the fight between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists. Each of these tragedies is singular, and nothing can diminish the misery that each has wrought. Thus, a comparison will not serve to lessen their consequence. It will serve to expose the magnitude of an overlooked truth. In 2014, South Sudan’s civil war resulted in more deaths than all of the above crises combined.
Independent sources estimate that at least 50,000 people perished in the war’s first year. The International Crisis Group, a conflict think tank, reports that the actual figure could be closer to 100,000. The exact number of casualties may remain unknowable due to the fact that the country’s government, the rebel forces, and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan have all failed to record and report the deaths.
On Dec. 15, 2014, the anniversary of the outbreak of violence in South Sudan, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not provide an official death toll but noted that the conflict has claimed the lives of “tens of thousands.” Despite the elusiveness of a firm figure, one thing is certain — it hasn’t stopped rising.
The South Sudanese people are acutely aware of the human cost of war. Prior to the current conflict, they suffered through two lengthy and devastating civil wars, the second of which led to South Sudan gaining independence from Sudan in 2011.
For five decades, the government of Sudan — based in Khartoum — struggled to control the resources in South Sudan and to undermine the political and religious freedom of its people. The north is primarily inhabited by Arab Muslims, while the south is mainly populated by sub-Saharan Africans who adhere to Christianity and indigenous religions.
In response to the Khartoum government’s unjust policies toward South Sudan, rebel forces fought for political autonomy from 1955 to 1972 and then again from 1983 to 2005. Half a century of almost relentless violence resulted in the deaths of two and a half million people.
After enduring yet another blood-soaked year in 2014, the South Sudanese face some statistics that are almost impossible to fathom. Nearly every South Sudanese man and woman over the age of 18 has lived more of his or her life in times of civil war than in times of peace. Those who have lived beyond 80 could tell you they’ve experienced more years of peace than conflict in their land, but there aren’t many octogenarians in a nation where the life expectancy is 55 and where about 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30.
Moreover, some of the oldest residents of South Sudan could show you that peacetime doesn’t always coincide with an end to violence. They could point to the deaths in their extended families, differentiating between relatives killed by Arab Muslims and those murdered by their fellow South Sudanese. In certain areas of the country, ethnic groups are caught in an unremitting cycle of cattle raids and revenge killings. During the brief intermission between the last war and current conflict, thousands of people died in confrontations motivated by ethnic enmity.
Between 1955 and today, the South Sudanese have known only two fragile — and not entirely bloodless — respites from civil war, the first lasting for 11 years and the second lasting for nine. In other words, they’ve suffered 40 nonconsecutive years of internecine war during the course of the last 60 years.
Imagine if the American Civil War had not ended in 1865, but had continued, off and on, until the 1920s. Imagine the casualties, the destruction to infrastructure, the setbacks to development in nearly all areas of society and the deep psychological trauma. You are starting to get a rough idea of the kinds of massive challenges that the South Sudanese face today.
In 2005, South Sudan’s leading rebel force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, put an end to the Second Sudanese Civil War by signing a peace agreement with the Khartoum government.
In 2011, southerners voted for and gained independence in a referendum that was built into the peace accord. On July 9 of that year, the streets of the capital city, Juba, overflowed with men, women, and children celebrating the official start date of their new nation. On Dec. 15, 2013, two and half years after South Sudan became the newest country in the world, some of those same streets began to fill with corpses.
The day following the eruption of violence, Pres. Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, blamed former Vice Pres. Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, for instigating a rebellion. Machar may have been planning a coup, but it was Kiir himself who created the kind of political environment that breeds discord.
“It’s not the Dinka who make the crisis,” a Nuer man told me last June on a dusty road within the U.N.’s Tomping camp for internally displaced persons. “It’s Salva Kiir.”
In the year leading up to the war, South Sudan’s first president steadily consolidated power in the executive branch. He dismissed Machar along with most of his cabinet, removed two of the country’s 10 democratically elected governors by presidential decree, and turned a blind eye to the unregulated campaign by the National Security Service to silence journalists.
Moreover, he built up his own private army — a force comprised of at least 1,000 Dinka men who, according to military officials, received training without the sanction of the SPLA leadership. Not to be outdone, Machar assembled his own private force while he still held the position of vice president.
The fact that the two most powerful men in the nation each established unauthorized military forces in the post-independence years illuminates the difficulty involved in turning seasoned resistance fighters into competent politicians. Kiir and Machar along with most members of the newly minted political class in South Sudan have a greater familiarity with warfare than with governance.
“They couldn’t seem to make the transformation from a guerrilla movement to a state,” Richard Lobban Jr., an anthropologist and author with expertise in South Sudanese politics and history, told me last month. “And that’s where they’re hung up now.”
In the final month of 2013, Juba was awash with rumors that Machar was preparing an armed revolt against the government. On Dec. 6, Machar and other disgruntled politicians held a press conference in which he accused Kiir of misusing his presidential authority and making unilateral decisions within their shared party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement or SPLM.
The government seized newspapers that reported on the press conference, and Machar’s replacement, Vice Pres. James Wani Igga, denounced Machar and his supporters for stirring up “chaos and disorder.”
On the evening of Dec. 15, the National Liberation Council gathered at the Nyakuron Cultural Centre in Juba to debate how the SPLM’s top leadership would be elected. The meeting was beset with controversy, and Machar along with other senior SPLM members boycotted it.
Not long after the session was adjourned, the political conflict turned violent. Around roughly 10 p.m., the first shots of the war tore through the barracks at the SPLA General Headquarters, a few hundred yards from the venue where the politicians had met to discuss their party’s future.
Sources reported that the fighting began after Kiir ordered the Dinka soldiers in the Presidential Guard to disarm their Nuer counterparts, who violently refused to lay down their weapons. With shocking ferocity and speed, the brawl between the elite warriors turned into a full-scale urban battle, spreading out from the headquarters and into neighborhoods throughout the city.
In a matter of hours, the SPLA split apart into two factions, which 18 months later, the world is still trying to recompose. Troops loyal to Kiir united with the Dinka members of the Presidential Guard and fought to contain the growing rebellion by forces aligned with Machar. For most of the inhabitants of Juba, the struggle made for a terrifying and yet not all together unfamiliar ordeal.
“I called a friend of mine in the headquarters and he told me I should get inside my bedroom and sleep beneath the bed because there is a coup going on,” Okot tells me.
Okot was in a house within walking distance of the barracks, and he made the phone call as soon as he heard the rapid exchange of small arms fire. He heeded his friend’s warning and remained inside until the next evening. Listening to the clamor of the battle resound through the walls, he couldn’t help but remember the times he fled and the times he took cover during the last civil war.
He was a child when he became acquainted with one of the northern army’s most appalling tactics — intentionally terrorizing and murdering civilians by hurling barrel bombs from the cargo bays of Russian-made aircraft called Antonovs.
“I just flashed back to the ’90s when the Antonov planes would bombard us,” Okot explains. “And I also flashed back to how I lost my parents to savages. … I wish you were here. You would see how futile war is.”
As the conflict intensified, old rivalries between the Dinka and the Nuer surfaced like blood from a reopened wound.
The Dinka are the largest ethnic group in the country followed by the Nuer, and their shared history is characterized by periods of brutal discord.
In 1991, midway through the Second Sudanese Civil War, the SPLA was divided by the same ethnic tensions that are propelling the current crisis. A young and tenacious Machar condemned the Dinka leader of the SPLA, John Garang, and formed a separate army.
“This war within a civil war created havoc in southern Sudan,” Richard Dowden wrote in his book Africa — Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. “Guerrilla commanders became warlords, living off their own people by rape and pillage. In ferocity and barbarity this tribal war exceeded anything that the [Arab Muslim] government and the SPLA had done to each other.”
Machar and his forces eventually rejoined Garang’s army, but the damage caused by their infighting was extensive and inexcusable. Thousands of people were slaughtered and most of their killers slipped free of any form of legal retribution.
The rift in the SPLA that occurred decades earlier was almost certainly on the minds of the Dinka soldiers as they pushed the pro-Machar forces out of Juba in late 2013. Even before overpowering the rebels, Dinka soldiers and police officers began to attack the Nuer civilian population.
Soldiers dragged Nuer men from their homes and executed them individually and en masse. Women were raped, and houses and businesses were looted and burned. Children saw their relatives murdered.
In one case, at least 300 Nuer men were rounded up and slaughtered at a police building in the Gudele neighborhood. Thousands of Nuer fled to U.N. compounds within the city, hoping to escape the carnage. Some were so desperate to get off the streets that they cut and clawed their way through the barbwire fences surrounding the U.N. facilities. Others were shot in the back as they sprinted toward the gates of the compounds.
Machar didn’t waste time exiting the scene. As all Hell broke loose across the capital, he gathered his family and fled, thus avoiding capture by the SPLA.
He later denied the charge of orchestrating a coup attempt, but did not hesitate in setting up a military command center in Jonglei state where he began to direct the rebel forces, which soon dubbed themselves the SPLA/M-in-Opposition.
Immediately after the events in Juba, Nuer commanders and tens of thousands of Nuer soldiers defected from the SPLA in Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states. Senior military sources estimate that 65–70 percent of the SPLA may have joined the rebel forces during the first months of the conflict.
Thousands of young Nuer civilians, incensed by the slaughter of their fellow Nuer in Juba, armed themselves to fight alongside the renegade military units. One of the initial acts of retaliation by Machar’s new army involved the murder of innocent Dinka civilians in Bor, the capital city of Jonglei state. Local authorities in Bor estimated that more than 2,000 people were killed in December and January. The vast majority of the victims were Dinka civilians.
Most South Sudanese immediately recognized the ghastly trick that history had played on their fledgling country. Twenty-two years earlier, when Machar first broke off from the SPLA, his soldiers paid a visit to Bor and slaughtered roughly the same number of people.
Early in the war, some commentators made comparisons between the events in South Sudan and the Rwandan genocide. Such analysis was ill-founded, partly because South Sudan’s crisis involves two hostile military forces that both plan and carry out mass killings. At times, separating the victims from the aggressors has been difficult, if not impossible. In March 2014, the South Sudan Human Rights Commission declared in a report that both parties are guilty of human rights violations.
Although deep-seated enmity between the Nuer and Dinka has fueled the violence, the war is not solely the consequence of unresolved ethnic grievances. In a nutshell, the conflict is a war over resources disguised as an ethnic struggle.
The leaders in the government and in the rebel forces are primarily concerned with gaining greater control of the nation’s oil production, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the government’s annual revenue. Furthermore, the warring parties consist of various ethnic groups apart from the Nuer and Dinka — a fact that doesn’t fit with the narrative, promulgated by some reports, that the war is merely an ancient duel between two tribes.
The complexity of the war’s root causes and the multi-ethnic composition of the opposing forces doesn’t mean ethnicity isn’t important. Indeed, Kiir and Machar have successfully leveraged their respective ethnic bases in order to round up the funding, the weaponry and the manpower necessary to execute their military strategies. Some have rightly accused them of using the ethnic fault lines in their country to their advantage.
Low-ranking officers, armed civilians and child soldiers, who have been drawn — and sometimes dragged — into the conflict do not stand to benefit from their collective sacrifice. The Nuer and Dinka people along with members of every other ethnic group in South Sudan are suffering and dying everyday, while the military and political elites contend for power and a larger cut of crude. The nation’s oil production has diminished as a result of the conflict, but it still brought in $3.38 billion in 2014.
While foreign companies continue to extract oil, violence is affecting seven out of South Sudan’s 10 states. Cities throughout the country have been severely damaged and, in some instances, almost obliterated.
Though the violence appears to revolve around acts of ethnic hatred, the military leaders on both sides are more concerned with taking and maintaining control of strategic positions than with enacting vengeance.
Oil generating towns are treasured commodities in South Sudan and they’ve been fought over, lost and regained with an alarming disregard for human life. Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, is the gateway to key oil fields as well as a crude oil processing facility. During the first months of the war, a series of offensives and counteroffensives turned the once bustling city — where Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk and other ethnic groups had lived together peacefully — into a charred shell of itself.
The vast majority of the residents cleared out with whatever they could carry. Most of the civilians who chose to stay — or who could not leave due to infirmity or illness — perished.
The SPLA has been in control of Malakal for more than a year, but last month the opposition forces launched another massive attack on the city. Machar’s desire to capture the oil hub hasn’t faded, even though the human cost of achieving his military goal continues to skyrocket. In Malakal and in war zones scattered across South Sudan, Kiir and Machar have proven that they are not invested in a political solution and are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of their people.
“Neither Machar or Salva Kiir are famous for [supporting] civil society in a multiparty democracy,” Lobban, who worked for Sudan’s Ministry of Southern Affairs in the 1970s, explained. “They’re interested in power for themselves. … They don’t care at all about civilians because they think that there’s a military solution, which there isn’t.”
Brink of starvation
Kiir and Machar’s blind faith in the power of ballistics has ushered in a humanitarian crisis that seems, at the moment, unstoppable. “This war has set this place back 50 years,” a U.N. official told me outside the gates to the organization’s Tomping camp, where thousands of Nuer were living in small makeshift shelters last June.
More than two million South Sudanese — roughly 17 percent of the population — have fled their homes. At least a quarter of those displaced have sought refuge in neighboring countries, and 119,000 have found shelter at U.N. sites within South Sudan.
The efforts of humanitarian organizations prevented mass famine from striking the country last year, but the number of families at crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity is higher now than at any previous point in the war. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, approximately 4.6 million people are facing severe food insecurity.
Under normal conditions, the population relies heavily on farming for sustenance and income, but no one can plant and harvest crops in fields that have become war zones.
Not surprisingly, the country’s children are suffering some of the most deplorable effects of the conflict. Around 800,000 of the 1.5 million internal refugees are under the age of 18, and 400,000 kids have dropped out of school. Within IDP camps, children under five account for half of the reported deaths.
The rate of child mortality in the camps could be slowed if kids and their guardians had access to better nutrition and healthcare, but the conflict impedes the work of aid agencies to deliver even the most basic provisions.
UNICEF reports that armed groups have recruited approximately 13,000 children. Though the rebels are likely exploiting the highest number of children, the SPLA is not above abducting and abusing children. Boys have been forced to fight in combat operations and to participate in the murder of civilians. Girls have been raped, repeatedly.
Kids who should be reading books and playing soccer have become expendable chattel — soldiers, sex slaves, messengers, cooks and human pack mules.
“More than 31,000 [children] have experienced gross violations of their rights — abducted, killed, and raped,” Perry Mansfield, the South Sudan national director for World Vision International, a Christian charity organization, told reporters in late 2014.
According to the U.N., more than 600 children were killed, more than 200 were maimed, and 22,000 were separated from their parents in 2014. Given the U.N.’s own admission that tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict, its estimate of the number of kids who were fatally wounded by SPLA troops and rebels is likely conservative. Moreover, the total number of child casualties has undoubtedly increased in the war’s second year.
“In some of the interviews that we have done with women who have survived [recent offensives] … they have said that the soldiers were killing the children because they will eventually come back for revenge attacks, so it is better to kill them now,” UNICEF representative Jonathan Veitch told reporters in May 2015.
Despite the war’s growing catalog of atrocities, it is not completely bereft of moments of hope. In January, a rebel faction not aligned with Machar’s forces agreed to release 3,000 child soldiers as part of a peace deal with the government.
UNICEF launched the Back to Learning campaign with the ambitious goal of providing education to the 400,000 kids who have been forced out of schools. To date, almost 76,000 have benefited from these services.
Furthermore, UNICEF and its partners have helped more than 1,000 kids reunite with their families. While these developments are encouraging, it’s not enough to protect the country’s most vulnerable population.
“The war has been devastating for the new generation,” Justine Fleischner, an analyst for the Enough Project, told me last December. “This was supposed to be the first generation of South Sudanese that didn’t grow up in war — the first generation that had a bright future ahead with access to education, job opportunities, land and a government that actually represented them.”
“Now yet another generation has been sucked down into the quagmire of conflict.”