In December, war journalist Robert Young Pelton and photojournalist Tim Freccia were getting ready to fly into the world’s newest nation, which was descending into a bloodbath.
Pelton and Freccia were accompanied by Machot Lat Thiep, a former Sudanese child soldier who today manages a Costco in Seattle. The group eventually found a pilot that was both crazy enough—and needed the money bad enough—to do it.
The result of their journey is Saving South Sudan, an epic 50,000-word article in this month’s Vice magazine.
The story features an ensemble cast of shrewd warlords, fiery revolutionaries, international terrorists, shady Western money men, naive do-gooder pop stars … and thousands of hapless people caught in the middle. All fancy themselves heroes.
Pelton presents a realist take on the conflict. There’s no easy, catch-all solution. Outsiders often make things worse in Africa—even when they have the best intentions.
“Those carefully etched border lines found on modern-day maps of the vast continent have nothing to do with the ancient tribes and civilizations that continue to rule over it,” Pelton writes. “Rather, they are territorial remnants of foreigners’ greed, good intentions, and brutal wars.”
The longest war
The fighting in South Sudan is a carry-over from the second Sudanese civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2005. It was one of the world’s longest and ugliest armed conflicts.
You could argue that the war never really ended, and that the current fight is just a continuation of a long conflict between the Muslim-dominated north against the black Christian south—with many of the same players.
Before the South became independent in 2011, its leaders found backing from an oddball assortment of supporters from the opportunistic to the downright crazy.
As Pelton describes it, those supporters including Libyan mad dog dictator Moammar Gaddafi, African communists, Western evangelicals, Israelis trying to offload excess of arms captured from Egypt and an English businessman by the name of Roland “Tiny” Rowland.
The Northern forces under Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir found backing from another ruthless cast of characters, including terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden and Ugandan rebel warlord Joseph Kony.
The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army was the most powerful faction in the South. A loose confederation of armed groups came together alongside the SPLA to fight the Northerners. But the Southerners were not always united. Now that South Sudan is independent, those divisions exploded.
As Pelton and his team were making their final arrangements, Pres. Salva Kiir, a Dinka, ordered soldiers to disarm ethnic Nuer troops he believed to be plotting a coup under orders from Vice Pres. Riek Machar—the most powerful member of the Nuer ethnic group.
The result was an escalation of clashes between Nuers and Dinka across the country. The resulting fighting has killed thousands.
The road to Hell
The rivalry between Kiir and Machar lies at the heart of this war. Both men are trying to show the world that his respective camp is the key to South Sudan’s salvation.
Pelton sat down with Machar. The portrait he paints is fascinating … and terrifying. The charming, articulate and didactic politician tries to present himself as Kiir’s polar opposite.
As Machar tells it, Kiir is a drunken old bushfighter, a PTSD-sufferer who sees enemies everywhere, a man who only came to power because of his close relationship with SPLA commander John Garang.
Machar portrays himself as an educated, gadget-obsessed statesman, a man who can save his country if only the world would let him try. “Lesson one: Machar is more of a geek than a soldier,” Pelton writes.
But he’s a geek with a bloody reputation. Machar deftly dodges questions about his use of child soldiers—and where exactly his troops’ shiny new weapons are coming from. The answer, which Machar won’t admit, is from the dictator Bashir to the north. Machar grins and laughs.
Pelton and his team make one last stop to watch Machar’s troops, known as the White Army. Few journalists have ever seen the White Army in action. What they witness is a bloody, chaotic and brutal affair as the rebels carry out a massacre in the town of Malakal.
“The town is filled with disjointed scenes of chaos: buildings ablaze set to the soundtrack of constant gunfire, exploding RPGs and incessant shouting,” Pelton writes. “Rebels are everywhere, wandering with stacks of looted goods or burning down houses to flush out the enemy.”
On May 9, Kiir and Machar reached a new ceasefire agreement, potentially ending the hostilities. However, a ceasefire signed in January broke down almost immediately.
If these men can’t save South Sudan, who can? “Do not believe almost anything you read or hear about Africa, especially concerning the continent’s cultural sensitivity, ethnic peculiarities or borders,” Pelton writes.
“The source of this information usually has an agenda, is an outright bigot or moron or has some misguided notion of how African salvation might eventually occur at some wholly imagined point in the future,” he adds.