When fighting broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, in December, Asanta Jantana quickly gathered her seven children and fled for another part of the country where she hoped she could find peace. They hitched a ride on a truck for a day, then walked the last 12 miles to her brother’s house in the village of Kotobi. Like many displaced people, rather than go to some formal camp run by the United Nations and large international NGOs, Jantana relied on the solidarity of other poor people to survive. Yet that wasn’t enough. Because her brother was a poor farmer in a poor village, she eventually had to send on four of her children to live with another relative who could feed them. She and three boys stayed in Kotobi, where her brother loaned her a mud-walled hut. She helped neighboring farmers dig up cassava in exchange for a share of the harvest. She had little cash, however, and when she tried to register the boys for school, they were turned away because she couldn’t pay the fees. When I met Jantana in March, she hadn’t heard from her husband Joseph since the fighting began. A soldier, he was sent to Bor, the scene of brutal fighting that left the town in ashes. Jantana assumed that Joseph was dead.
I met Jantana as she walked along a road carrying some food and supplies she’d received from a church-sponsored humanitarian network. Despite the horrible weeks she had experienced, she was singing hymns as she walked. When I asked her how she could be so happy, she replied, “I’m thankful my children and I are still alive. When the fighting took place in Juba, we had to run between the dead bodies to escape.”
The dead in Juba were the product of a political conflict between the country’s president, Salva Kiir, and his former vice president, Riek Machar. Though both belong to the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Kiir is a Dinka and Machar a Nuer. While members of those two tribes collaborated during much the independence struggle, there were times when the comradeship broke down, such as in 1991, when a militia of Nuer in Jonglei State known as the “White Army”–so called because they cover themselves with white ash from burnt cow dung–massacred some 2,000 Dinka around the town of Bor. Ethnic tensions were set aside long enough to win the struggle for independence, but in the last three years that unity has slowly unraveled. Kiir has often bought off dissident leaders with cash and material support, a practice that may pacify conflicts in the short run but leaves significant tensions unresolved in the future.
Part of the problem is the lack of any overriding sense of national identity that could take precedence over ethnic or tribal identity. Thus people quickly retreat into tribal corners when the going gets rough, protecting their own family and tribe against the other. When the political rift between Kiir and Machar suddenly went ballistic in December, it quickly tore the country’s social fabric along tribal lines. Within hours of internal fratricide within the elite presidential guard, bodies were piling up in the streets of Juba, and soon towns like Malakal and Bor were nothing but ashes as ethnic militias sought out who to kill based solely on ritual facial scars that are usually a sure sign of ethnic identity.
Caught in the middle–and civilians are increasingly caught in the middle of the world’s wars–people like Jantana fled if they could. Despite all that, she told me she’d like to go home to Juba, but she’s waiting for the situation there to improve. After what she experienced in December, she’s not hopeful, and she says the roots of the conflict don’t really matter to her. “It’s not an ethnic conflict, because once a bullet leaves a gun, it doesn’t know if it strikes a Nuer or a Dinka,” she said. Here’s Jantana sitting in her hut with her three boys.
And here’s a rather rustic 28-second video of her walking and singing. I wasn’t planning on shooting video that day, so I had no external microphone attached to the camera, thus the cruddy sound. But it gives you an idea of her calm spirit of perseverance in the face of violence and suffering.
I’ve been asked a lot “What went wrong?” There was so much hope around the new nation of South Sudan, but that hope seems to have quickly dissolved into a widespread violence that verges on genocide. Indeed, I felt like I was in Rwanda several times. Unpacking what has happened is complicated, however, and we need to look beyond the obvious. I’ve written before about the ease with which some in the west look down on many conflicts in Africa as simple matters of “tribal” violence, those warring heathens having at it again, while conveniently ignoring other factors such as climate change, resource competition, and the continuing legacy of colonial occupation. There is, however, a definite ethnic logic to much of the violence that has engulfed South Sudan in recent months. There’s more to it than that, of course, particularly as it relates to western notions of what constitutes a functioning state, but the ethnic logic can’t be ignored. South Sudan may have as many as 200 ethic groups or languages. The ethnic dividing lines aren’t always clear. The Dinka and Nuer, for example, were likely once a single group. According to Gregor Schmidt, a Comboni priest from Germany who serves in Old Fangak, a Nuer memorizes the names of ten to twenty prior generations, and Dinka names often appear in those genealogies.
In an excellent piece on a Comboni website, Schmidt contrasts the reality of a tribally-based society such as South Sudan (which is less than three years old as a country) with our dominant western notion of what a modern nation is supposed to be. I’m going to borrow at length from Schmidt’s analysis.
All of us have the need for safety and a functioning judiciary. The modern secular state provides the framework in which every citizen has access to safety and justice; at least in principle. If we criticize the state, we speak against distortions or abuses within the system, but rarely the state in its entirety, because in general most people benefit from the services the state provides. And this is the legitimacy of its existence: that the state serves its citizens. But let us not forget that it took centuries of painful social and political upheavals until the modern state has become able to provide for the basic needs which, in former times, were fulfilled by one’s clan or tribe. So, why can’t people in African countries forget their ethnic identities and just live as citizens? Because, in many places, the state is not a reliable institution.
In South Sudan, the state always has been an intruder. First came the British colonialists, then the Arabs who treated blacks as second-class citizens, Now the government has allowed it to happen that a third of the state revenues since 2005 went into private pockets of politicians. Almost no service that one can expect to receive from one’s government is offered (e.g. infrastructure, health care). Or, if it is offered, it is implemented poorly (e.g. education). The Arabs never hid their malicious intentions, so there didn’t arise false expectations. In the current situation, however, the people are disappointed with the newly founded state because it hasn’t kept its promises. Instead of receiving reliable services, the people need to fear unpaid soldiers who extort or threaten. They also don’t understand why they should pay taxes if that money is used for an administration that doesn’t function.
Schmidt looks at the European Union as an example of a modern political entity where power is shared, where resources flow from one region to another, and where leadership is often held by weaker members to prevent the strongest members from dominating decision-making. The same thing could be said about Italy, which not long ago in its history was a collection of often warring fiefdoms, yet they found a way to overcome such “tribalism” in favor of what amounts to a federal system. Why doesn’t this happen overnight in Africa?
It doesn’t work to create a state in Africa according to Western standards with a secular constitution as long as the people think and act tribally. This is not a complaint. People simply don’t know any differently. In addition, the government wouldn’t work any better with a different president. The new group, be it Nuer or another one, would just seize the opportunity to benefit themselves. That, which is generally characterized as corruption and nepotism, is the way through which the various ethnic groups ensure that their members are taken care of. Politicians don’t “abuse” their power; they simply don’t have an idea of the concept of a neutral state composed of equal citizens because of their background, which for most South Sudanese is the pastoralist culture of time immemorial and half a century of guerrilla war.
The traditional pastoralist society (Nuer or Dinka) works like this: Security and access to wealth (resources) are provided by a clan system and alliances which are formed through marriages. There is an African proverb: Because we are, I am. This refers to the immediate relationships that support an individual. It ensures survival in a hostile environment. In Europe, relationships and friendships are optional. It even happens that a person may sever contact with parents and siblings because it is possible to care for oneself in the modern state. But a Nuer man can’t rely on anything except that his brothers and grown-up sons will defend him and his possessions with their very lives. Furthermore, only the clan will look after him in old age. Therefore, a Nuer will always support his brother, not matter whether this brother is right or wrong. He will also defend his clan without compromise against other clans. This is also the reason why so many Nuer wish that the rebel leader Riek Machar is successful, regardless of his rightness or wrongness. What people agree on is that through him the Nuer will have a voice in the government and access to the nation’s revenues. There is a good number of Nuer who criticize Machar. However, most of them live abroad and can afford to be disloyal from a distance. They benefit from a functioning democracy in the USA or Great Britain. In the beginning of 2013, some of those expatriates published a newspaper advertisement in Juba where they asked the president to dismiss Machar from his office as vice president. The text drew the following comparison: The same as God chased away Lucifer from heaven, so Machar should be banned from the cabinet. Eventually, this happened in July 2013, and now the two contenders fight a duel which has devastated the country. The party which governs this country is a guerrilla fighting force, and its members are engaged in an activity they know best.
Schmidt goes on to talk about the traditional sense of justice in South Sudan, and how this has fueled the current conflict.
There is a sophisticated sense of justice that penetrates all aspects of life, also in regards to murder. It is important that, at the end, there is a certain balance of suffering for all the parties involved.
Murder is compensated by killing the perpetrator or his relative. Often, the family of the victim doesn’t even bother to look for the murderer but chooses a person of the other family whose loss will inflict particular grievance – today it is usually a person who has a higher education because a lot of money was invested. For this reason, there is a certain risk for an educated Nuer to live in the countryside. In November 2013, for example, one of the participants of our parish youth workshop asked for a room to sleep in that could be locked from the inside. This is an unusual request, but his brother had just killed someone. A retaliation murder can be averted if around 50 cattle are paid as a penalty. Naturally, the family of the victim must accept that offer. Sometimes it is not clear which side started the killing, so there are clan feuds that go on for a long time and need a proper reconciliation process. These are complicated negotiations.
Nuer clans may fight and kill each other in those periods when there is no major conflict with the Dinka or Murle. In the same way, Dinka and Nuer can afford to battle now because their archenemy, the Arabs, is not a threat. Youth always carry a spear for hunting when they travel, and if they get enraged, people are killed easily. In Fangak County, there were killings among youth in October, November and December 2013, as well as in January 2014. The Catholics in the region of Old Fangak had planned to celebrate Christmas at a chapel outstation. Because they couldn’t predict the behaviour of the youth at a crowded gathering, they cancelled the plan.
It is difficult to say how much of the violence results from the trauma of the civil war or has its origin in the pastoralist culture. Together it is devastating. I am dismayed how normal it is for a Nuer to kill. In Western societies, killing is reserved to special occupations (the police, the army). Normally, we only take note of it through the media. Instead, a Nuer man is a shepherd, a farmer, an architect, a trader, a soldier, and a blood avenger. He does this altogether with full conviction.
The media report the current conflict because it is politically relevant. But this country has never been peaceful since the signing of the [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] in 2005. Every year, between 1,000 and 2,000 people are killed, mostly in inter-ethnic battles, and often because of cattle raiding. In 2009, 2,500 persons were killed; a conflict between Nuer and Murle in 2011-12 resulted in thousands of dead and 120,000 internally displaced people. Cattle are the currency for the dowry. There is always a want for wives – pastoralists are polygamous –, and cattle are never enough. A cattle raid is dangerous, but it is not morally despicable to raid and to kill people of other ethnic groups in such a situation. Anybody who doesn’t speak the same mother tongue is considered a “foreigner”, and generally, moral rules apply only within one’s own group. If it is true that Nuer and Dinka – as all East-African pastoralists – kill for cattle, their eagerness in revenge killing is evident. The rule is to take life for life. But if – as in the current crisis – the number of dead is uncountable, then every member of the other side becomes a legitimate target. Therefore, minorities on both sides are in grave danger, making it very difficult to stop the cycle of violence.
Besides revenge, some killings happen purely because of fear: If I don’t kill the other first, then he will kill me. However, there have been also several encouraging encounters of friendship during the past weeks where Dinka were saved by Nuer, and vice versa.
By the way, before we get all self-righteous because we don’t kill people in cattle raids in our own neighborhoods, Schmidt reminds us that our own societies have mechanisms of violence that make possible and protect our comfortable lifestyles. To think about the United States, for example, we have immigration policies that funnel people into deadly sections of desert and we use mobile phones that need conflict minerals from warlords in the Congo. So let’s be careful as we examine the pathology of “tribal” violence on the other side of the world.
Some of the worst of the recent fighting in South Sudan took place in Bor, where the town changed hands four times in the first few weeks, with the Nuer rebels–including the White Army–eventually being chased out by the government military, which was backed up by Ugandan troops. The fighting left the town destroyed. Here are boys in Bor searching for items of value in the ashes of what was once the town’s market.
I made two trips to Bor during the month I spent in South Sudan. The first trip focused on the situation of displaced families. A few, such as these women walking, and Ayak Yangalis, a woman who came on a boat from across the White Nile, were returning tentatively. Another woman I interviewed as she got off a boat said she was coming back simply to look for her goat that she had left behind in the hurry to flee.
Responding to the humanitarian crisis in Bor was not easy. The fighting was still going on, and the military was very much in control. The local headquarters of the Lutheran World Federation, for example, had been looted by combatants, apparently by the rebels judging by the anti-Dinka graffiti they left behind. When LWF came back to Bor, and it was among the first NGOs to do so, new support systems had to be invented. (Thus when I traveled there, I had to take my own sleeping gear and mosquito net.) Yet a good number of the people that seemed to be “returning” to the town were, in fact, not residents of Bor but rather people who were fleeing the fighting to the north in Duk County. So displaced families from one area were moving into the remnants of houses abandoned in another area by people who had fled to a third area. You see, it gets complicated. Here are images of Mou Leu Chol, a woman who fled the fighting in Duk and moved into an abandoned house that she and her husband found and fixed up in Bor. She got food and other supplies (including new mosquito nets to replace the ratty one in the picture) from a humanitarian group.
Because it was a war zone, and the army is very sensitive about photojournalists, I could only work in Bor if I was accompanied by a soldier from military intelligence. That can be an obvious restriction to my freedom, but during my first visit it worked out well. The guy protected me from other combatants who weren’t happy about me taking pictures. He’d often get in shouting matches with someone who wanted to smash my camera, allowing me to go on working (while trying to ignore the shouting of men with guns).
When I returned later to Bor, however, a different general was in charge and he wasn’t as accommodating. I was assigned a different military escort but only after the general told me I couldn’t take pictures of hardly anything. I can only speculate about why the change in attitude. It could be as simple as that the second general was very intoxicated and decided he didn’t like my face, something he made quite clear. Or it could be that he didn’t want someone snooping around the use by Ugandan troops of certain types of weapons. It’s all speculation on my part, but it was unfortunate, because the main reason for the second trip was to document the great work being done by a humanitarian mine action squad, both in removing unexploded ordnance from civilian areas as well as educating civilians, especially children, about the dangers of things that are laying around but that can nonetheless go boom. I nonetheless managed to capture a few images.
One of the highlights of covering the explosive ordnance disposal guys came when we encountered the burned remains of one combatant, and there was a fused grenade in his ashes. As the technician squatted down and started removing the grenade, he explained to me the various smells I was experiencing, and which part of a burning human body made which smell. Just what I wanted to know.
When the White Army first occupied Bor, they massacred at least 14 women who had taken refuge inside the grounds of St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral. I went by the church several times, in part to pray for peace at such a horrible place. One time I found women there who were washing some of the paraments. I’d run into some of them the day before in the ashes of the marketplace.
On my second visit to the cathedral, I was in a vehicle that gave a ride to some young men on a Sunday morning. They were headed to Mass. When the driver, a rather secularized Muslim expat, asked them–in a friendly but provocative tone–why they’d want to go worship a God who hadn’t protected the women in the church compound (it struck me as a fair question), the young men responded that God hadn’t let the women die, and in fact God was on their side and would insure that they got justice for the killings. “God will give us revenge,” one said. Indeed, a few weeks later, some 300 youth marched on the U.N. base in Bor where several thousand Nuer had taken refuge. They approached the base supposedly to deliver a petition, but ended up using assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to attack residents inside before being driven off by blue-helmeted U.N. troops from India. Several dozen people died. It was, whether God was involved or not, a classic case of Schmidt’s revenge killing.
Both sides have acted brutally toward civilians. As a result, well over a million people have been displaced, either moving to somewhere else in South Sudan or seeking refuge in neighboring countries. As I noted in Bor, such population movements can get complicated. In Nimule, for example, near the southern border with Uganda, hundreds of Dinka families fled from fighting around Bor to arrive in masse with their cattle. Many residents of Nimule, most members of the Ma’adi tribe, already nurse resentment about the waves of Dinka families from Bor who arrived during brutal periods of the country’s liberation struggle in the 1980s and 1990s. Those Dinka came when the Ma’adi had fled to Uganda, only to stay on. When the Ma’adi eventually came home, many found Dinkas living on their lands and in their houses.
“When the refugees came back, they found their places occupied by the displaced. The government tried to get them to go back but failed. To this day some people from here remain in Uganda because the displaced took their places,” Father John Sebit, the priest of Saint Patrick’s parish in Nimule, told me. “Now they are coming here again, and land remains scarce, so people in the community have found their land occupied once more.”
The government encouraged the displaced families to move to the northeast, where land is supposedly available for them to graze their cattle, but the Dinka are concerned about cattle raiders there. (There’s reportedly a kind of Burmuda Triangle for cows there.) And they’re unlikely to return soon to Bor, which is still plagued by fighting, and where, as we saw, displaced families from elsewhere have moved in. So, like Rachel Abduk, who lost her husband and five children to violence in Bor during December, they prefer to stay among the Ma’adi.
“The Ma’adi are the most peaceful people in South Sudan. Everyone knows that. That’s why the others choose to come here. They don’t want to go to other places because they know the Ma’adi won’t lift up a stone or a stick to throw at them,” Father Sebit said. Yet Ma’adi leaders have certainly thrown harsh words at the newcomers. In a March letter to the governor of Eastern Equatoria State, several prominent Ma’adi chiefs complained that displaced people “can’t choose where to settle and they should not dictate to the host community which places [will] be given to them. It is the prerogative of the hosts to decide with the approval of the state government where to settle the visitors. To us the Ma’adi people, these people claiming to be internally displaced are invaders with a long term plan to take over Ma’adi land.”
In an Easter message to the faithful, the acting bishop of the diocese, Thomas Oliha Attiyah, called on local leaders to remain calm. “We thank you all for keeping and preserving peace in the state. The gift of Easter is peace amongst us,” he wrote. “In charity, let us share the land with our displaced brothers and sisters. They are flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. You are practicing solidarity in your own country. Solidarity is a virtue of human mercy and compassion. Thank you for your act of solidarity toward the needy neighbor.”
The diocese has responded with more than encouraging words. A mobile medical clinic was set up in January to attend to the urgent health needs of the new arrivals, as well as stretching medical attention into poor Ma’adi neighborhoods.
While the population dynamics in Nimule make delivering humanitarian assistance complicated, in many parts of the country it’s relatively easy. You just have to figure out how to get so many tons of food and supplies across a country with hardly any decent roads and little infrastructure. As a result of that, as well as the fact that the movements of displaced families are not always easy to predict, I found some displaced people sleeping in the open and eating leaves.
The humanitarian community was already present in South Sudan helping the young nation host refugees from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and cope with a variety of other problems, such as the havoc caused by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army on the border with the DRC and the Central African Republic. So at times the families displaced by the new conflict have simply headed for refugee camps inside the country, assuming, not necessarily correctly, that they could get assistance there. So part of my time in the country was spent checking out the humanitarian and political situation inside the camps, such as this camp at Ajuong Thok for refugees who’ve fled the bombing in the Nuba Mountains, where I met four-month old Haida Majzub (and her family, who were just out of the frame laughing–this girl had not been abandoned, but was merely set in the box to keep her out of trouble), and other refugees.
But at the edge of the refugee camps, there were lots of people like Nyanthem Mayol, who here stares at photos of her relatives while her baby daughter Sara sleeps at her side in a temporary shelter near Ajuong Thok. They fled there after fighting broke out in their home town of Bentieu, arriving in March after weeks of walking through the bush. They weren’t eligible for the same assistance as the refugees, and were suffering as a result.
And then there are the United Nations camps around the country, that are filled with some 70,000 people, mostly Nuer afraid of revenge violence. Amid the squalor of the tightly-packed camps, I was very impressed with an Indian order of Catholic sisters doing pastoral work inside. Here’s an article I wrote about them, and here’s a picture of Sister Ranjitha Maria Soosai entertaining some children in one of the U.N. camps in Juba.
Here are more scenes from a U.N. camp in Juba, where church-sponsored humanitarian groups are involved in all sorts of work, from celebrating Mass to picking up garbage.
In a similar but much smaller camp in Yei, I documented the psycho-social work that a church-sponsored humanitarian group was doing, especially with children.
While part of my job was documenting precisely such work by these humanitarian groups, what most impressed me everywhere I went was the incredible strength and dignity possessed by the displaced. They had lost, in many cases, virtually everything. They didn’t have the class privilege to bemoan their loss, but rather had to struggle every day to merely survive. When humanitarian groups can support and leverage their courage into comprehensive, community-based responses to disaster, we get a lot more mileage out of money donated for emergency relief.
Although a new cease-fire was agreed to in May between Kiir and Machar, in part because of the intervention of church folks in South Sudan and international players, including the Obama administration, signaling that they were getting serious about consequences for those who kept up their warring ways, whether it will hold or not isn’t clear. And even if it does, it may be too late in the year for people to plant their crops, assuring food insecurity (the technical term for people going hungry) well into next year. At worst, we may be about to see the worst famine in recent decades.
I will be going back to South Sudan in the months ahead and will continue writing about it and documenting its struggles. Although dire, it’s hard not to remain hopeful about the country, given the commitment of so many South Sudanese and their friends from around the world to hang in there, to make independence work, to respond to the humanitarian crisis, to figure out a political path forward out of the nightmare of recent months. There are many obstacles to overcome, but if people like Asanta Jantana, with all she has seen, can walk down the road singing, then we can walk along with her.
The Combini website I mentioned above is a good source of information, particularly about the church in South Sudan. If you’d like to help shape a U.S. foreign policy that responds proactively to the region’s challenges, check out the Enough Project. And if you’d like to contribute toward the church’s humanitarian response in South Sudan, check out Lutheran Disaster Response.