This is Part I in a series of posts on the ongoing conflict in Heglig and militarisation of South Sudan, written by anthropologist Dr. Carol Berger. Parts II and III will appear over the next week.
“I’m praying to get you to the airport.” The red needle on the fuel gauge is below the “E”. I have a plane to catch, but I can’t be cross at the local driver who has picked me up in a car with no fuel. He had purchased a few litres on the black market the night before, for the equivalent of five dollars per litre. People queue for hours at the few petrol stations in Juba. Soon, without fuel or the dollars to pay for it, the world’s newest country will be running on vapours.
But the machinery of war has been set in motion, the cogs and gears aligning with a deadly clunk. Since late last year South Sudan’s military has been mobilising for the long-expected showdown on the border shared with northern Sudan. At night, in the hours when local curfews prohibit the movement of civilians, convoys of trucks and tank transporters headed north. They moved along rutted red-earth roads, their tonnage collapsing newly laid culverts, waking households as they rumbled past the villages and towns along the way. By early April, the trucks were moving in broad daylight. For a day or two, a tank sat in the centre of Rumbek, the capital of Lakes State, where the aged truck hauling it had broken down.
Perhaps the only interest in the region seemingly unaware of the preparations for war was the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The billion-dollar-a-year operation began its new nation-building mandate in July of last year, upon South Sudan’s independence. The mission’s programs were to be about “good governance” and the protection of civilians. Even as fighting flared up in the Nuba Mountains, the South’s wartime allies on the move within northern Sudan and coming under attack, as internecine fighting and massacres spread within territories bordering southwestern Ethiopia, and as rebel groups opposed to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army appeared in the border zones, UNMISS appeared to have no contingency plans for a wider war.
It begins with proxies, dissident SPLA commanders gone to the bush in the states of Unity and Upper Nile, commuting between the northern capital of Khartoum and remote rebel sites, and ends in combat between the north’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the SPLA. Today, the threat is a multi-fronted war, including Darfur, Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and the border areas of South Sudan. Months of bombardment by the north in the Nuba Mountains, home to the SPLA’s war-time allies, and in the border state of Blue Nile, have sent hundreds of thousands of people into southwestern Ethiopia and South Sudan.
Just as in the last war, from 1984 to 2005, the sacrifices and mayhem occur well outside the main towns. For several years, blanket descriptions have attributed rising numbers of dead within South Sudan to “cattle raiding” and “tribal clashes”, inferring a primordial cycle of revenge between people in the bush. In reality, senior political figures throughout South Sudan, the very ones who liaise with the international community, have been aggravating and even orchestrating local tensions for their own ends.
While corruption by individual figures plays a part in the South’s internal insecurity, larger military strategies have become apparent. Over the past two years there have been growing signs of the SPLA’s alliance with rebel groups in the northern Sudanese region of Darfur. Young men travel south to the town of Wau, in Western Bahr el Ghazal, where they can both rest and take small jobs. The drivers of tuk-tuks, or rickshaws, are often fighters on leave from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). That they sometimes speak a Dinka dialect, in addition to Arabic and English, is a reminder of the close relationship between the Darfurian guerrilla movement and the SPLA, long dominated by members of the Dinka ethnic group. The presence of Darfurians within South Sudan, whether loitering in tea shops or, in some cases, wearing the uniforms of the South Sudan Police Service or the SPLA, has become impossible to miss.
Next week in Part II: Dr. Berger meets with Riek Machar, South Sudan’s Vice President.
Dr. Carol Berger is a postdoctoral researcher at Bristol University. She was resident in northern Sudan in the 1980s, working as a foreign correspondent, and has lived in South Sudan for four of the past six years. Her doctoral thesis (Oxford University, 2010) is titled “South Sudan’s Red Army: The Role of Social Process and Routinised Violence in the Deployment of Underaged Soldiers.”