This is Part II in a 3-part series by Dr. Carol Berger on the increasing mobilisation of armed forces in South Sudan. Part I can be found here.
It was late on the evening of April 17 when I was summoned to meet South Sudan’s vice-president, Riek Machar. By chance, we were staying in the same guest lodge in Wau, the capital of Western Bahr el Ghazal State. The lodge, a former British colonial-era guesthouse, is located along the banks of the Jur River. It is the end of the dry season and the river is low, no sign of the hippos which loll about in its churning waters during the height of the wet season. I had been in my tent, typing up notes and sweating from the heat, when dozens of heavily-armed soldiers began filing past, signalling the arrival of a VIP. That they were speaking Nuer suggested it must be the vice-president, one of the few senior members of the South Sudan government who is not a Dinka. I passed my card to one of Machar’s aides, and waited for him to finish his talks with local officials.
Machar was one of the key figures in the South’s civil war, both with and against the late leader Col. John Garang. Today, as the number two in the government of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Machar is emerging as a central figure in the South’s confrontation with northern Sudan.
He spoke confidently about the South’s claim to the disputed oil site of Heglig. “We have liberated Heglig,” he began. “And we hope to liberate other areas north of Heglig. If that means there will be confrontation, then there will be.”
With him was his wife, Angelina. The third person in the small, dimly lit room, was a tall soldier in blue camouflage. He stood a meter away, ironing on a cloth-covered coffee table. He finished ironing a woman’s shirt and carefully placed it on a hanger.
“We intend to stay [in Heglig]. It is our land, and we intend to defend our borders, not more than that. We are not ambitious to claim territory of the north.” His last words to me were “We are not expansionist.”
Machar took a call on his cell phone, telling the person on the other end of the line that he had “three missions” to complete. The next day, he flew by helicopter to the garrison-town of Raga, to the northwest of Wau. The site is important to the coordination between the SPLA and JEM. There he met with a senior SPLA strategist, Gen. Pieng Deng Kuol. Fighting between SAF and SPLA to the north of Raga could mark the opening of a second front. By Thursday he was in Rumbek, holding a rally at which his wife implored the mothers of Lakes State to allow their “children” to join the SPLA. When a number of youths went onto the podium, to show their desire to join up, eyewitnesses say that mothers, some weeping, begging their sons to get down. The next day, he flew on to yet another state.
The SPLA’s “liberation” of Heglig turned out to be short-lived. On Friday, April 20, South Sudan’s president announced that the SPLA were “withdrawing”, though sources on the ground described it as a retreat which left hundreds dead and injured. Sources confirm that wounded soldiers are arriving by plane in Juba.
Calling the border clashes and northern bombardment of southern locations a new war carries dramatic repercussions for UNMISS, humanitarian organisations present in the South, and the international diplomatic community. Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the UN and, in particular, the United States and Norway, have represented South Sudan as a place of demobilisation, rather than militarisation, of development rather than re-armament. A senior western official told me that the SPLA failed to “inform” their “friends” of plans to move into Heglig, the words inferring a level of partnership between international representatives based in Juba and the former guerrilla army.
A general call-up by the SPLA has been under way for several months. Now new “recruits” are expected to be taken from the civilian population. Young men in Rumbek wait for “a knock on the door”. A young man told me that when the SPLA arrives at their homes, soldiers ask if they have a job. If they say “No,” they are taken into the army.
The meaning of words used to describe the escalating violence has become important. The departure of nonessential staff from Bentiu, both from the UN and western NGOs, is not an “evacuation”, officials say, but a “relocation.” Fighting between ground troops of SAF and the SPLA, supported by allies in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile province, is not “war” but “border clashes”. Yet by mid-April, the frontline Bentiu UNMISS base, already down to “essential” staff was put on a four-hour evacuation notice. In the wake of the UN’s call for the SPLA to withdraw from Heglig and continued northern bombing, there was growing anger against foreigners, who are usually assumed by South Sudanese to be working for the UN.
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By late April, soldiers were responding to the SPLA’s mobilisation of troops. I travelled by road between the three states of Warrap, Lakes and Central Equatoria the week of April 16 to 21 and saw large numbers of troops moving northwards. From Lakes State, most were going to the SPLA’s garrison in Mapel, southeast of Wau.
Soldiers are taking any transport they can find, even the local landcruiser ‘taxis’, to get back to their barracks. One of the soldiers didn’t have enough money to pay the full fare, equivalent to around twenty-five dollars, and there was an argument. The soldier, wearing a red beret and camouflage uniform, shouted at the fare-taker, “Are you a South Sudanese? Are you going to defend your country?” The young man attempted to stand his ground, affirming that he had fought in the last war. But the crowd sided with the soldier and he boarded my Wau-bound vehicle. As we travelled along the five-hour route, he called out to soldiers manning the checkpoints. “When are you coming?” As soon as there is transport, “arabat”, or cars, was the reply.
There were fifteen of us, all travelling northwest of Rumbek; only the soldier was to leave us before Wau, his destination the Mapel barracks. I waited until several hours had passed, and then I asked a fellow passenger to translate for me, so I could ask the soldier a question. I already knew that he was forty-five years old; that his original battalion, back in the early years of the last war, was the Intafada II. He would have taken up arms when he was no more than fourteen or fifteen, one of the tens of thousands of youth taken into the SPLA in the mid-1980s. He knows that I am a nyanagot, a writer. He has joked that I am not a ting dit, a great or old lady, though I am the elder of us. Yet I have hesitated to ask the most important question: Is the South returning to war?
But by now, in the back of our lurching vehicle, there is a sense of shared fate. We have taken food and drink together in Tonj; passed a crumpled pound or two to the legless youth who moves, crab-like, along the ground to beg from newly arrived travellers; climbed over each other to make a “short call” at the side of the road, and then resumed our seats on the two long benches in the back of our vehicle. We are covered in the dust of a dry-season road. We shudder as one when a government-owned vehicle speeds towards us, leaving scarce room for us to avoid collision and throwing stones at our windshield.
So the question was asked, my “interpreter” speaking in a low voice, saying what seemed to be too many words for what I wanted to know. When the soldier replied, he did not raise his head. There was a pause, and the man seated opposite said, “He is a real soldier. He says he has nothing to say about this.”
Stay tuned for final post in this series to appear in the coming week.
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.”