The government has organised protests against the UN in most urban centres. In Rumbek, the protest took place on April 23. About 300 people, some of them primary and secondary students in school uniforms, marched towards the UNMISS base at the north end of town. At the lead were dozens of motorcycles driven by government employees. I took a few photos of placards condemning UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for demanding that the SPLA withdraw from Heglig. And then a plainclothes security man stopped and questioned what “authority” I had to take photos. It was indicative of the state’s imperfect comprehension of a public protest, the uncertain grasp of political expression. There were two government employees filming the “protest,” but I was the lone spectator. For state officials, “demonstrations” are for the use of government.
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As the bombing along the border worsened, UN-contracted pilots detailed to fly north of Bentiu, into the conflict-affected area, struggled to get reliable information about the ground situation. The UN’s weekly situation reports were of no use for pilots landing in areas targeted by northern bombers. One pilot in a key UNMISS aviation point was reduced to making a nightly Google search, typing in “South Sudan news”, in preparation for his early-morning flights. He was still better informed than the airstrip’s UN head of aviation security. The European official, not trusting the UN’s own Department of Security and Safety, made cellphone calls to his ambassador in Juba. He described the UN’s coordination of air traffic as “a catastrophe.”
While a handful of journalists wrote gripping reports about the taking of Heglig and eventual retreat, the import of events seemed lost on international staff working for the UN. On April 21, as the bombing of Bentiu by SAF continued, the UNMISS base at Rumbek, just 150 miles south, sent out a mass email:
Dear colleagues and partners;
UNMISS Rumbek Staff Welfare Committee would like to invite you to a get together at Lulu cafeteria [UNMISS compound] today evening at 18:00. This is also an occasion to welcome our colleagues who were relocated from Bentiu. There will be music played and each individual will pay his own consumption, of course at the usual cheap prices of Lulu.
We are very sorry for the short notification. I hope, if you choose to come, you will enjoy it.
An AFP correspondent, who travelled to Heglig after SAF forced the SPLA into a retreat, said the number of dead bodies wearing SPLA military uniforms was “uncountable”. SAF claimed to have killed 1,000 SPLA in the retaking of Heglig, but no outside confirmation was available. The wounded were being treated in Bentiu, and also in Juba. Intermittent closure of the Juba International Airport was said to coincide with the landing of transport planes carrying the injured, and the take-off of planes carrying new troops to the front.
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Before I left my Juba hotel, before getting into a car with no petrol, I had asked to see the manager, to say goodbye. He’s “outside”, I was told, at the SPLA headquarters, a sprawling site on the northwestern edge of Juba. The Chinese businessman who owns the filthy hotel that I often sleep in, no more than a collection of mouldy portable housing units, is a major procurer for the military. The dogs of war are roaming. There is profit to be made.
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.”