Moving Stones and Speaking Trees: the War in South Sudan

In 2012 John Kerry declared in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing that the United States had “helped midwife the birth of this new nation” of South Sudan. His choice of verb—soon to become fashionable—is revealing, not only about the motivations and world view of the speaker and government he represents but it also raises the question of what child was brought into the world. What does the word reveal? To begin with, the “midwife” peddlers delete the South Sudanese from their long, traumatic history of liberation struggle against the North, dating back at least to the Torit Mutiny of 1955, blithely skipping over the fact that the United States was actually on the side of the oppressors. In fact, when the SPLM/A (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army) was founded in 1983, the Khartoum government was Africa’s biggest recipient of US aid and arms. The relationship only soured after the First Gulf War when Khartoum supported Saddam Hussein and, especially, after 9/11 when it was known that the regime had harbored Osama bin Laden.

There has been plenty of foreign interference in South Sudan, going at least as far back as the Egyptian slave raiders of the third millennium BCE, all the way through to nineteenth-century Christian missionaries, the ineffectual regime of Governor General Charles George Gordon who, the British believed, as Deborah Scroggins writes, brought “peace and orderly government” (p. 53) to a territory as big as Western Europe before he ended up beheaded, and the toxic meddling of the British Lonrho (“Investing in the growth of Africa”) mining tycoon Tiny Rowland, who bankrolled politicians all over the continent in the 1980s and supported both North and South Sudan in order to prolong the war because, that way he believed, he would get access to mineral-rich zones away from government control. The US, then, cannot claim all the glory but it certainly played its part in the birth pangs of the independent state of South Sudan. This “nationhood by whatever means necessary” was helped along by a bunch of, let’s say, forceps wielders, among them the powerful US Israeli lobby (after all, South Sudan is a good customer of Israel’s surveillance and weapons technology, and in 2013 it promised it would sell oil to Israeli companies) and, naturally, homegrown US oil interests, especially given the strong foothold of China in the country and, notably, of the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation.+

The cozy relationship between Washington, UN and South Sudanese elites is an important background to Nick Turse’s new book, Next They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, because it at least partly explains the awful silences he addresses. The Center for Public Integrity has shown that the government of South Sudan spent $2.1 million on Washington lobbying and public relations firms from 2014 to the end of 2015, trying to brush up its image while some five million of its people were in dire need of humanitarian assistance and about 20% had fled their homes. Unable to pay its civil servants, the “government” that needed the image makeover is intermittently headed, in a highly volatile partnership, by Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, Dinka and Nuer respectively, with a long history of enmity which they both periodically whip up by manipulating tribal sentiments among their factions inside (more or less) the SPLA, which is purportedly the new country’s “regular army”. They also got a bit of freebie air-brushing by the head of the much-criticized, failing-to-protect UN mission, UNMISS, Hilde Johnson, who has a penchant for referring to her high-up friends as “cadres”, “freedom fighters” and “comrades”. There are other cover-up buddies such as a decades-old clique of US-based policy wonks who called each other names like “Emperor”, “Deputy Emperor” and “Spear Carrier”, at least two of whom are now special advisors to Kiir.

In fact, in terms of what are usually thought of as government functions, the South Sudanese variety can hardly be called a “government”. For more than two decades, small empires in the day-to-day running of the country have been conquered by tursenextimesundry humanitarian organizations (many run by American evangelical Christians) shaping a sort of “republic of NGOs” (for more on this, see Haiti). The anti-governance repercussions are far-reaching because the NGOs may have taken over state powers but they do not have the capacity for dealing with nation-wide problems like emergency response in a catastrophic situation of actual or perpetually looming civil war and its attendant disasters of famine, hunger, refugees and the unburied dead. In one of the most heavily armed countries of the world, stockpiling weapons with no policy for managing the excess has clear priority over health, education, public service, infrastructure and especially justice.

Turse’s book is essentially about justice. He gives a voice to today’s victims of the latest round in centuries of foreign interference which, since it must be concealed behind words like “midwife” or President Obama’s description of the new era ushered in by two rival warlords as a “time of hope”, also means that sufferers must be silenced or, equally horribly, never mentioned, even when dead. So “[…] year after year, President Obama provided waivers to sidestep the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act by which Congress prohibited the U.S. from providing military assistance to governments filling their ranks with children […]”, in order to keep up political and military backing for known war criminals. It was a gamble of “looking the other way” (p. 72) or prettying up the unspeakable that would have dreadful results in the civil war which broke out in South Sudan in 2013. The pain described by Turse’s informants is unbearable and it is even worse knowing that western governments knowingly loosed the “blood-dimmed tide” of a ghastly birth. No wonder Turse quotes from Macbeth, “Blood will have blood” (p. 11).

The lines immediately following Macbeth’s prophecy—“Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak. / Augurs and understood relations have /[…] brought forth / The secret’st man of blood”—well describe the distressing task Turse has set himself with this book. When gravestones move and trees speak, when the guilty are brought to justice, then the dead may have a measure of justice. And when the crimes are so heinous that there are no gravestones, the trees, the augurs and “understood relations” must whisper the truth. “They’re not supposed to kill old ladies” (Bor, p. 45); “We had to hide the past by collecting all the remains […] (Mayor of Bor, p. 56); “They gave me a gun […] I followed big men around” (Osman, 15, p. 66); “I want to go to school” (Zuagin, child soldier, maybe 15, p. 70); “They lined us up outside of a building and started shooting at us” (Nuer man, Malakal, p. 93); “They shot the [baby] boy in front of his mother” (woman in Bentiu, p. 119); “Watch how we will rape your daughter” (government-allied militiamen to a woman in Unity State, who raped the younger daughter, set her on fire and raped another daughter, pp. 119-120). Listen to the “understood relations” here for they give a portrait of the “government” which Hilde Johnson wants to support with more international “engagement”.

Even the bodies must be silenced. No one knows how many there are, who they are or where they are. But “Naming the Ones We Lost” is an unfunded volunteer-reliant, project aiming to do just this, “since neither the government, nor the opposition, nor any foreign NGO, aid organization, or civil society group has bothered to identify the victims of South Sudan’s conflict”. This “one-of-a-kind work”, Turse says, “is meant to plant the seeds of accountability in this otherwise justice-barren land” (p. 105). The ages of the first seven victims, three generations, on a “spreadsheet of pain, regret and loss” read by Turse, were 11, 81-85, 15, 12, 28, 31-35 and 14 (p. 105). Imagine what they meant to their families, their communities. But this is lost on all the NGOs which have declined to support the project. However, the South Sudanese human rights activist Edmund Yakani does. “This argument—peace first, justice later—doesn’t work. Peace is a result of justice.” (p. 73). The mere idea is so dangerous that Yakani is in danger from none other than the “National Security Service” but, “Quitting is not an option” (p. 111). Among his many projects of trying to bring justice to South Sudan is a database, an “encyclopedia of horrors” (p. 107) compiled from “South Sudan Eye Witness Declaration Forms” consisting of pages of detailed questions.

For all the beautiful words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many peoples have no rights, not even to be named after they are murdered by government forces. You only have to do a thought experiment, transferring the experience of the mother who saw two daughters raped and one of them set alight to the streets of Chicago, London or Berlin and imagining the outcry. What Nick Turse describes happened in South Sudan…. It is not as if the South Sudanese are any less eloquent than their fellow humans in the West. They are simply not heard because very few people think their suffering is significant enough to know about and others who do know about it need to silence it.

Nick Turse is a most honorable exception. A South Sudanese reporter who could not speak (because, in South Sudan, journalists are harassed, imprisoned, abducted and murdered) asked him to “write the first draft of this history” although he had another book in mind. He accepted the challenge and took a step towards justice in this devastated country. However, in a recent interview he says, “Long-standing grievances have basically just been papered over. I am hoping against it, but I fear that in the coming months or years we are going to see the country collapse back into conflict. I fear it could be even worse than what happened in 2013. I hope against hope that I am wrong about this, but I fear that war will return to South Sudan.”

The present situation of Kiir’s temporary triumph over Machar and ongoing seething tribal grievances among the “freedom fighters” lamentably seems to forebode that he is right to fear. And if war once again returns to South Sudan, who is going to be responsible for the wellbeing of the child that was so wanted but so roughly, so irresponsibly “midwifed”?