South Sudan is the world’s newest nation, and yet in 2013, just two years after it gained independence, the country found itself embroiled in a bloody civil war. This conflict was marked by mass atrocities, and motivated by ethnic divisions.
Journalist Nick Turse, who has previously written on US war crimes in Vietnam and on American military activity in Africa, traveled South Sudan extensively in the later days of the civil war to chronicle atrocities and narratives. His latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, provides a snapshot of his time in the East African nation.
Turse spoke with In These Times recently about what it was like to write this book, the situation in South Sudan, and the responsibility the US bears for this, given that we, as John Kerry said, “midwife[d] the birth of this new nation.”
Could you give our readers some background on South Sudan? How was it formed, what triggered the 2013 civil war, and what’s happened since you finished the book?
South Sudan gained its independence in 2011. It was the product of two rather horrific civil wars, one that ranged from 1955 to 1972, and the other, which was really more like a reignition of the first one, that lasted from 1983 until 2005. After the end of that war there was a referendum and South Sudan split off from Sudan.
Throughout those two decades, there was a bipartisan coalition in the United States that championed the southern rebels, including people from the Carter administration and evangelical Christians who saw the struggle there as one of Christians against Muslims. South Sudan is predominantly Christian or pagan, and in the north, the government in Khartoum is Muslim. That’s, in a nutshell, the recent history.
Since my book was written, the civil war — basically the third civil war in recent memory in South Sudan — has been ended by a peace deal that was signed in August 2015. Since then there’s also been a unity government formed by the leaders of both parties of that civil war, President Salva Kiir and his former and current Vice President Riek Machar. They’re in a very unstable unity government. I think the civil war had become untenable to both of them, so they’re sort of fused together in the new government. How long that will hold is anyone’s guess. None of the triggers to the last civil war have been addressed in any way.
The last time you covered mass atrocities of this sort, it was for your book on Vietnam. What was it like reporting on events that were much more recent — that, in some cases, were happening as you covered them?
I think it’s always more difficult when you’re covering atrocities or tragic events as they’re happening. The wounds are so much fresher, and it’s one thing to ask people to think way back in time, but it’s another when they’ve lost family members days or weeks or months before you’ve spoken to them. You’re putting people through trauma in both respects, but I think you’re asking a lot more of your interviewees when the events are recent. You’re dealing with people who are freshly traumatized, and it’s something that has to be kept in mind when you’re doing these sorts of interviews.
Also, there’s a special risk that people are taking, that you’re asking them to take when they talk so soon after the fact. In the midst of the civil war, asking people to go on the record and to talk about things done by the government of the country they’re still in is very difficult. There are a lot of people who don’t want to talk on the record because of that. It’s a dangerous situation in South Sudan.
I’ve just been writing about what it’s like for reporters there. There are many dangers for anyone in the country. There are very few people in South Sudan who think there’s going to be lasting peace without at least another round of violence. People know it’s coming, and they have to calculate these risks and figure out if it’s safe to talk.
You met a number of people who seemed almost naively hopeful about the country’s situation, at least during the recent war. Did this surprise you? What do you think about that now?
I think for people who held that belief, that it was still a carryover from independence in 2011. People had faced about fifty years of civil war, trying to gain their independence. I think a lot of people felt that once independence came, a lot of the preexisting problems in South Sudan would fall away. There would be a real clean start.
There really wasn’t a clean start. A lot of the same interfactional issues — intergovernmental issues, it turned out — were never addressed. I also think there was a great deal of hope because people thought that South Sudan could finance itself. It does have a large supply of oil, and at the time oil prices were very high. People thought that this was an African state that could fund itself. I think a lot of this had carried over.
This last trip, this year, when I was there, I thought there was a lot less hope about it. Even though there was a peace deal in place, I think there are a lot of people who were upset to see the same top officials back in power, Kiir still in power, Machar back in the government. It felt like we’re looking at the same thing all over again. Two strongmen, both of whom have reason to distrust the other, and the country’s in a lot worse of a financial situation than it was when the civil war broke out in 2013.
Of course the price of oil has plunged, and this doesn’t bode well for a country that’s now basically been bankrupted by civil war. It mortgaged its future to pay for the war. There was some carry over hope that the war would burn itself out and maybe new leaders would come in. I think there’s a lot less hope now that it’s the same cast of characters, and in a worse off situation all around.
You also considered the cycle of violence that perforates South Sudan. You mentioned that many of your interviewees said they wished for peace, but also couldn’t put aside their desire for vengeance. Could you talk about that a little more?
A lot of people think that the civil war that began in December 2013 really has its roots in the prior civil war. I think that’s right. Both the President Salva Kiir — and his Vice President Riek Machar, who became the rebel leader — were responsible for mass atrocities. Machar is from the second largest tribe in the country, the Nuer, and Kiir is from the largest, the Dinka. Machar’s forces, back in 1996, carried out a massacre in the town of Bor, where they killed large numbers of Dinka civilians.
A lot of people were nursing grievances from this, even though Machar rejoined the [South Sudanese] rebels [against Sudan], became the vice president of the country, and apologized several times for this. People believed that there wasn’t real atonement, and no justice had ever been achieved. This was one of the reasons a lot of people think the civil war broke out in 2013. Now Machar’s forces again attacked Bor, so there are distant memories there and fresher ones. Kiir’s forces killed large numbers of Nuer in Juba and elsewhere. So there are these ethnic and tribal tensions that underlie this conflict.
There were grievances when this last civil war began, dealing with the war before, and now I believe they’ve been compounded over the course of the war. No one knows how many people were killed since December 2013, but somewhere between 50,000 and 300,000 are the best estimates we have. There’s been a lot more bloodshed. There’s little hope of real accountability taking place. With both leaders atop the government, I’m not sure that we will see anything like a hybrid court or a real truth and reconciliation process with any kind of teeth.
There was a recent New York Times op-ed just a couple of days ago where both Kiir and Machar were the authors. They said that they weren’t interested in a hybrid court, they wanted some sort of truth and reconciliation process without any accountability. Since that’s come out, both leaders have said that they did not author this. First Machar said so, then Kiir said that he never saw it. It’s unclear exactly who wrote this, and the New York Times apparently did not corroborate the authorship of it. So it’s unclear but, if there’s any truth to what they wrote, they weren’t interested in accountability, and with good reason. I think both of them would be definitely brought up on charges if this ever went to the International Criminal Court.
One of the most moving sections of your book was the part on the former child soldiers you met. At the very end of this, one of the children says, “If the American people read about us, maybe it will lead to something good.” What responsibility do you see the U.S. as having with regards to South Sudan’s civil war?
I think there is a real responsibility there, because of the fact that the United States had championed the country so strongly for several decades. The United States really put its weight behind it, and gave a lot of money. Billions of dollars in aid and assistance, and arming the rebels through intermediaries during the civil war from the 1980s into the 2000s. During the partition and after independence, a lot of money went in and there weren’t a lot of strings attached to it.
The United States was willing to look the other way despite a lot of authoritarianism, knowledge of corruption, and on the issue of child soldiers. The United States allowed the government of South Sudan to keep child soldiers in their military and still funded the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), South Sudan’s military. This was in contravention of US law. There’s a law called the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which states the United States can’t provide military assistance to any foreign military that employs child soldiers.
The United States found a loophole around this for 2011. In 2012 and 2013, as I reported for The Intercept, it was Hillary Clinton’s State Department that decided that waivers were in order and recommended this to President Obama. He issued these waivers and it allowed South Sudan to keep children in its military and still keep receiving military assistance.
When the country plunged into civil war, the United States finally cut off its military aid. They said they were appalled by the atrocities committed by the SPLA, they were appalled that the SPLA was recruiting child soldiers, when, in fact, the SPLA had been committing atrocities all throughout the time support had been given. It had child soldiers in the ranks throughout that entire time. It was completely disingenuous.
For all these reasons, I think there is a responsibility from the United States, and I hope that going forward, there might be at least a little more scrutiny on what the US is doing in South Sudan. If it decides to begin providing more security aid again, I hope people take a close look at this.
Do you think the U.S. should comply with the Child Soldiers Prevention Act with regards to South Sudan, and not give it any sort of waiver?
Yeah. I think that if you look at the history of US waivers in regards to this act, they have not had the effect that the US government has hoped for. You have countries where we’ve said we’ll look the other way and keep giving you military aid, those are Libya, Yemen, South Sudan. These are the prime examples. All those countries have become failed or near-failed states. Aiding these militaries has not helped to reform them in any way. They’re also the militaries that are regularly cited in the US State Department’s own reports as committing gross atrocities. There’s a line of thought behind this that somehow you keep giving them money, you can bend them to your will. Generally, this doesn’t happen.
Lastly, you recently wrote an article for TomDispatch.com, which wasn’t included in your book but covered South Sudan. Entitled “Donald Trump in South Sudan,” the piece talked about how many South Sudanese were worried about the effect that Trump might have on their lives if elected. In that context, when looking at the ongoing presidential election, what do you think the future holds for US policy in Africa with each candidate, or is it impossible to tell?
It’s very difficult to tell what Donald Trump’s Africa policy would be. There are a lot of isolationist strains there, so I would assume there would be less engagement. With Hillary Clinton, I think there would be quite a bit more engagement in Africa. I assume that she would continue carrying out Obama administration policies which has been targeted more towards military interventions in Africa. A sort of anti-terrorism, whackamole effort all across the continent, and an expansion of US military activity.
I contacted for the piece I’ve just done for The Intercept both the Clinton and Trump campaigns to get their thoughts on South Sudan, and what each would do if they were president. Trump’s people wouldn’t respond at all to my questions about South Sudan. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have a South Sudan policy there.
Clinton’s people weren’t eager to talk about it. They got in touch but once they found out what I was interested in talking about, they weren’t interested in responding to any of those questions. But I would assume that she would continue the Obama administration’s policies in regards to South Sudan, while Trump’s just a wild card — it’s tough to know.
It was certainly something that was on the minds of people in South Sudan. It’s a country with so many problems of its own, violence, and economic issues, but people were in some way riveted by Trump. There were a lot of men who found him appealing, and I could see that because South Sudan’s leader is sort of an over-the-top figure.
“Donald Trump in South Sudan” mentions the fact that there was a satirical story published in South Sudan that Trump had forged a friendship with Salva Kiir and that Salva Kiir had endorsed Trump. It seemed plausible to a lot of people in South Sudan. It turned out just to be a product of a satirical publication in South Sudan whose story was picked up by mainstream outlets.
But those two leaders might get along well.