“Starting from Zero”
To the extent that the media spotlight is ever directed at Africa, it has focused on Darfur, in western Sudan, where several hundred thousand people have died in ethnic violence since 2003. Just next door, beyond the glare of the spotlight, however, is South Sudan, where an estimated 2.2 million people were killed in two decades of bitter internecine fighting. There, a fragile, three-year-old peace agreement is rapidly coming apart. A new conflagration in South Sudan would engulf Darfur, dwarf the carnage that has taken place so far in the region, and launch sub-Saharan Africa into the age of energy wars.
Both the danger and its ethnic character were brought home to me very personally in a single moment on a recent trip to South Sudan as I tried to tell myself that the two-year-old Dinka boy pointing a pistol at my chest meant no harm. But the pearl-handled automatic looked real enough. “Khawaja,” he said. (Dinka for “white person.”)
I was relieved when the man who was perhaps the toddler’s father, a big-bellied lieutenant colonel in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, grinned and held the bullet clip aloft to show he’d removed it from the gun. He was visibly a little drunk.
“He’s very intelligent boy,” he said proudly, “You see, he points the gun at you because he thinks you are Arab.”
We were sitting on makeshift stools in a dark, narrow, crowded bar in Kuajok, a state capital in South Sudan the only bar in town. Kuajok is under construction. Three years ago it was just a village. Since it was designated the capital of the newly formed state of Warrap, one of the ten states that make up South Sudan, its population has mushroomed. The few masonry buildings that survived two decades of civil war in Kuajok are undersized and shabby. Everything else has been cobbled together from poles and mats of woven rushes. The bar, where I was trying to find something to eat, is attached to a guest lodge a compound containing half a dozen thatched huts with padlocks and no latrines, just shallow holes dug in the ground. A sign, lettered on a cotton sheet announcing the Warrap State Safari Guest House, is ripped right down the middle and readable only when the breeze is blowing just so.
Kuajok is a boomtown. All that’s missing is the money.
One of the few visible public works in progress is the main road through town, now being rebuilt. Dump trucks rumble back and forth carrying the red, gritty, compactable soil used here for building the all-weather roads so desperately needed throughout southern Sudan, where the rainy season brings ground transport to a near standstill. A school for girls also nears completion, privately funded through UNICEF; but there is no hospital at all, just a pathetically under-equipped clinic. In separate interviews, the state ministers of education and health used the same phrase: “We are starting from zero.” Warrap the most populous of South Sudan’s states, as well as the newest has a hard time just meeting its modest payroll.
The same is true, I discovered, throughout South Sudan. Everywhere, a shortage of cash, everywhere a backlog of unmet human needs. The rainy season means sorghum can be planted; it brings subsistence farmers to their knees, slashing the earth with straight-bladed hoes. But because of poor sanitation and lack of clean water, the rain also brings cholera, guinea-worm, and dysentery. It means children will die.
Six hundred miles to the north, Khartoum’s Arab elite are awash in oil money. From near-bankruptcy in the late 1990s, Sudan has tripled its gross national product in the past seven years. Consumers buy giant flat-screen plasma TVs, expensive new cars. The capital city, Khartoum, has new roads, an elevated expressway, weapons factories constructed by the Chinese, and Malaysian-built refineries that pipe oil to tanker terminals on the Red Sea. Sudan’s proven oil reserves are estimated at a fairly hefty 5-6.5 million barrels, giving it the fifth largest reserves in Africa.
But South Sudan, where most of that oil actually comes from, remains one of the poorest regions on the planet. Historically marginalized by Khartoum first under the Ottoman Turks, then under the British, and now under Arab Islamists who control the central government the South, black African and religiously diverse, has zero manufacturing capacity. Everything from building supplies to salt has to be trucked in from neighboring Uganda or Kenya.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (commonly referred to as the CPA), signed in January of 2005, was supposed to address these inequities. Brokered by the U.S. and Kenya in painstaking, seemingly endless negotiations, the CPA was an acknowledgment by the warring parties the National Islamic Front, representing the government in Khartoum, and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), representing the rebels in the South that neither side could win the bloody civil war that had staggered on for 21 years. The agreement was not truly comprehensive: It did not include the three western Sudanese states known as Darfur, which were just then erupting into violence; nor did it address the needs of other marginalized regions and constituencies suffering under Khartoum’s yoke. Nevertheless, the agreement was hailed as a triumph by the Bush administration and by an international community eager to see the conflict resolved.
Whatever its limitations, the CPA did, at least, address the only partly ideological root causes of the conflict in the South. Khartoum had, indeed, wanted to impose fundamentalist Islamic law on all of Sudan; but, from the beginning, the conflict was largely over wealth-sharing. Increasingly this civil war also became a “resource war.”
Under the CPA, South Sudan was to have the status of a semi-autonomous state, with control over its internal affairs. Revenues from the southern oilfields were to be divided 50-50 between Khartoum and the newly formed Government of South Sudan. The CPA also provided for a plebiscite, scheduled for 2011, in which the South could vote to secede. This future vote was meant to placate southerners who feared Khartoum would not keep its word.
So now, three years into the CPA, southerners are asking with increasing agitation: Where is the promised oil money?
The sight of that toddler pointing a pistol at me was unsettling, but not nearly as disturbing as the explanation the Colonel offered: because he thinks you are an Arab. A gregarious bully who seemed to be part of the security detail assigned to the group I was with, the colonel, perhaps reading my expression, retrieved his pistol and tucked it into the fanny pack under his belly. But if the pistol was out of sight, the words hung there, a reminder of the larger danger that lay just beyond the bar’s jury-rigged walls. Subsequent events have confirmed my assessment that this sprawling, dysfunctional country is again slipping into the racial polarization of “Arab” versus “Black” that has prevented it from becoming a coherent nation. Sudan is again poised at a precipice.
The enmity between slave-taking Arabs and black Africans goes back centuries, long predating Sudan’s existence as a nation. “The Sudan,” as many people still call it, is in fact a comparatively recent amalgamation: North and South were thrown together for the convenience of a hastily departing British colonial government in 1956. The British left the Arabs “in charge,” much as the Belgians did with the Hutu in Rwanda. Even so, the ethnic tensions might now be transcended, were it not for the way Khartoum manipulates them to its own immediate advantage, here as in Darfur. Now, the whole country including the three western states that comprise Darfur, where two million displaced people already live at the edge of disaster, dependent on outside aid appears ready to plunge into a bloody ethnic war.
Following the “Lost Boys”
I was in southern Sudan as a journalist, along with filmmaker Jen Marlowe, sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Marlowe had traveled to Darfur in 2004, helping to make the documentary film Darfur Diaries; I had been to South Sudan previously, thanks to my interest in events in Darfur. We both wanted to better understand the relationship between Darfur and the South, and to see whether the CPA was working and if not, why not?
We were accompanying three Dinka men in their mid- to late twenties Samuel Garang Mayuol, Chris Koor Garang, and Gabriel Bol Deng who were visiting their villages of origin for the first time in 20 years. Their odysseys had begun in the mid-1980s when their villages were attacked by militiamen on horseback. These Arab militias, known variously as murahaleen or mujahedin, had been acting as proxies for the Khartoum government, which was intent on depriving the southern rebel movement of its support among its own people, while clearing the energy-rich region for oil exploration.
Young boys at the time, the three had fled for their lives along with thousands of others, trekking for months, across rivers and desert, to Ethiopia. There they stayed for several years until the Ethiopian government fell to rebels allied with Khartoum who bombed the UN-supported refugee camp and drove them out again. This time, they fled south into Kenya, where they spent nine years in Kakuma refugee camp (whose population swelled, at one point, to 85,000).
Finally, in 2001, under the sponsorship of American church groups, these three all Catholic were among 3,800 young southern Sudanese refugees resettled in the United States, where they became known as the “Lost Boys,” a whimsical reference to Peter Pan. There are a few “Lost Girls” as well, but boys were especially targeted by the murahaleen out of fear they would join the rebels, and so made up the bulk of the exodus.
Our three Lost Boys, who had shared a hut at the camp in Kakuma, were settled in different American cities. They got jobs. One worked in a hospital; another in a factory handling freight; the third tutored fellow refugees. They worked hard, adjusted to their strange, new surroundings. Saved money. Remitted some to relatives and friends in Kakuma. Started college. Became U.S. citizens.
Two of the “Boys” had no idea whether their parents were alive or dead. Gabriel Bol Deng, the oldest, thinks he was nine or ten when his village was attacked. While tending his father’s cattle several miles away, he heard shots and saw militiamen on horseback in the midst of his herd, firing guns and swinging their swords, driving the cattle north. He hid in the tall grass and, when they were out of sight, ran toward his village to warn the others, but black smoke was already rising from the round thatched huts known as tukuls.
Two fleeing villagers prevented him from going any closer, but one was quickly shot dead. Once again, Deng escaped into the grass. He later returned to the burning village and found bodies, but no sign of his family; then he ran until darkness fell, when he had to climb a tree to avoid being eaten by lions or hyenas. So began a trek to Ethiopia that lasted months, part of an exodus led by a few adults of thousands of boys of all ages clumped into groups, dressed in rags or naked, bombed and strafed by Sudanese government planes, feet bloody. Some drowned in rivers; others were eaten by crocodiles and lions. Dying of thirst, they drank any water they could find; some drank urine. Starving, they chewed on inedible plants or ate dirt.
Now, as summer approached in 2007, Deng and the others who had not seen each other, only e-mailed and talked on the phone, since 2001 were returning to visit their villages. They weren’t sure what they would find, though they desperately hoped to find their families alive. They wanted to know what peace had brought, and what lay in store for their people. These young men Dinka, but also Americans, schooled now in the world of paved streets and vacuum cleaners, iPods and laptops were about to take another dizzying odyssey, this one into the past and, possibly, the future.
Of the three returnees, Deng seemed the most fully formed and took the greatest pains to make himself accessible. He struck me as idealistic but also open-eyed. During the seven weeks we traveled together, I came to value his insights. Deng is a natural leader: he expresses himself forcefully, yet knows how to listen. Stocky, with blunt features, he maintains a stolid expression, occasionally transformed by the flash of an irrepressible smile. He networks relentlessly and would probably make a good, conventional politician, but for now he is single-mindedly in pursuit of a dream that springs from his experience as a refugee. He wants to establish a primary school in his childhood village, Ariang.
Deng was about thirteen when he attended school for the first time in that refugee camp in Ethiopia. There, he realized the power of education. He had just graduated from first grade in 1991, when the camp was attacked. After another harrowing trek, in which many of his young companions were shot or drowned, he eventually ended up in Kenya at Kakuma camp. He was about fifteen when he finished second grade there. The instruction was better at Kakuma. The UN provided trained teachers for the upper grades. Determined to advance as quickly as possible, Deng sold okra that he grew in a garden behind his tukul to pay for private classes during school-term vacations. Rations were spare, so sometimes he went hungry in order to learn, but he managed to skip from third to fifth grade.
“We had no paper to write on,” he recalled. “No books. I learned to listen very carefully to the teachers. I separated cardboard from boxes into layers so I would have paper for taking notes.”
On May 20, 2007, two days before we took off from New York’s Kennedy International Airport for Africa, Deng graduated from Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, with a B.A. in math education. He is now pursuing a master’s degree.
Homecoming in the Shadow of Darfur
The bond between the three men was palpable the moment they embraced at the airport and lapsed into Dinka. Although they had assimilated in different ways into American society, they shared some striking similarities. All three brought several changes of fashionable clothes that they would keep scrupulously clean, while Marlowe and I got by with backpacks and grubby T-shirts. When we missed a meal which often happened I would complain that I was “starving,” whereas they, who had actually experienced starvation, endured without comment or complaint; yet they rejected food that affronted their pride if, for instance, they did not feel adequately welcomed in a place.
As a group, whatever their individual differences, all three were strikingly compassionate. Each wanted to give something back to their people. The chartered single-engine Cessna that took us a thousand miles northwest from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, deep into South Sudan carried a cargo of medical supplies and 300 insecticide-treated mosquito nets most of it purchased by Chris Koor Garang, the youngest of the three, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, and was recently certified as a nurse. Garang had raised money on behalf of a U.S. faith-based nonprofit called Jumpstart Sudan, which had built a new clinic in the town of Akon. (Jumpstart was founded by another “Lost Boy,” Akot Lual Arec.) During the three weeks that we planned to use Akon as a base for overland travel, Garang would volunteer his nursing skills.
The third man, Samuel Garang Mayuol, lives in Wheaton, Ill., just outside Chicago. Taller than the others and soft-spoken, he seemed the least focused; yet he commanded respect. When he talked, others listened. Mayuol had already completed an Associates Degree in business and was launched on a degree in marketing and business accounting. Of the three, he alone knew that one of his parents his mother was still alive. This he had learned from cousins in 1998, while still at Kakuma, and years later he managed to talk with her on the phone. Mayuol wanted to do something for his village, but wasn’t sure what apart from helping with the purchase of the mosquito nets. By the journey’s end, however, his mission was clear.
After a six-hour flight from Nairobi, with a stop for refueling, our plane touched down on the red clay landing strip at Akon, a county seat about 300 miles northwest of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and about 45 miles south of the Darfur border. A few miles east of that border at the border between Warrap state and Southern Kordofan is the oil-rich region of Abyei, claimed by both North and South. Abyei could easily become the flashpoint for Sudan’s next war.
Akon’s proximity to Darfur is worth highlighting. Darfur, portrayed as if in a vacuum by much of the American media, shares several hundred crucial miles of border with South Sudan one reason their destinies are inextricably linked. Scholars like to argue about the ethnic, religious, environmental, and historical distinctions that set Darfur apart; but, to put it simply, Darfur is just the most recent manifestation of a larger schism that has pitted the ruling Islamo-Arabist elite in Khartoum against the black periphery. At bottom, it is all the same war. For this reason, it is hard to imagine a separate, viable, lasting peace in either Darfur or the South while the other remains at war.
Within minutes of our arrival, we were welcomed with exuberant singing by a delegation that included tribal elders and the county commissioner a graceful Dinka woman, standing easily six-and-a-half feet tall in a colorful flowing garment and speaking eloquent English. She would make available a new Toyota Land Cruiser for our travels to nearby villages as authorized by the wife of Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of South Sudan.
Surreally, the World Health Organization compound, where Marlowe and I stayed, has Internet access and cold, filtered water. But outside the WHO stockade is a world apart from the occasional bicycle or motor vehicle that conjures a distant past, where life is very close to the bone: a terrain alternately dusty and muddy, with scrawny children and wandering goats; a tented marketplace whose vendors sell sorghum, groundnuts, sugar, charcoal, and conical blocks of snuff, but little in the way of fresh fruit or vegetables, which generally have to be imported from Uganda. Wells with hand-pumps discharge water of uncertain quality.
Akon’s brick secondary school, which serves the surrounding villages, is dark and decrepit; the children ragged; the younger ones crowded together on the cement floor. Only the upper grades have desks. Girls rarely make it that far, most having dropped out to work in the fields or care for younger siblings. The teachers we interviewed had not been paid for months. Soldiers had gone eight months without pay. These were the first hints we had of the financial crisis that had overtaken the new government in Juba. Little was being reported.
“Nothing We Can Do Is Enough”
We stayed in a group, visiting each man’s home village in turn. At each, our Land Cruiser was swarmed by children who wanted to touch it, peek inside, and gaze into the rearview mirrors. The shrill ululations of women would split the air and the young men would be embraced by aunts, uncles, and others from their long-lost lives.
Colorful robes would be thrown over each of us. Spearmen dressed in crimson or white tunics would hold down a young bull for us to step over and then slaughter it. They poured water from a gourd onto the feet of the returning men to purify them and to bind them again to the village, then spat on their foreheads in blessing.
Apricot-colored dust rose from the feet of dancers. Drums throbbed. Bottles of soda and traditional chairs made of hewn wood and strips of cowhide, or ubiquitous molded plastic lawn chairs from Uganda would be brought out for us. The three men received a steady stream of well-wishers and, in the midst of this joyous celebration, they learned who had died. Dinka are famously proud and stoical, not inclined to show pain. But these homecomings were overwhelming; each man, at some point, shed tears.
Deng got an enormous reception at Ariang. He has, he figures, close to 600 relatives, since his father had five wives and his uncles on both sides several wives apiece. The Land Cruiser stopped a couple of miles away as excited well-wishers began running across fields, flocking past us. Deng got out and walked, carrying a toddler at one point, looking the part of a hero.
After the rites with the bull had been performed, he was taken aside by his uncle, led into his mother’s family tukul, and there gently told that both his parents had died. Deng bowed his head. It was the news he had, for years, prepared himself to hear. His parents were not young. Still, he told me afterward, the knowledge had filled his heart with grief. “It was the hardest news I ever heard.”
At the celebration, Deng searched the crowd for his childhood friends the age-mates who are so important in Dinka culture. Later, when he did the math, he was stunned to realize that only perhaps a third of them had survived. The civil war had cut deep into Ariang and now, ironically enough, peace, too, was taking a toll. As he visited the various tukuls the following day and spoke with families in private, he began to grasp their desperation. WHO’s measles immunization program had not yet reached Ariang, owing in part to the poor roads. Earlier that very spring, 35 children had died of the disease in this village alone. Some showed signs of malnutrition. “People tell me that with the peace signed they are no longer running,” Deng said, shaking his head, “but nothing else has changed.”
In the face of such poverty, such hardship and suffering, he suddenly felt overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. The other men voiced similar feelings. Garang, the nurse, realized his cargo of medical supplies which had taken him so much time and effort to assemble and deliver was a pittance. The need was too great. He treated a snakebite victim, a four-year-old girl with an abscess in her foot that reached to the bone and smelled of gangrene. She would probably die, he told me, despite his best efforts, because there was no hospital to perform an amputation. More than once Garang said, in anguish: “Nothing I can do is enough.”
Shortly after our arrival, he received good news: his mother and father were alive and in Kuajok. He sent a cousin by motorcycle with word that we’d be coming, and we shortened our stay in Akon in order to have a few extra days in Kuajok, only 60 miles away as the crow flies but half a day on a road more nearly a track that would become increasingly impassible in the rainy season, which was beginning in earnest.
The tenuousness of life in the South made Garang’s reunion with his parents the more astonishing. He had only been about seven when he fled. That he had walked 1,000 kilometers, survived parasites that threatened to kill him, made it to Kenya, and ended up a man with the means to return, bearing gifts; that his parents, who had fought together in the rebel army, had somehow endured two decades of bombs, land-mines, and famine, to be on hand to greet him all of it seemed little short of a miracle.
We arrived in Kuajok at dusk, eighteen passengers crowded into a Toyota pickup with all our gear. (We never traveled anywhere without promptly doubling our number in cousins and hangers-on.) When we pulled into the Garang family compound, where family members had been waiting for hours, pandemonium broke loose.
Garang’s parents were still officers in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and much of the extended family was decked out in the ill-fitting butterscotch uniforms of the SPLA as well. Ecstatic embraces were followed by extravagant heel-clicking salutes by cousins.
Later, we made the trip south to Wau, the capital of Western Bahr-el-Ghazal state, between rains, squeezing into a 4×4 Toyota van nineteen of us now, including Garang’s parents (his mother toting an AK-47 as part of our security detail), and three young children. Those 70 miles were on a road that seemed to consist of little but an endless braiding of water-filled ruts. Whenever it became a lagoon, the driver was forced to abandon it entirely. Once, he zigzagged so far afield, skirting around household plots of sorghum, that he had to ask directions. Incredibly, this is the main road to Uganda.
Three times the size of Juba, the southern capital, Wau is a full-fledged city, with a population of more than three million. It is connected by rail to Khartoum to the northeast and Nyala in Darfur to the northwest. Wau boasts numerous single-story masonry buildings, including indoor markets, a university, a hospital, 11 mosques, and a large Catholic mission complex whose brick walls hearken back to British colonial days.
Outwardly, the city looks intact, but the appearance is deceptive. Posters warn pedestrians of the danger of unexploded mines, left over from the civil war. The university of Bahr-el-Ghazal is barely functioning, crippled by a student strike over lack of teachers, classes, and textbooks. Although the single hospital is the largest in the region, its monthly payroll has shrunk by nearly half in the last year. Hospital administrator Ater Chawul Malisal opened a cupboard to show us the meager available supply of Chinese-made medicines. “It is not nearly enough. Since the CPA was signed, there is peace, but no drugs.” Neither he, nor the medical director, Dr. James Patrice Ibrahim, had been paid in three months.
Ibrahim, who wore a striking chartreuse dashiki, was even more outspoken. Shortfalls in salaries, medicines, and personnel had all worsened, he told us, since the CPA. He blamed poor planning in Juba. “I have no budget. I have to ask for everything. Even diesel fuel. The [state] minister of health is in Juba now three weeks, looking for an ambulance, looking for salaries.”
We encountered similar frustration everywhere we went. Part of the price of South Sudan’s new semi-autonomy is that the ten southern state governments, which are supposed to deliver basic services, and which previously had been funded at least meagerly by Khartoum, now depend wholly on the government of the south. And clearly, very little money was coming out of Juba.
Something was seriously wrong. Oil had triggered the longest civil war in Africa’s history. Today, oil exports are the driving force in Sudan’s economy. Oil was supposed to fuel the peace. Why isn’t that money reaching the South?
We were well positioned to hear the opinions and complaints of ordinary southerners. Western journalists, when they arrive at all, usually zip in and out of the South in a day or two with an interpreter, or they interview only those who speak English. Our advantage was that the three Lost Boys were chatting informally in Dinka everywhere we went for seven weeks. They caught the drift of public opinion in all its nuances in ways no western journalist could possibly do. What they encountered above all was cynicism.
To our surprise, in the areas of the South we visited, blame was as likely to be directed at Juba as at Khartoum. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement was criticized for not getting out into the countryside, for not improving living conditions. SPLM officials were accused of feathering their own nests, as well as engaging in nepotism and outright corruption.
We found some truth to this, but we expected to discover other answers in Juba our next stop. Answers are important. Huge and strategically located, Sudan is nearly a million square miles in area, straddling the Nile and bordering on ten countries. At the moment, southern Sudan is bearing the brunt of the industrial world’s quest for resources. Sudan’s stability, or lack of it, may well hold the key to the future of Africa.
In Juba, we got some surprises.
Even before the Cessna touched down in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, I knew that we were on the front lines of what may someday be a huge war; that we were witnessing the opening skirmish in a series of resource wars in which countries like Sudan and Nigeria now figure prominently, but which may spread to most of Africa. Not only is this continent rich in mineral wealth; but the inhabitants of a number of its countries can still be driven from their land raped and killed with impunity. Today’s resource-driven conflicts are but an extension of the slave trade as well as the ivory, gold, rubber, and diamond trades that have fed on Africa, undermining and corrupting its people’s attempts at governance.
Oil was the precipitating cause of the 21-year-long civil war in Sudan. The South had the oil; the North was the center of power. When the North first moved to seize the southern oilfields in the mid-1980s, a rebellion began and, immediately after that, came the attacks on southern villages that caused our “Lost Boys” to flee for their lives. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in January of 2005, was supposed to heal the rupture between North and South and divide the oil equitably.
In neighboring Darfur, the more immediate issue is water: water for grazing versus water for farming, the competition between herders and farmers exacerbated terribly by drought, global warming, and encroaching desert. Some of the poorest, most disenfranchised Arabs had no place to graze their herds, so they were easily recruited into the militias known as the Janjaweed, along with common criminals, and given license to steal, rape, and kill.
Oil and water don’t usually mix. In this case they do. Neither Darfur, nor South Sudan can be understood in isolation. They are part of the same marginalized hinterland that is struggling with the central government in the North for access to resources.
Actions in the past few days have dramatized their connectedness. One of the Darfur rebel factions threatened to withdraw from peace negotiations. Why? Because of Khartoum’s failure to honor the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in South Sudan. And while water triggered the conflict in Darfur, oil continues to fuel it. Oil pays for Khartoum’s increasingly sophisticated arms purchases from Russia. Oil buys China’s support at the UN Security Council, so that a culture of impunity can go largely unchecked. Oil buys the quiescence of the good citizens of Khartoum, who pretend not to know what is going on 500 miles away. Rumors abound that Darfur itself may contain oil reserves beyond those located in its southeast corner as well as valuable deposits of uranium and gold.
I had riches of my own. Traveling with Gabriel Bol Deng and two other “Lost Boys” through South Sudan offered filmmaker Jen Marlowe and me a privileged glimpse into the heart of Dinka society its elaborate handshakes, its female healers and dancers, its songs and genealogies. Marlowe captured much of it for the documentary film she is now editing and trying to fund. Even the painful moments the stark poverty, the belly hunger were part of our journalistic witness; an opportunity to assess the strength of a tenuous peace in a region that has been almost constantly at war for the better part of a century. It was also, we knew, a window that could slam shut at almost any moment.
Oil Does Not Last Forever
The fractures in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, seemed to be widening just in the weeks that we were traveling in the area.
“We are not getting all our oil,” cabinet minister Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin told me in his office in Juba, speaking of his government’s $300 million budgetary shortfall. The problem as I had been hearing for two years now was that Khartoum was stalling on demarcating the border between North and South that runs through the northern reaches of the country’s richest oilfields.
Benjamin also singled out Khartoum’s failure to implement the protocols designed to resolve the dispute over Abyei, which holds some of the richest oilfields. “The oil we are getting is from the few wells which are deep inside the South.” So instead of sharing revenues evenly, as dictated by the peace agreement, he suspects Khartoum of taking 100% of the oil from all but those few wells. Lack of transparency and the presence of Khartoum’s troops in the oilfields leave the South with no way of tracking the oil or auditing the revenues it should receive according to the CPA.
Benjamin’s title is Minister of Regional Cooperation for the Government of South Sudan: He combines the roles of foreign minister and secretary of commerce. Sporting a subtly burnished golden silk necktie, and fluent in English, Benjamin is an energetic speaker who uses the full range of his voice which, when he complains about those northern troops in the southern oilfields, is both shrilly indignant and somehow endearing. One gathers that, in addition to his other roles, he is a lobbyist, importuning non-governmental organizations and friendly governments to help his impoverished but mineral-rich quasi-nation.
We are seated inside one of perhaps a dozen modular trailer-style offices parked near the site of a new complex of two- and three-story government buildings under construction. They may appear modest to a Western visitor, but for southern Sudan this constitutes a building boom, confirming the impression many southerners have that the government is focused on Juba, to the neglect of the countryside. Later, we will learn that Juba’s road-building program is being curtailed for lack of funds, as is road-building throughout the South; and, in September, Darfur scholar and activist Alex DeWaal will e-mail me on return from a trip to Juba, saying that he found the city on “a war footing.” He added, “It would be tragic and stupid if the internationals by focusing attention on Darfur blindfolded themselves to the prospects of an even greater tragedy that could be imminent in the South ”
The situation is deteriorating as I write. But when we were in South Sudan, government officials were still trying to put the best face on things.
Only a year and a half had passed since I was last in Juba and yet the city was barely recognizable, its population having exploded from 100,000 to a million. On the previous trip, I happened to see the foundations being poured for Juba’s first modern gas station probably the first in South Sudan. (In Kuajok, for instance, petrol is sold in glass bottles and jerry cans from stands.) Now, the capital’s streets are full of cars. The airport has expanded rapidly. Our pilot, Captain Saleh, confirmed that the runways had been lengthened by at least a third to accommodate large passenger jets.
Sometimes, not far away, we could catch the throaty diesel roar of tanks engaged in maneuvers a reminder that, in this embattled land, fully 40% of the national budget goes to defense. A reminder that the war might come tomorrow
Back to Dr. Benjamin, who was explaining that, in 2006, Khartoum had paid the government of South Sudan a little over one billion dollars as its annual share of oil revenues, based on a production level of 300,000 barrels per day. With production expected to increase to half a million barrels per day in 2007, his government had assumed its share would rise to somewhere between $105 million and $115 million per month “But no!” says the minister indignantly, “We are getting less! One month it dropped to $44 million!” The government is forced, he says, to go begging, looking for grants from “our friends” to make ends meet.
Benjamin’s explanation is passionate, if a bit simplistic. To begin with, Khartoum’s own projections may have been overly optimistic, inflated by its bullish oil minister Awad Ahmed al-Jaz. A hardheaded report from the Economist this June calls al-Jaz’s prediction of an increase of up to one million barrels per day next year “too rosy.” The country’s original oilfields, which produce valuable low-sulfur oil known as Nile Blend, are already “maturing,” as indicated by a drop in production from the 300,000 barrels per day Benjamin cited to 254,000 barrels in the first quarter of this year. Higher in sulfur, the new Dar Blend now coming on-line is reportedly selling for only a third of the average international price of crude oil.
The knowledge that some of Sudan’s best oilfields are already starting to decline should be sobering to all parties. It puts Khartoum’s stalling into perspective. Oil does not last forever.
In the meantime, Khartoum’s refusal to remove its troops from the oilfields only reinforces the South’s worst suspicions. Benjamin hedges his words. He does not quite say that Khartoum is stealing the South’s oil, or accuse Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of “acting in bad faith” a charge leveled by the South’s President, Salva Kiir Mayardit, last January during a public celebration of the second anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Instead, Benjamin speaks of “certain elements within the National Congress Party” the ruling party in Khartoum who seem intent on scuttling the peace agreement.
He and his colleagues in the government wondered, he explained, if Khartoum had a “Plan B” in mind that prompted them to sabotage the CPA. “Well,” he said, as if addressing Khartoum directly, “Have you got another plan, by refusing to implement the CPA?… Why are you buying modern aircraft, MiG-29s and the rest? Whom are you going to fight? So have you a ‘Plan B’? And that’s why we say to the international community ‘Help us, we don’t know what the hell is going on.'”
The CPA, the minister emphasized, is an international agreement. Its implementation should be monitored by all its signatories. It was signed onto not only by the two warring parties the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political arm of the southern rebels led by John Garang, and the National Congress Party (formerly the National Islamic Front), representing the Government of Sudan but also by the UN, the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League, and individual nations including the United States, which helped broker the treaty. “I should not have to shout this from the rooftops! You don’t give birth and then forget You need to nurse it, see that it grows properly.”
The peace, he said, cannot “grow properly” if the flow of international aid to the South slows to a trickle, as has happened. The attention concentrated exclusively on Darfur, the catastrophe du jour in the West, has been a disaster for the South. Most of the money pledged by wealthy nations at the Multi-Donor Trust meeting at Oslo in 2005 and specifically earmarked for development in the South has been diverted to humanitarian aid in Darfur.
In a second interview, I was joined by Gabriel Bol Deng, who asked Dr. Benjamin what his government was doing to “support our brothers and sisters in Darfur.” The minister assured him that the SPLM supports the delivery of humanitarian aid and the deployment of UN troops in adequate numbers in the region; but, he stressed, the marginalized people in Darfur “need a political settlement.” The CPA offers “the nucleus of peace that can spread throughout the Sudan.” By the same token, “If the peace process in the South collapses, then the whole country goes back to war.”
During a brief audience with President Salva Kiir Mayardit, I asked about the charge of “bad faith” he had leveled at Khartoum. He denied only that he had hurled the accusation in anger at Bashir personally. “I did not abuse him,” he said.
This seemed to catch the essence of his government’s official stance toward its former enemies, and now partners, in the new Unity Government an edgy bluntness combined with an attempt at surface equanimity: It is not Bashir personally, not even the Bashir regime, but rather “certain elements” that are sabotaging the CPA.
Under this studied calm lurks a grim principle of asymmetrical warfare: When a guerilla operation goes conventional, it loses its chief strength, its ability to hit the enemy and disappear. In any future conflict, the South and the other hinterlands of Sudan will be vastly outgunned. Just as Khartoum’s oil pipelines and other infrastructure were once vulnerable to a ragtag rebel guerrilla army, now Juba is vulnerable to the well-armed North’s superior airpower which makes Benjamin’s reference to ‘Plan B’ ominous indeed.
A Collision Course in the Sudan
Is a political resolution of the North-South impasse even possible?
Pagan Amum, the Secretary General of the SPLM, claims to think so. More sedate than I remembered him from an interview in 2005, he was nonetheless clearly determined to remain publicly optimistic. A heavyset man with a thin goatee who has charge of the SPLM’s daily workings, he spoke softly about the prospects of achieving peace throughout the whole of Sudan via the political process enabled under the CPA.
Just as the old Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is “transforming itself into a modern conventional force,” he insisted, so the SPLM is “transforming itself from a rebel movement into a political party that can organize on a national scale not just in the South, but in the north, the east, the west,” it will be able to compete with the National Congress Party for control of the central government, he said, even in time for the national elections (officially scheduled for 2008, but almost certain not to happen until 2009, after a necessary census is conducted).
In preparation for elections, he claims that an SPLM organizing campaign has already registered 600,000 members, with a goal of two million. “SPLM is the political party that can actually achieve a united Sudan, on a new basis a Sudan that can be for all Sudanese.”
Back in 2005, I had heard Amum spin out a similar vision of a secular Sudan, committed to gender equity and religious freedom over beers at a table in the outdoor Afex Café, a hangout for SPLM bigwigs and NGO workers in the heady days of the then-new peace when a young almost-country was drafting its new constitution. The tables were in a mango grove overlooking a bullet-riddled, rusting barge half sunk in the White Nile. In those days even given the mysterious death of the movement’s charismatic if autocratic leader, John Garang, in a helicopter crash three weeks after his installation as vice president of Sudan and before this grinding poverty-in-peace had taken its toll, it was easier to dream of, and sound convincing about, a Sudan that might help democratize and unify the whole of Africa.
Now, for all his talk of grassroots organizing, Amun seemed to lack either a real plan or deep conviction when it came to a unified Sudan. (My traveling companion Deng later pointed out to me that Amum had tellingly staffed his office only with members of his own Shilluk tribe.) When I asked the secretary general whether his optimism was now somewhat “manufactured,” he denied it and pointed to recent, (exceedingly modest) “achievements”: The National Oil Commission, charged under the CPA with overseeing oil contracts and revenues, had, after two long years, finally met; Khartoum had formally agreed to withdraw all 14,000 of its troops from the South by July 9, 2007, then only a few days away.
I didn’t know which to find more astonishing, Khartoum’s announcement that it would withdraw its troops from the oilfields (which I had not gotten wind of), or the idea that Pagan Amum believed it would actually happen.
The jointly constituted Boundary Commission that was to settle the division of the oil lands was, he also pointed out, finally going to meet. “They have given us a firm date that, by February of 2008, the boundaries will be demarcated.” Could he believe that, either when Khartoum’s promises have so famously been written in disappearing ink? And where was his outrage, given that five years had passed without boundaries being demarcated in a region where Khartoum was assumedly pumping the oilfields dry?
Over two months later, back in the U.S., Deng expressed his growing impatience as the situation deteriorated. He found himself incensed at the gap between the lofty rhetoric that officials like Amum continue to spout and their inability, or unwillingness, to deliver services to the villages of the South, to the people. “During the war, the SPLA were stealing their cows or eating off the same plate with them. Now they need to give something back!” Using the impoverished Palestinians as a reference point, he spoke respectfully of the success of Hamas, which delivers food, schools, and free medical services “so the people vote for Hamas!”
Even if the organizers of SPLM’s political campaign actually succeeded in challenging Khartoum’s dominant National Congress Party, it seems unlikely indeed that its hardliners would ever voluntarily relinquish power at the ballot box. It’s worth recalling that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989, the fifth coup since Sudan achieved independence in 1956. Historically ungovernable, Sudan has little experience with democracy.
The vote Sudanese are eyeing most warily is a plebiscite in 2011, also authorized by the 2004 peace agreement, in which southerners supposedly will be allowed to vote on secession. Originally intended as a safety-valve for those southerners who came to the negotiating table doubting that any sort of agreement for a unified Sudan would work, the 2011 deadline is raising ever more apprehension as it grows closer.
Will the North allow the South, with its oil reserves, to pull out of the federation?
Virtually everyone in the region considers such an outcome inconceivable. Not peacefully, anyway. But if some of the benefits of “peace” don’t arrive soon, most think the South will vote overwhelmingly to secede and if the crisis in Sudan hasn’t already hit a full boiling point, it will then.
That North and South are on a collision course is clear to all. On a bus-ride to Nairobi, I sat next to a woman who killed the boredom of the 14-hour trip by confiding to me her black-market scheme to smuggle cigarettes from Kenya into South Sudan. She expected to make lots of money and then hoped to eventually move up to smuggling gold. She described the border crossing-points, gave me phone numbers, “They wouldn’t check you,” she said, clearly dreaming that my white skin would make me a perfect mule. “But,” she cautioned, “you’ve only got three years. You make your money and get out. That’s when they vote. And then they will go to war.” She mimed an explosive poof! with her hands.
Final Ironies, Saving Graces
A word about corruption in the new government. We encountered evidence of petty corruption firsthand. When it came time to leave Kuajok and settle our account at the Warrap State Safari Guest House, for example, we found that the SPLA colonel with the two-year-old who held me a gunpoint had disappeared and stuck us with his $56 bar tab. “That’s corruption,” said Chris Koor Garang, but he paid the bill, not wanting to cause trouble.
Political patronage is rampant in the SPLM. Jobs are handed out to relatives, former rebel commanders, and party loyalists, undercutting efforts to create a professional bureaucracy based on merit. Larger scale corruption came to light last March, when South Sudan’s minister of finance and economic planning, Arthur Akuien Chol, was charged with skimming public funds by vastly overcharging the government for Toyota Land Cruisers. President Kiir placed Chol under house arrest, reiterated a “zero tolerance for corruption” policy, and in July reshuffled his cabinet. Efforts are said to be underway to eliminate “ghost” civil servants from government payrolls.
Deng is a big fan of President Kiir who is not only Dinka but grew up near his childhood village, Ariang. Deng likes his humility, his roughhewn quality; but Kiir, he says, is in “a hard place. If he tries to get rid of the people who are corrupt, they will turn against his leadership. He’s in a hot-seat, and it’s up to him to take bold steps.”
In short, it seemed that, yes, corruption in the new state exists, but no, it is not yet rampant; not, for example, as in neighboring Kenya where bribery is commonplace at every level of government and society. At the moment in South Sudan, nepotism, tribalism, and cronyism are the most persistent impediments to professional efficiency and, of course, lack of funds. A further impediment to the smooth functioning of government is its very newness: Virtually every agency is working with draft laws, while the various state constitutions go through the process of approval, and this, for instance, hinders the writing of contracts for activities like uranium prospecting that might actually produce funds for the fledgling quasi-state.
While we were flying home from Nairobi, the July 9 deadline for Khartoum’s pullout from the southern oil fields came and went without action. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon waited six weeks to express his disappointment to the Security Council, calling on Khartoum to live up to its obligation under the CPA. Months later, however, the northern troops still have not budged, nor are they likely to without vigorous international pressure.
Thus far, the “war” between South and North is only a war of words, though it is escalating. Asked about his northern colleagues, President Kiir upped the ante in speaking to the New York Times. “They are cheating us,” he said bluntly.
The three Dinka men, those former “Lost Boys” we traveled with so intimately familiar with the costs of war have returned to lives in Syracuse, Tucson, and Chicago. They remain intent on completing their educations here and doing what they can to nurture the peace there. Deng, who later confessed to me that he had secretly hoped to break ground on the school he plans to build at Ariang, now realizes it is going to be a much longer process than he ever imagined. It will have to include such obvious, but major, educational tasks as training teachers and other projects that, in many societies, would have nothing to do with starting a school, such as bringing clean water to Ariang. “A school is not just a building,” Deng comments. At the end of December, when his own semester is over, he plans to return to Ariang.
Chris Koor Garang has learned the same lesson when it comes to bringing a functioning clinic to the town of Akon. It’s one thing to build a structure, quite another to staff and equip it. Right now, the clinic building in Akon is locked up and unused for lack of funds. So Garang is spending time raising money. Next spring, he expects to help train nurses, though in conjunction with what organization he has not yet decided.
Samuel Garang Mayuol the only one of the three who had no clear plan of his own as we began came away with a clear sense of mission, once he saw the circumstances in which his people subsisted. As soon as he can afford to, he expects to return to drill wells so that his village, Lang, will have clean water. For now, he sits on the board of a nonprofit called Lost Boys Rebuilding Southern Sudan.
The irony of their personal situations is far from lost on these men. For all the wrenching upheavals and suffering they endured, they have obtained educations and material advantages of which they would never have dreamed, had they not been torn from their lives. In fact, it’s that very awareness which drives these three extraordinary young men, but it’s worth remembering that they are among the fortunate ones. Not all their peers who accompanied them to the U.S. have fared so well. Some have never recovered from the endless traumas involved in their flights and escapes, from the loss of family, of society, of everything that matters deeply to a child. Some are simply ordinary people, who have been terribly damaged; some are descending into alcohol and drug abuse.
And what of that two-year-old, playing with the pistol in the bar in Kuajok? In 2011, he will be six exactly between the ages of Garang and Mayuol when they fled into the night. Will that child have a school to attend? Access to medicine? A childhood? Or will he end up traumatized, at one end or the other of a gun, the victim of another resource war? Unless the international community can widen its spotlight from Darfur and take an active role in monitoring implementation of the peace agreement in South Sudan, the answer already seems painfully clear.
David Morse is an independent journalist and human rights activist whose articles and essays have appeared in Dissent, Esquire, Friends Journal, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, Salon, and elsewhere. His novel The Iron Bridge (Harcourt Brace, 1998) predicted a series of petroleum wars in the first two decades of the 21st century. He traveled to South Sudan most recently with support from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and wrote this article during a residency at Blue Mountain Center. Morse may be reached at his Web site: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007 David Morse