SOUTH SUDAN is a country that almost everybody shamefully forgets. Declared independent in 2011, and still the world’s newest nation, it was engulfed by war in December 2013 and has never recovered. The scale of the suffering is monumental, though nobody knows exactly how many have died or where. Nominally an ethnic battle, pitched between the Dinka and Nuer peoples, I witnessed this firsthand in 2015 when I was based there as a freelance journalist.
I’ve rarely heard more shocking horrors in all my years of reporting around the world from Afghanistan to Palestine. I took testimony from locals in remote refugee camps who told me about seeing women and children being burned alive in their tukuls (huts), mass rape against women from the “wrong” tribe, and people slaughtered in hospital beds. From the capital Juba to smaller towns such as Bor and Bentiu, joy at the country’s independence after decades of battling Sudanese forces soon descended into fear, misery, and carnage. Up to 100,000 people may have been murdered since 2013. Washington, a key advocate of South Sudan under both Presidents Bush and Obama, largely disengaged from the country when it fell apart.
With few reporters based permanently in South Sudan, it’s a country that receives relatively little media attention worldwide, not least because it’s easily framed as a brutal African war with little relevance beyond its borders. Western complicity in failed states, from Libya to Iraq to South Sudan, is rarely deemed important enough to warrant extensive investigation in the corporate media. There are notable exceptions, such as the recent New York Times feature on Hillary Clinton’s dismal judgment as secretary of state when backing the disastrous revolution in Libya, leaving a bloodied and broken state to this day.
It’s disappointing but unsurprising that vast swathes of Africa, and the world, are dismissed by the mainstream press. A combination of ignorance, racism, and parochialism renders billions of global citizens invisible. Thankfully there are independent reporters who refuse to solely report on the latest United States presidential campaign machinations and venture beyond the wire. Anand Gopal and Matthieu Aikins are just two fine examples of journalists who understand the term “embedding” to mean more than traveling with United States troops in a war zone; they spend months and years with the civilians caught up in the midst of hellish conditions.
United States journalist Nick Turse is equally committed to this mission. His 2013 best-selling book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, detailing American atrocities during the conflict and military attempts to cover them up, revealed startling new information that had been buried or suppressed for decades. Turse’s chosen technique was to listen to Vietnamese victims and their American perpetrators.
In his latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, he delivers a scathing and deeply reported account of South Sudan’s suffering since its collapse in December 2013. “I had landed in a place [unlike my work in Vietnam] where history was being made and I was going to do my best to report on a different kind of war victim,” he writes. “This time, it was going to be displaced people trapped by the thousands on United Nations bases that had become almost like open-air prisons.” In the last two and a half years, roughly 200,000 South Sudanese civilians have lived under United Nations protection in camps around the country because they feared for their lives from marauding government troops and opposition fighters.
Turse operates like a detective, speaking to as many voices as possible (and thankfully, unlike many reporters, he mostly eschews official spokespeople because he knows they’re programmed to deceive). The culture of impunity that permeates South Sudan is richly explained. When Turse asks a Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) judge advocate general about 100 soldiers arrested in February 2014 for involvement in targeted killings, and why they all miraculously escaped the following month, he’s simply told, “there was heavy fighting so everybody escaped.” A senior United Nations official tells Turse: “These guys are good. The South Sudanese are quite adept at the art of delay.”
After decades of ethnic cleansing and war, Turse writes that before the 2013 explosion,
South Sudan remained an infant state of submerged rage and deep suspicion filled with desperately poor people, lacking infrastructure, possessing only a sea of oil [the country is blessed and cursed with huge oil reserves] and too many men skilled in little beyond guerilla warfare. In other words, it was a powder keg with when, not if, stamped on it.
Turse rightly argues that little has changed since to avoid another bloodbath.
This is a fine book of reportage that meticulously details a catalog of horrors unleashed against civilians. He interviews Martha, a woman who was forced to flee with her children from Bor in December 2013. She recounts fleeing to the Nile River with armed Nuer rebels behind them. “I saw someone being shot,” she says. “First his head was there and then it wasn’t.” Martha survived after wading toward an overburdened ferry and keeping her children above water. Many were not so lucky and perished by gunfire.
Turse’s persistence in South Sudan is never rewarded with hard evidence of war crimes — “I take it as personal failure that I couldn’t verify even one site in or around Juba where corpses were secreted away” — but he skillfully describes a country on the brink of constant chaos. He challenges the United States to take responsibility for partially creating the mess but laments the likely option: “will [the United States] take an easier road — one that silences the guns of today only to have them ring out anew with even greater fury at the dawn of some distant tomorrow — or perhaps even sooner?”
The fracturing of South Sudan, along political, ethnic, and social lines, has led to an NGO-isation of the country. While the United Nations and countless humanitarian organizations provide essential services to the literally millions of civilians who need it — food, shelter, hygiene lessons, and basic education — the result is that international (and mostly unelected) bodies are taking responsibility for the running of a nation. If they all packed up and left tomorrow the situation would undoubtedly deteriorate on the ground, but too few people are asking what this situation says about modern state-making and who picks up the bill.
When a nation collapses, aid groups rush in to help and often provide lifesaving assistance (though this is routinely mismanaged). South Sudan is a grim example of a country that was given billions of dollars of United States support before and after 2011, and yet virtually none of those funds went to building sustainable institutions. Men with histories of violence (including Dinka President Salva Kiir and Nuer Vice President Riek Machar) were supported despite having no experience in running democratic institutions.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, successive Washington administrations, NGOs, and evangelical Christians began strongly backing the Christian South Sudanese against Islamic Sudan, a state that had received Iranian support and protected Osama bin Laden. They didn’t care about the human rights abusers in Juba who were just as brutal as those residing in Khartoum. The chances of South Sudan succeeding after 2011 were miniscule.
Turse travels around the country and hears civilians condemn both Kiir and Machar; their forces have been found by the United Nations and human rights groups to have committed horrendous war crimes, and yet nobody is held to account. A recent article in The New York Times, allegedly by both men, claimed to support reconciliation instead of human rights accountability, but it now appears the piece was written by a PR firm. I was constantly told by refugees in South Sudan last year that they hated how Kiir and Machar were feted in global capitals as peacemakers when they were war criminals.
With child soldiers a ubiquitous sight, the Obama Administration had a unique opportunity to respond. Instead, as Turse has reported for The Intercept and this book, the United States gave South Sudan a pass and chose to continue backing the new state politically and militarily. United States presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has avoided being asked tough questions on her central role in this mess. Today, journalists and civilians continue to suffer around the nation despite a faltering peace deal signed in 2015 and enacted this year.
With countless nations arming and training South Sudanese forces, including Sudan, Israel, and China, indefinite instability is guaranteed. The tragedy of South Sudan, apart from the constant suffering of civilians forced to survive a meager existence, is the lack of global concern. Success is far easier to support and 2011 independence saw an outpouring of well wishes. Today, however, Juba has squandered those positive feelings and created an autocracy where the voices of average men, women, and children are ignored and their pleas for justice shunned.
Turse’s book is a necessary and moving corrective to these silences.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, Guardian columnist, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).