For the next two months, ReadCONTRA founder Rajiv Golla will be living in Juba, South Sudan, working with the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, local journalists, and a number of local politicians, professors, and community leaders to paint a picture of the Third South Sudanese Civil War. This is the tenth in a series of articles about his travels.
Nestled in between a grocery market and a tailorâ€™s storefront in a run-down high rise Chinese market on Ngong Road sits the pulse of humanitarian coordination of South Sudan.
The Relief Organization of South Sudan (ROSS) was established under the short-lived Cessation of Hostilities agreement signed by the government and rebels and Addis Ababa in January 2014. Article 4.1 stipulated that each warring party establish offices to coordinate humanitarian interventions and opened up humanitarian corridors in neighboring countries Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. The government of South Sudan already had a functioning, using the term loosely, office to handle relief coordination. Within 5 days of the signing of the agreement, the rebels had already registered with the Kenyan government as a relief organization and secured office space in the China Centre.
I called ROSSâ€™s director, Gideon, and he came out to greet me in the hall. His forehead was scored with the 6 lines of Nuer manhood and the raised dots around his mouth that serve to distinguish his home region. His office was currently occupied with 10 rebel political figures going over talking points for the next round of peace talks in Addis and coordinating relief efforts with the UN and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) . We made our way up a few flights of stairs until we reached a Chinese restaurant on the top floor.
He waved over a waiter for a pot of tea and was about to introduce himself when his phone rang, the first of a few interruptions in our discussion. It was the ICRC asking about possible sites for food drops in Upper Nile. I felt guilty that I was distracting him from efforts that are more directly responsible for peopleâ€™s lives than a possible book or documentary written by an undergrad student in way over his head. But true to his South Sudanese blood, Gideon apologized for his phone call and immediately set about clearing the historical record for the Nuer tribe and the rebel party.
Gideonâ€™s own history with South Sudanese liberation began in 1983 when he took up arms to join the SPLA to fight the Arab north for his freedom. He quickly moved up the ranks and became a military commander alongside key figures in the current situation Salva Kiir and Riek Machar.
â€śThis war is different from the one I fought in. That one was dominated by politics and the thirst for freedom. This is one is dictated by hate.â€ť
Gideon recounted the capture of the town of Nasir by the SPLA during the Second Civil War. When it was a Nuer battalion capturing a town, morale was lifted signing Nuer songs. When it was a Dinka battalion capturing a town, morale was lifted signing Dinka songs. When it was a mixed battalion, the common enemy of the Arab was invoked. Nasir was a primarily Nuer town and his forces were predominantly Nuer as well. But when the pre-referendum Political Orientation Officer of the SPLA was putting together a propaganda film of the SPLAâ€™s successes over the previous decades, the scene of Nasirâ€™s capture was dubbed over with Dinka songs. This was the first of many conflicts Gideon with the ruling regime in his position with the Ministry of Information of Upper Nile state.
The SPLA was comprised of 70% Nuer soldiers, long hailed and known for their ferocity in battle and a source of pride for their people around the world. But according the current opposition forces, the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) has been whitewashing history and culture to vilify the Nuer despite their contributions to liberation and civil society.
The targeted killings of Nuer in Juba on December 15, 2013, constant civilian massacres on both sides, and ambushes laid for relief drop sites further antagonize a situation that has been brewing for thousands of years. Historically the Nuer and Dinka have always been diametrically opposed, not out of any ideological or religious differences, but rather competition over the same resources for their livelihood, cattle. But these tribal conflicts never escalated into full-on war until 1991 when Riekâ€™s SPLA splinter group massacred Dinka civilians and laid the groundwork for the current war today.
Bill Clintonâ€™s hand brought together Riekâ€™s and Garangâ€™s forces in 2002 for the common cause of independence instead of burning the country through tribal infighting. Salva Kiir, John Garangâ€™s deputy was sidelined and alienated in the decision, and he even went so far as to threaten to rebel against Garang in 2004. But Dr. Riek pulled Kiir aside and conceded the deputyship of the SPLA to Garang and even allowed Kiirâ€™s presidency after the death of Garang in an untimely helicopter crash in 2005. But as the story goes, it does not seem that even Riek had much of a choice in that matter. As relayed to me through several reporters and SPLM officials, in the conference room that decided the line of succession after Garangâ€™s death, military general Kuol Manyang drew his pistol to Kiirâ€™s head and decided the line of presidency with Kiir assuming his seat with trembling hands.
Through the transitional period Kiir and Riek were truly close, consulting each other on every matter. But the men John Garang had groomed to become the political elite in South Sudan felt sidelined with Kiirâ€™s presidency. He hadnâ€™t been as loyal to Garang as they had and they were determined to do something about it.
They drove a stake between the dynamic duo through keen political maneuvering and appointments and blocking every policy initiative Riek proposed in parliament. The tribal council of elders on both the Dinka and Nuer sides did not do much to assuage tension between the two. And Paul Malong Awan, current Chief of Staff of the SPLA, has capitalized on the increasing tribal tension between the two. He convinced Kiir to allow him to recruit 10,000 young Dinka soldiers from his hometown to become an unofficial presidential guard and these were the men responsible for the bulk of the killings carried out in 2013.
The fracturing of the countryâ€™s political structures can be pinpointed to a meeting of the Political Bureau in July, 2013. Once seated beside each other, Kiir and Riek now sat opposed as they debated several points of the constitution that drove the final nail between the two.