Posted on January 27, 2014

South Sudan: Tribal War Along the White Nile

David Blair, Telegraph (London), January 15, 2014

Dawn was breaking over the White Nile as a heavily laden boat came into view. The ancient barge threaded its way past emerald reed-beds and beneath a flock of geese in perfect V-formation before drawing up near the shore.

One by one its haggard passengers disembarked, wading through the shallows to reach a muddy bank. Women struggled to avoid dropping infants into brackish water, children helped by carrying heavy bundles, one man in civilian clothes splashed ashore with an AK-47 rifle.

All looked tense and exhausted, which was no surprise as they had just completed a perilous overnight journey to escape the besieged town of Bor in South Sudan.

The White Nile bisects this country, so civil war has caused a nightly exodus across its waters. Every sunset, barges packed with refugees leave Bor on the east bank. When dawn breaks 12 hours later, the survivors land at a tiny harbour in the town of Minkamen on the western shore.

But the river has a treacherous current and fighting is raging nearby, so many fugitives do not complete the journey. A crowded barge sank outside the northern town of Malakal on Sunday–apparently accidentally–drowning 200 people.

Here in Minkamen, the boatmen must be skilled navigators for the river is a ribbon of islands and channels perhaps 10 miles wide. The barges go as slowly and silently as possible, dodging and weaving among the bulrushes like biblical fugitives.

The scale of this nightly crossing is remarkable. Some 85,000 people have arrived in Minkamen in the past four weeks, overwhelming a resident population of about 60,000. As I watched, four barges landed in the dawn light, delivering another 200 refugees–and several boatloads of stragglers came later.

South Sudan’s civil war is exactly a month old and the upheaval is already catastrophic. After only 31 days of fighting, one person in every 20 is a refugee within or outside the country. Some 400,000 are “internally displaced”; another 75,000 are in refugee camps in neighbouring states. Put simply, this is the first great humanitarian emergency of 2014.

Most tragically of all, this calamity is being wreaked upon a people who have already suffered beyond measure. South Sudan fought a brutal war for the best part of five decades, claiming perhaps two million lives, before finally winning independence from its northern neighbour in July 2011.

This is the world’s newest nation and its people surely hoped that their unimaginable sacrifice might bring some reward. Instead, their country has torn itself apart within three years of its birth–and this in the space of four weeks.

The long war sabotaged every effort to develop South Sudan, leaving this as a virgin land almost devoid of tarred roads and possessing no real cities except Juba, the capital. Beneath its plains lie enormous untapped resources: 3.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, with many more probably waiting to be discovered, huge tracts of empty fertile land and, almost certainly, rich mineral deposits.

South Sudan is about as close to untouched Africa as it is possible to get in 2014. No wonder that America, Britain and all the regional powers have been doing their utmost to prevent this war from escalating out of hand.

But their efforts have failed so far, leaving two key questions: why did the killing start? And where will it lead?

To start with the “why”: the confrontation pits Salva Kiir, the president, against a rebel army led by Riek Machar, a former vice-president who was sacked last July. These bitter rivals agree on nothing except that their war is a struggle for power. Mr Machar accuses the president of trying to become a dictator; Mr Kiir says that his unruly subordinate started everything by trying to carry out a coup on December 15.

Not many impartial observers believe the coup story. On the contrary, some think that Mr Kiir has been searching for a pretext to deal with Mr Machar, especially since the latter declared his aim to run for president in next year’s election.

These two enemies have very old scores to settle. Both fought for independence as senior commanders in the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

Mr Machar, a ferociously ambitious man with a doctorate from Bradford Polytechnic, had aspirations of his own. In 1991, he sought to seize the leadership of the struggle by breaking away from the SPLA and trying to topple its then commander, John Garang. The rebels then split along tribal lines, with Mr Machar’s Nuers and Garang’s Dinkas turning upon one another.

The Khartoum regime, presented with the spectacle of its enemies obligingly tearing themselves apart, duly fanned the flames. Mr Machar actually took weapons from Khartoum, allowing himself to be used to divide the struggle for independence. He needed 10 years to realise how he had been manipulated, eventually repenting and achieving a public “reconciliation” with Garang in 2002.

But Garang died in a helicopter crash a few weeks after the war against Khartoum ended in 2005. Mr Machar might have buried the hatchet with him, but never with Mr Kiir, who took over as SPLA leader and became South Sudan’s first president.

So there is no point of principle at stake here: old political rivalries are causing the people of South Sudan to be killed and driven from their homes. Of all the wars in recent history, this one must rank among the most futile.

But that makes it no less dangerous. Behind everything lies tribal rivalry between the largely Nuer rebels and the Dinka-led government. The bloodshed might have started as a political clash between two powerful men, but it is now escalating into an ethnic war.

The refugees have no doubts on this score. Those who make the journey across the White Nile from Bor are mainly Dinkas, fleeing the predominantly Nuer insurgents who have captured the town.

Achol Malual waded ashore from the barge in Minkamen with her daughter, Yom, 12, and her sons, four-year-old Rech and one-year-old Akoy. She decided to risk the journey after rebels broke into her uncle’s home and shot him dead, apparently because he was a Dinka.

“He was attacked in his home–they came in our compound and they shot him,” she said. “It is a tribal war. If they see you are Dinka, you are being killed.”

Atem Gak made the river crossing eight days ago. He did so after watching the insurgents kill two of his Dinka neighbours. “They were called outside and they were told to face the other way,” remembered Mr Gak. “They were forced to lie down and then they were shot in the back.”

He added: “If we had stayed in Bor, we would all be dead. I’m sure–100 per cent sure.”

By the time Mr Gak and his family had arrived in Minkamen, many thousands were already here. The refugees make their homes wherever they can find a patch of shade: almost every tree for several miles in all directions has a family sleeping under its branches.

Mr Gak lives beneath a sturdy Thou tree with his wife, Cecilia, 45, and their two sons and two daughters, aged between 13 and 18. Their only shelter is provided by a canopy of blankets, arrayed on sticks driven into the ground. Asked for how long they would stay under the tree, Mr Gak could only shrug.

The only good news is that aid is beginning to arrive. Oxfam uses water from the White Nile to feed three treatment plants, supplying the refugees around Minkamen with 350,000 litres of safe water every day.

Oxfam’s aid workers live in conditions similar to the people they are trying to help: they are camping near the river, with all their operations run from a thatched hut. The aid agency arrived on January 2, within a fortnight of the first refugees, and was able to get the first water-treatment plant running within 72 hours.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has also begun distributing food. None the less, Ferran Puig, Oxfam’s associate country director, is struck by how “in terms of shelter, there is nothing–people are under the trees”.

At night, the sound of artillery echoes across the river from Bor, reminding the refugees of the dangers they have fled. Their greatest fear is that South Sudan’s war will become an endless cycle of tribal violence, with retaliation begetting counter-retaliation. The signs are this juncture may already have arrived.