"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
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
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,
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
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
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
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 4x4 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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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