A Response to Clooney and Prendergast USA Today Article

By Yual Chiek, PhD

December 28, 2014 (SSNA) — One fact about the current war in South Sudan that is quickly fading from memory is the slaughter of thousands of Nuer in Juba. This is evident in Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast’s article. He is so quick to cite the tragic deaths in Bor, but makes no mention of the genocide of Nuer civilians by government forces in Juba. A mass murder that ignited this conflict. Frankly, as tragic as those deaths in Bor were, the fact is that the number of dead is only 70. And I might add that these individuals were most likely deaths resulting from cross-fire. There are even eye-witness accounts from Dinka citizens in Bor saying they were protected by Nuer fighters and even given provisions to aid them in their trek out of the region. But even if these individuals were victims of targeted killing, it is surely these deaths that were the result of revenge, crimes of passion, and not some botched Nuer attempt to ethnically cleanse the Dinka in Bor. The same cannot be said for Salva Kiir’s killing of Nuer civilians in Juba. This is a clear cut case act of genocide: the government is Dinka led and Kiir’s private militia – the one responsible for most of the killing in Juba – is composed entirely of Dinka youths from Warap, Kiir’s home region.

This brings me to the first of my two bones of contentions with Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast’s article. Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast cite that these killings were revenge for the 1991 Bor massacre. The implications of this statement are dangerous. Let me highlight this point with a Human Rights Watch case in which 200-400 Nuer men were rounded up, forced into a room and fired upon by Kiir’s government forces. To say that the killings of at least 200 Nuer men by government forces in Juba is mere-revenge is to clearly take sides whether Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast realize it or not. It is incendiary to even bring up the 1991 Bor Massacre itself, for I remind Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast that in 1991 there was no South Sudan. The SPLA was split between forces loyal to John Garang and forces loyal to Riek Machar, so to compare that situation to a government sponsored genocide of Nuer civilians in Juba and Malakal is deplorable. Perhaps this is okay with Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast, after all, these were Dinka youths who just wanted revenge for the 1991 Bor massacre. What is more, approximately 2,000 people were killed in the Bor massacre over a span of six months, this number has been more than doubled in only a matter of day in Juba. I am by no means trying to justify deaths by using numbers, I only wish to show the magnitude of Kiir’s crimes in Juba and Malakal.

But so long as we are on the topic of revenge why don’t we talk about what instigated the Bor massacre itself? In 1985 the Garang led SPLA waged a campaign against the Gaajaak tribe of the Eastern Nuer. In this campaign thousands of Nuer were killed, many villages were razed to the ground and much live stock was destroyed. In fact it was this massacre of Nuer that provided the catalyst for Nuer support of Riek Machar’s split, and the subsequent attack on Bor by enraged Nuer soldiers and Nuer civilians from Nasir. The attack was never even officially authorized by Riek Machar. But this is all history Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast might say. I agree. But then Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast should not bring it up in such sensitive times. To do so is irresponsible. In any event, Riek Machar offered an official apology for the Bor massacre. There has not been an apology to the Gaajaak from Kiir, or any of the Dinka SPLM officers who took part in the war against the Gaajaak Nuer.

The second issue I wish to bring up is this confused talk of child soldiers. With respect to the South Sudanese context this term has been so over sensationalized that it is difficult to make any clear sense of its meaning, or to the its possible referents. Moreover, Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast seem to conflate the “Lost Boys” with “Gash Amer.” The former were children who found their way abroad after Northern Sudanese raids that left many of their family members dead. Just as Clooney and Prendergast say. The latter was a program put in place by John Garang, Salva Kiir and other high ranking members of the SPLA in which children – sometimes as young as seven – were taken for military training in a town called Bilpam. The parents of these children were told that their children were being taken to attend school. There were two wings of this program. In the first wing children were shipped to Cuba through an agreement between Garang’s SPLA, Ethiopia’s then communist government under Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Cuban government. These children were taken in 1986 and within three years of their arrival in Cuba the SPLA quickly forgot about them. After numerous failed attempts by the Cuban government to get in contact with Garang’s SPLA, Cuban contacted the UN. It was then that these children received aid. My aunt was one of these children. As you can see this is a sad sordid history that requires careful retelling. The last thing we need is to conflate areas of this history that are better left distinct.

Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast’s insinuation that the Nuer rebels are using child soldiers seems to me to betray a lack of knowledge regarding the culture of the people in this war, and of what the implications of his statements are. Let me begin with the implications. The Kiir regime was the first one to state that there Riek Machar is using child soldiers in this war, so to my mind Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast are just endorsing the claims of a regime that should, by all rights, be the subject of sustained condemnation. In any event, there is no doubt that many of the fighters on the Nuer side are young, some of them teenagers. This much is sure. But to say that these youths are children is hyperbolic. But if the Nuer are vilified for having youth in their army, what about the Kiir regime? Kiir illegally trained 15,000 Dinka men and youths from Warap as a personal army “in case something happened.” Why is this not of chief concern? Let’s not forget that the Kiir regime is recognized as the legitimate government of South Sudan, Kiir’s actions are all the more egregious. Why vilify a people who are the object of ethnic cleansing when they, form a popular uprising in order to protect themselves? And that is what this war is all about on the Nuer side. It is a war to protect themselves against eradication. As a Nuer I cannot hesitate to say that the Nuer are not the villains here, we are the victims of an attempt to marginalize and silence us. This is an attempt to destroy Nuer, and it is fueled by a fear of possible Nuer political and cultural ascendancy in this young country. One doesn’t have to take my word for it, just look at the key positions in South Sudan. The great majority of them are filled by Dinka. How can this be anything short of an attempt to lockdown a social hierarchy in a young multi-ethnic state like South Sudan? It would be childish to remain recalcitrant in the face of such evidence. The use of violence is key to the establishment of a social hierarchy. If Kiir’s regime can execute Nuer civilians with relative impunity, then he can silence the great majority of them in fear while giving the illusion of impartiality by employing a class of Nuer comprador bourgeoisie. These tactics are not new. These were the very same ones employed by European Colonial Powers. If these tactics worked so well and for so long for Colonial Powers, should it be surprising that one African nation would use the same tactics against another? Again, only a flawed, and all too simple model of South Sudanese ethnic relations would bar this possibility from consideration as unlikely, or unrealistic.

As a Nuer, it is my cousins, my uncles that are in the frontline of this war. And my relatives were butchered in Juba. I cannot be silent, I will not. Nor do I have the luxury of not taking sides. For Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast to write as though we are the hapless victims of ambitious politicians is disappointing. It seems to us to be yet another reiteration of outdated rhetoric that envisions the African masses as deluded slaves under the sway of great men. Let me assure Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast that in the Nuer case this is false. My sentiments are shared by Sir Evans Pritchard, a British Anthropologist whose extensive work on the Nuer helped fuel the development of Social Anthropology. I recommend Pritchard’s work to all interested in an outsiders’ impression of Nuer political culture. In particular I suggest Pritchard’s monograph on the subject entitled The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People.

Strictly speaking, Riek Machar did not mobilize any of the Nuer forces in this war. To think that he did is just to lend credence to the idea that there was a coup d’état. There was no coup. And even if there was, why would civilians be targeted by the Kiir regime? The truth is Riek Machar fled for his life. He was unprepared for this war. The mobilization of the White Army among the Lou Nuer, the mobilization of the forces of Commander Gatdet Yak, and the mobilization of the Gikaany Nuer in Wulang County under Commander Garhouth Garkouth was in retaliation to the massacre of Nuer in Juba. Many Nuer in these three groups are not even political followers of Riek Machar. So it is simply wrong to assume that these Nuer are blind followers of Riek Machar. Riek Machar’s name was used a name to rally under.

But just consider the fact that the fighting rebels are entirely Nuer, and that this one ethnic group has been the object of Kiir’s SPLA, JEM mercenaries from Darfur and Ugandan forces. Make no mistake about it. This war is being waged against one ethnic group, one people: The Nuer. It is the Nuer who have been subjected to cluster bombing, and it is the Nuer who have been the overwhelming majority of the casualties of this war, and yet it is they that have been repeatedly portrayed as the aggressors. And when this is not done explicitly there has been consistent obfuscation of issues by insisting that it is simply ethnic strife. This is simply amazing to me.

I should like to say, however, that I like many South Sudanese are very grateful for Western countries that have provided shelter and aid to us during the years that Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast cite. The United States in particular has opened her doors to more South Sudanese refugees than any other country. For that we shall be forever grateful. I would also like to reiterate that without US pressure on Sudan, South Sudan might not be a reality. Our gratitude extends to individual American citizens of which Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast have been leading voices. These are people who, moved by the plight of our people, have contributed sacrificed their time and energy to bring awareness to South Sudan. That said, I do not see my comments on Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast’s article as an attack on their willingness to help, in fact I think the candor with which I have tried to address the issues is the beginning of Mr. Clooney and Mr. Prendergast wise call for reconciliation. But for reconciliation to be possible the entire conflict, in all its gruesome complexity must be brought into the light. South Sudan is a land of meandering paths, there is no easy way out.

Dr. Yual Chiek lives in Ontario, Canada.

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