They’ll never pull it off, people said. Too little time, too little money, obstruction from the North … The April 2010 elections – both presidential and local – had gone poorly, ‘highly chaotic, non-transparent, and vulnerable to electoral manipulation’, as the international observers from the Carter Center declared. And a failed referendum would be even worse than no referendum at all: it would open the door to all of Khartoum’s objections, and lead straight to another civil war. But the autonomous government of South Sudan refused to make any concessions: ‘The date [of the referendum] is sacrosanct,’ thundered the president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, a tall, stocky, bearded man almost never photographed without his cowboy hat. Yet to everyone’s great surprise, not only did they pull it off, but it actually went well. Really well.
The streets of Juba, on the morning of 9 January, the first day of the referendum on the independence of South Sudan, were calm, almost empty. Ordinarily they are extremely busy. The main streets were metalled not long ago and the traffic never lets up: there are 4x4s with radios and humanitarian logos, more luxurious SUVs belonging to government officials (with synthetic furs covering the seats and an ornate tin box for tissues on the dashboard), vans, pickup trucks, motorcycles, endless streams of public minibuses, the occasional Hummer, bright yellow or orange. There are many substantial-looking buildings, bars, restaurants, businesses, cellphone and computer shops, beauty salons, clothing stores. It’s not Nairobi or Kampala, the neighbouring capital cities, but still you feel a real dynamism, a feverish circulation of goods, people and money. Of course there are poor people too, you just have to look around. At night they sleep in corners on dark streets, or in front of the walls topped with concertinas of barbed wire which protect the compounds of the humanitarian organisations. Here and there, between neighbourhoods, you can glimpse little improvised camps of displaced persons, with huts made from branches, sometimes covered with white or blue international aid tarpaulins.
The elite here are the Nilotic people, Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk, most of whom arrived in 2005 when the Southern rebels of the SPLA, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, took power; as for the local population, the great majority are Karo – Mandari, Bari, Kakua, among others. Many of them were refugees in Uganda or Kenya during the war and speak English, but the lingua franca is still Juba Arabic, a somewhat impoverished dialect. Peter, my boda-boda (motorcycle-taxi) driver, is Ugandan; for although the major businesses here all belong to government ministers and governors, or to their children, the gilded youth of Juba who returned from abroad after the peace agreements, almost all ordinary businesses are run by foreigners. The hotels and restaurants lining the Nile are often Kenyan, Ugandan or Ethiopian; the Eritreans control the water-trucking, the Darfuri own most of the shops, and other businesses are owned by the Arabs from the North. For a young man like Peter, Juba is an Eldorado: he earns three times more here than he could at home.
Outside the John Garang mausoleum, a vast empty lot surrounded by a tall iron fence with gilded spikes, I suddenly find myself swallowed up in a swarming crowd. All along the fence, thousands of people are patiently waiting in line. In the street, among policemen and soldiers wearing brightly coloured camouflage, a group of men in sports gear come forward, synthetic leopardskin around their hips and leaves attached to their arms, chanting in unison and brandishing sticks. They form a circle and begin a frenzied dance; some blow into their hollow sticks, which end in a plastic bottle with its bottom cut out, while others make huge leaps. Half a dozen white journalists, crouching in the centre of the circle, film or photograph them. It’s beautiful: the jet-black skin of the dancers – Dinka – gleams with sweat; they laugh showing all their teeth while they jump, displaying a ritualised but very real joy. In front of the entrance to the enclosure, the crowd presses in, tension rises, in a few instants the scene threatens to turn into a riot; the soldiers, nervous, shout and push people back, a few journalists try to slip between their arms, the gate slams shut and the crowd masses against it.
Inside, it’s much calmer. Long queues wait in front of the polling stations, between the TV networks’ satellite antennae and mountains of equipment. It is eight o’clock in the morning and President Salva Kiir has just finished a brief speech and become the first to vote, ceremonially, in front of an army of cameras; already, his convoy of black SUVs is setting off, bodyguards perched on the running boards, immense Dinka in impeccable suits, their foreheads scarified with a V. Voting has begun, the lucky people at the front of the queues wind their way, past the camera flashes, between officials wearing yellow fluorescent vests; the women have put on their beautiful Sunday dresses, the men their best suits or ceremonial outfits. Near the awning set up for special guests, George Clooney, who is deeply involved in Sudanese causes, holds forth in front of a throng of cameras; a little further on, the American senator and former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry speaks calmly to a few journalists. Between photo shoots, journalists exchange the latest information, often contradictory, about the fighting that took place the day before in Abyei, a contested oil-producing region just north of the demarcation line. Japanese and Norwegian election observers studiously take notes; Western diplomats congratulate ministers; the journalists are already desperate for something else to film. A group heads for Garang’s tomb, and several photographers run after them.
John Garang de Mabior is a mythic figure here, the only Southern Sudanese called by his second name, ‘Doctor Garang’. In 1983, a respected officer in the Sudanese army despite his Southern roots, Garang was dispatched to Bor, the capital of his native state, to put down a mutiny; instead, he joined the rebel troops and led them to Ethiopia, where he founded the SPLA with the aim of ending the oppression of the black peoples of the South by the Arab clique that has controlled Sudan since independence in 1956. The civil war that followed, Sudan’s second, lasted 22 years. Authoritarian, even dictatorial, Garang led his rebel army with an iron fist through splits and coup attempts, until he forced Khartoum, early in 2005, to sign the peace agreement that resulted in today’s referendum. But Garang did not long survive his victory: in late July 2005, scarcely three weeks after the creation of the autonomous government, he was killed in a helicopter accident on his way back from Uganda. His grave is rather basic, a rectangle tiled with bathroom marble, decorated with pots of plastic flowers and two large framed portraits, beneath an octagonal corrugated roof. Several women in the group approaching the tomb wear white T-shirts that read WE MISS YOU JOHN. One of them, no longer young, kneels in front of the grave, murmurs a prayer, then kisses the portrait before getting up, half in tears, to embrace her entourage; a young man behind her strikes up a Dinka song. The woman is Rebecca Garang, the hero’s widow. The wind sweeping across the enclosure knocks over the flowerpots. The marble is already broken in places; beneath the frame’s cracked glass, Garang, with his oval head and pointy white beard, stares straight out.
At the University of Juba, the scene is the same, long lines snaking around the buildings and through the courtyard. Wek, a young man from Warrap state who studied in Texas and Missouri and has been waiting since five o’clock in the morning, laughs: ‘I really thought I’d be first!’ It must be ten o’clock and there are still at least 300 people in front of him. Surrounded by friends, Wek exults. ‘It’s the last walk to freedom. Separation is the only way we can get our freedom. You can feel the freedom in the South. Have you ever been to Khartoum? Khartoum is a different vibration. Khartoum is crazy.’ The impressive thing is how happy and proud the people are of this vote. As soon as you look at them or point a camera at them, they raise their voting card; some women, as they drop their ballot into the box, ululate with joy; when they leave, people hold up their left index finger, covered in indelible ink. A lanky young Dinka, almost ridiculously overdressed, asks me to take a picture of him with his own camera as he casts his vote; no doubt the photo will be shown proudly to his grandchildren, and to their children too. Thanks to this referendum the people are finally taking control of their destiny. It is not a foregone conclusion, a masquerade whose real meaning is decided in private by a few men, like so many elections in Africa and elsewhere. The military victory against the North and the peace agreement were the work of Garang and the SPLA, which was often as predatory and dangerous to the population of the South as its enemies in Khartoum, but the SPLA only made separation and independence a possibility. Each individual is now deciding on these matters himself, and when he votes, he is fully aware of that. At the end of the day, the queues at the university haven’t got any shorter; many people, who have been waiting for a dozen hours or more, will not be able to vote today. Outside, on the streets, the police presence is still light; from time to time, you see a pick-up truck with a heavy machine gun mounted in the back. The polling stations close and night falls quickly. The next day, it all starts again.
The referendum lasts for a week. On the final night, I find myself in Renk, a town on the Nile like Juba, but at the extreme north of South Sudan, very close to the future border. It is already night, and the counting began as soon as voting ended. In a room made of bare breezeblocks, lit by the wan glow of a single neon light, a dozen people, each with a laminated card around his neck, are sitting along a wall. These are the domestic observers from the different political parties in the North and the South. In front of them, on a blue plastic sheet, is the pile of ballots, emptied from the ballot box. A yellow-vested official picks them up one by one, unfolds them, and passes them to another official, who holds them up while calling out one word, always the same, ‘Infisal, Infisal, Infisal’, before passing them to a third official. Infisal means ‘separation’ in Arabic. The ‘infisal’ ballots are counted into bundles of 50 and then rolled up with a rubber band; it is not yet even eight o’clock and there are already 26 bundles on the table, while there aren’t yet enough slips in the other pile to form a single bundle. The rhythm of this ceremony soon grows haunting, ‘Infisal, Infisal, Infisal’. The observers, under the neon light, are half asleep. ‘Infisal’ again, then finally, after a quarter of an hour, ‘Unity’, uttered in English, after a brief pause of surprise, by the official, who immediately resumes his litany: ‘Infisal, Infisal, Infisal’. The result will not be announced until 31 January. It won’t be much of a surprise.
There are hardly any roads in South Sudan, a few hundred kilometres at most passable all year long, in a country the size of France . But it is traversed by a major artery, the White Nile, also called Bahr el-Jebel, the ‘Sea of the Mountain’. All the country’s rivers feed it: the Bahr el-Arab, or ‘Sea of Arabs’, which the blacks call the Kiir and which marks the boundary between the western Dinka lands and the North; the Bahr el-Ghazal, which gives its name to the entire western part of the country; the Pibor and the Sobat to the east. South Sudan, in fact, could be thought of geographically as the Upper Nile basin, and this is no accident, for in 1899 after the Fashoda Incident, which almost led to war, the British and the French demarcated their respective zones of influence according to the watershed between the tributaries of Lake Chad and of the Nile. Most of the main cities in the South are scattered along the Nile: first Juba, right after the Ugandan border, then, downstream, Bor, Malakal and Renk, right before Kosti, the first major city of the North, and finally Khartoum. When you have to move something – people or goods – it is usually by river.
A few months before the referendum, in a context of increasing political tension, aggravated by the incendiary declarations of the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, the autonomous government of Salva Kiir appealed for Southerners displaced to the North during the civil war to return. Hundreds of thousands came back under their own steam, by bus, car or plane; for those who had no money, the autonomous government chartered an armada of barges. In January, these barges were arriving in Juba one after another, loaded with people who had been travelling in them for weeks. No vote in the referendum for them, of course, since almost all had missed the narrow registration window or had registered to vote elsewhere. Still, as they arrive in Juba port, their joy bursts forth. Even before the barge slowly comes to rest in the roots of one of the immense mango trees growing along the bank, they strike up songs or let out long trills; as they disembark, many are crying, unable to master their emotions. Some haven’t seen their country in 15 or 20 years; the great majority of the young, born in Khartoum, have never seen it at all. But the crowded transit camps are unable to absorb so many people, and hundreds camp in the port itself, beneath the mango trees, surrounded by huge colourful heaps of possessions: beds made of metal and coloured rope, plywood wardrobes, plastic chairs, bowls, pots, rugs, radios, televisions, Barbie dolls. The kids run, play, jostle each other, shouting with laughter, while trying to catch the mangoes that others toss down from the high branches; their parents cook, chat, or sleep; further on, worried aid workers hold ad hoc meetings near their white SUVs, soldiers move between their trucks or around the T-72 tanks loaded on a barge, workers unload crates of Coke or bottled water, transported from Khartoum.
Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, is also full of returnees. At the port, it’s the same story as in Juba; they’re camping everywhere, and some have been there for more than a month. Young women with beautiful coloured braids, amazingly elaborate hairstyles, obviously the latest fashion in Khartoum, take care of filthy kids and cook with water drawn straight from the Nile, between the long motorboats lined up along the shore. ‘We have no money, it’s very hard to eat. The children are suffering at night,’ one of them says. Their men have stayed in Khartoum to earn some more money, which they will send if they can; they will come later, God knows when. Others camp in the town’s big stadium, clustered according to ethnic group, Nuer here, Shilluk there, Dinka further on, around huge trucks groaning under the weight of piled-up furniture. You can hear every kind of story here. Maida, a young Shilluk woman born in Khartoum, is on her way with her mother and two kids to Tonja, some 80 kilometres upstream. Her husband, also a Shilluk, is a soldier in the SPLA, the former guerrilla army now converted into a regular army. She met him in Renk during a business trip, and they began the marriage process, but she conceived before it was completed. He still hasn’t finished paying the dowry, and owes her family 15 cows; when he has handed them over, she will take the children to live with him. A little further on, Sarah Kerubino, a Lou (rhymes with now) Nuer from Akobo, sits with some friends on a sofa improvised from a bed under some blankets tied to bamboo to provide shade. She left in 1998, pushed by the lack of schools for her children and the atrocious conflicts between ethnic groups provoked by an internal rebellion against Garang in 1991. ‘My husband was killed fighting against the Arabs in 1992. I never remarried, it’s not in our culture. You can only remarry a relative of your husband, and that wasn’t possible.’ As we talk, an old man approaches and joins in the conversation. Under his baseball cap, he bears the scarifications of the Nuer, six parallel lines cut across the forehead from ear to ear (my young translator Dak, also a Nuer, is a ‘bull-boy’ – one of those, increasingly numerous since the 1980s, who has rejected ritual initiation and scarification). Like Sarah, he is waiting for the government to transport him to Akobo, or to give him a parcel of land near Malakal to build tukuls, traditional round huts, and to plant. But the government is keeping him waiting.
‘What can I do?’ asks the governor of Upper Nile, Simon Kun Puoch, a remarkably alert and lively man. Settled in a comfortable cream-coloured leather armchair, in a carefully designed room decorated in white, beige and brown, enhanced by the candy pink of what look like balls of straw stacked up in large vases, he speaks calmly, without raising his voice, in impeccable English. ‘The autonomous government gave money for the returnees, 40 million Sudanese pounds [about nine million British pounds]. But Upper Nile state hasn’t received anything. The ministry has no idea what is going on here. How can I transport these people if I have no resources? I will tell you something. This morning, the minister himself came here secretly, and he didn’t even come to visit me. He is ashamed, he knew I would take him by the hand to see these people. I am not happy at all. I even thought of having his plane blocked.’
To get to Malakal from Juba, unless you’re willing to spend three days in a speedboat, your only option is to fly. The plane follows the Nile to Bor and then veers northeast, flying over the empty expanses of Jonglei state – swamps, plains flooded much of the year, savannah and sparse forests, crossed by herders and their cattle. A long straight line, visible from the plane, cuts across this semi-desert: the unfinished Jonglei canal, a pharaonic project demanded in the 1970s by Egypt, intended to increase the Nile’s flow by draining the vast swamps of the South, and imposed by Khartoum in spite of a vast protest movement. Dug by a French company, CCI, from the confluence of the Nile and the Sobat in the direction of Bor, the canal upset the lives of the region’s herders, and was one of the factors behind the war in 1983. Some of the very first attacks made by Garang’s SPLA, along with those targeting Chevron oil rigs, were aimed at the canal; a few CCI expats were kidnapped from the ‘Sobat Club Med’, their prefabricated base, and finally a rocket destroyed their immense West German excavator, bringing the project to an end. The excavator is still there, and towards the end of the 240 kilometres that were dug out you can sometimes catch a glimpse of it from the plane. Even unfinished, the canal remains a major problem: livestock drown crossing it, and the excavated earth, heaped onto the eastern bank, blocks the flow of water during the rainy season, altering its distribution and leading to lethal tribal conflicts over access to watering places in the dry season. Now the Egyptians are pressing to restart the project, but draining the swamps would deprive the region of rainwater, which would result in ever more violent conflicts over resources. One can understand why it’s not a priority.
Once you arrive in Malakal, you have in a way left black Africa behind and entered the fringes of the Arab world. Outside the city, to the north, is savannah: expanses of yellow grass dotted with shrivelled little trees, and here and there a hamlet of tukuls, with no substantial buildings but always with a cellphone tower, painted red and white. In the distance, a long line of mango trees indicates the course of the Nile. The road, at first, is under construction: you pass backhoes and trucks, engineers and foremen in red helmets, Chinese of course. Then it comes to an end and you weave along rutted paths through a denser savannah. From time to time you come across a checkpoint and barely have to stop, unless you have to take on a hitchhiking soldier. Little by little, the savannah turns into a steppe; finally you reach the Melut road, a long, impeccably asphalted straight line. Then the first oil installations appear, transformers and pumps surrounded by barbed wire, and immense pylons conducting electricity from the Damazin dam in the north. You reach the oilfields, run by Petrodar, a Chinese-Malaysian consortium in which Sudan has only a small stake, before you get to Paloich, a vast windswept shantytown, a jumble of dilapidated tukuls and crumbling hovels.
In Renk, further north, it’s hard to find a guest-house: they’re all full, because of the referendum perhaps. We appeal to the commissioner, who invites us to stay in the government guest-house, a large and almost new building with long hallways filled with curtains billowing in the ceaseless wind. In the morning, they are still flapping loudly. At the port, a small miracle: a barge of returnees has just landed, en route for Juba. The barges are rarer these days, the rhythm has slowed, and we – a photographer friend who is accompanying me and Dak, our translator – decide to get onboard for a leg of the journey. The embarkation is a little rough. Security officials, made hysterical by the photographer’s camera, try to push us back into the water; a drunk young Rasta takes advantage of the general mêlée to snatch my pack of bottled water, Dak holds on to me and we cling to stanchions amid the shouting. Already the quay is receding and we are dragged aft into a cabin. Finally, after a lengthy discussion, everyone calms down; the head of security, a scarified Nuer a little more level-headed than his colleagues, decides to accept our presence on board. We climb up to the gangway that surrounds the bridge, to wait for tempers to cool and to watch the shore pass by, a few metres away, lined with reeds and patches of water hyacinth, with trees further away and sometimes a hamlet. Around us are mostly older men, who sit and smoke and chatter, and a few younger men too, playing dominos, dramatically slapping the pieces down onto a blanket.
The barge is immense, a floating city. In fact there are four barges, tied together two by two with thick braided metal cables, half-frayed and threatening to snap at any moment, and pushed by a tugboat with two large diesel engines. The two barges in front, covered with a sheet-metal roof, are for families, the next two for the piled-up furniture, tied haphazardly. Not counting the crew, there are 1645 passengers on board, and the trip will last two or even three weeks. When the barge stops, the teenagers, who have all grown up in Khartoum, where alcohol is forbidden, head straight for the market to buy adulterated whisky or gin mixed with cola; their parents top up their small stock of dura, oil and beans, given to them on departure by the authorities, with onions, eggs, fish, chickens, and charcoal for cooking. An entire marine economy has been established. Below the bridge, between the cables, there is a stand for charging phones and a fridge filled with fizzy drinks; past that, in the long corridor between the two barges of furniture, little cafés have been set up with chichas, there is a mini restaurant, and a shop that sells soap, tomato sauce, lighters and other staples. At the back of the tugboat, on the upper deck, there is an infirmary, filled with squealing kids, whose staff were flown in. At the end of the hallway with the crew’s cabins are filthy latrines and three showers, a narrow space constantly full of girls and bare-chested boys. Each barge has one more toilet, making seven in all.
The front barges are like immense hangars, in which scores of families have set up house in the middle of their luggage. You wind your way between piled-up bundles and unfolded rugs, surrounded by children’s laughter, shouts, the snapping of cloth in the wind, the smell of chichas, soup, spices, braziers lit here and there. There are all sorts of passengers. Most are from Equatoria, in the south of the country. Augustine, a Latuka, worked at the Hilton in Khartoum as a waiter. He is only transporting his furniture; his family stayed in the capital, and he’ll go and fetch them later: ‘After the peace agreement, people weren’t sure what there would be, if there would be unity. But now that there will be separation, we must go back. I didn’t have problems in Khartoum, not at all, the hotel management was fine. It’s my own decision. Khartoum, khalas. I’ll see whether there is a hotel in Torit, to work. If there’s no hotel, I can work at anything.’
Further on, Charles Louis, a Zande from Yambio, offers a darker view of the North: ‘The life in the North is not good. These people in the North say that they are Arabs. But we’re negroes, Africans. There is a kind of discrimination. First of all, we are Christians. This is the language that they use for us: we are savages and infidels.’ Justin, another Zande, told me his fantastic story in a curious jumble of English and French. Recruited by force in 1991 by the SPLA rebels, he and some friends deserted in 1993, after heavy fighting. The group tried to go to Uganda, hoping to get an education. But rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked them; several were killed, others fled; along with about 30 other survivors, Justin crossed Zaire, as it was still called, and the Central African Republic, reaching its capital, Bangui, after a journey of several months. ‘I didn’t like Bangui. There is no development there. Everything is under police control. There are a lot of criminals.’ The Sudanese ambassador said to him: ‘If you want an education, go to Khartoum.’ A UN plane took him there, as part of a repatriation programme. He studied electrical engineering, then worked as an explosives specialist for Schlumberger in the oilfields of Bentiu and Heglig. ‘I wanted to leave after the peace agreement, but I wasn’t paid. They still owe me 18,000 pounds [about £4000]. Finally I decided to leave the money and go. Anyway, I will get a job from the government and I will make more money, God willing. If somebody uses his brain, he is going to do better for his family here in South Sudan.’
In fact, the people the papers lump together as ‘returnees’, typically represented as an undifferentiated and wretched mass, have dozens of different motives. Some people are coming to settle for good in the South, whether they’ve been there before or not. Others have come to explore the possibilities, but have kept one foot in Khartoum – a family member or a job. Some are returning home, others are looking for better opportunities elsewhere. Some are returning with their families; those with a little more money are using the barge just to move possessions. Viviana, a young Latuka, is accompanying her family’s furniture to Juba, where her father and husband are already working; her mother will join them later by plane, with Viviana’s two small children. The journey is difficult: people eat what they can find, sleep in the cold, most of them on deck; the lack of hygiene and the overcrowding affect everyone. ‘But we are going back,’ Viviana remarks as she prepares the evening meal for her two brothers, ‘so there is nothing we can do.’
Night falls quickly on the Nile. I climb onto the roof of the wheelhouse, where I contemplate the barges stretched out in front of me, the bustling crowd, the peaceful Nile and the sky. The light dims, the shadows grow longer, the mosquitoes become aggressive. On the bridge, they’re still playing dominoes and I join in for a few games; when the sky becomes completely dark they light a small lamp. Around us people are unrolling mattresses and blankets. It is not yet nine o’clock. People wrap themselves up in whatever they have, and go to bed. The crescent moon gleams above me, with Orion clearly visible a little to the right; a young Lango called San John, next to me, is listening to 50 Cent on his mobile. When the cold wind rising from the Nile wakes me, the moon has fallen behind the horizon and the sky is full of stars; you can no longer make out the river, only the shape of the banks, black expanses defining the grey surface of the water, cleft by the steady progress of the barge. Then the sky turns pale, the light pierces the sheet I pulled over my head and wakes me up for good. A few men are already up. The sun, a red ball veiled with grey, appears behind the mango trees in the distance, which border the swamps that separate us from the eastern shore, and climbs quickly, turning orange first and then, as it rises above the layer of mist, taking on the colour of fire. Around us, everyone comes to life, folds and puts their things away, brushes their teeth with either a brush or a stick; below the bridge, hundreds of people are brushing their teeth at the same time. Next to a big covered cage transporting his pigeons, a man called Brown prepares his morning chicha: ‘In Khartoum, it’s forbidden in public, kharam!’ he says with a big smile before offering us tea. We drink it with sugared fried dough, bought somewhere up front. The women, sitting or squatting on a large tarpaulin, prepare food for the children. Behind them the shore passes by, just a few metres away now, herons flapping up between the reeds and the papyrus. Mid-morning, the first cellphone towers appear above the trees, then the minaret of a mosque: it’s Melut, nestled on the right bank in a bend in the river.
To explain a country like South Sudan – to give some idea of its complexity – is not an easy thing to do. Where to start? Sudan is the crucible of all colonial fantasies: Gordon in Khartoum, the epic of the Mahdi, the Fashoda Incident; then come the founding fathers of colonial ethnology, with Evans-Pritchard in the lead, followed by a legion of administrator-anthropologists and foreign travellers like Marcel Griaule and Michel Leiris, who flesh out the myth – which is then taken to a new level, as erotic as political, by photography, Leni Riefenstahl among the Nuba and the increasing popularity of National Geographic. In the postcolonial era, and especially with the second civil war, aid workers, almost all of them white, take over, courageously letting themselves be dropped off in some remote corner of Bahr el-Ghazal or Jonglei with a crate of vaccines or a few pallets of sorghum, enthusiastic and awed idealists braving malaria and Khartoum’s Antonov bombers in the midst of scarified black giants living with their herds, often still naked or nearly so but already ‘contaminated’ by Christianity and the Kalashnikov, caught in a vice between an Arabic, Islamist and viscerally racist oppressor and a crypto-Marxist peasant rebellion whose forces raped, pillaged and massacred the population they claimed to be defending. Then there are geopolitics, oil and all that it entails: Chevron was forced by the war to withdraw from the fields it discovered; the French company Total still dreams of exploiting its virgin concession in Jonglei; the Chinese and Malaysians cash in by backing Khartoum against the West, which is fussier than they are over using human rights as a diplomatic tool. Bin Laden passed through here too; the wealth he used to start al-Qaida was acquired in Sudan building roads and pipelines, running orange groves and farms, as all the while he was opening training camps for jihadists. For several years now, all we’ve heard about is Darfur, another incomprehensible story. Everyone has forgotten the South, and when they do think about it, they don’t understand a thing that’s going on. From time to time, a wire story mentions clashes, occasionally a town is named, never an ethnic group and certainly not an explanation. Yet none of these conflicts is alike. The one around the region of Abyei, where current tensions are focused, stems from a dispute over access to pasture between the Ngok Dinka, who live there, and the Misseriya Arabs, who every year migrate south with their livestock during the dry season. But it’s the oil beneath the contested land, attached to the North by the British in 1905, which really fuels the conflict. The rebellion of the Dinka general George Athor, a veteran of the civil war who last April took up arms against the SPLA in Jonglei state, has its origin (if not its cause) in a lost election and disappointed personal ambition. There are also tribal conflicts over land, which the government, short of money as well as of reliable maps and documentation, cannot settle. But most of the deadly clashes between ethnic groups, like those that ravaged Jonglei state in 2009, killing more than 2000 people, are provoked by cattle raids; and these disputes are on an unprecedented scale because of the prevalence of Kalashnikovs, social collapse and ecological disaster, all products of the war.
After the trip on the Nile, let’s make one final journey, by land this time, to Pibor in the heart of Jonglei, among the Murle (whose name is pronounced ‘Mur-lay’). No one here likes the Murle; they have a bad reputation. ‘In South Sudan, they are the bogeymen,’ an expat from MSF told me one day in Juba. When the authorities in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, asked the UN for help in repatriating 150 Murle who had returned from Khartoum, the operation was carried out in something of a hurry. ‘The Murle have problems with everyone here,’ Richard Ewila, head of the Bor office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told me. ‘Even the governor was very nervous. He gathered them in a school, whereas all the other returnees just scattered. He was afraid that if a Dinka died, the Dinka would move on the school.’ This wasn’t a groundless fear: in late 2007, during a riot, enraged Dinka lynched five Murle patients in the MSF hospital, along with two officials who tried to intervene.
By the time I arrived in Bor, the convoy of returnees had already left, but Ewila lent me one of his 4x4s and a driver so I could catch up, while warning me about the state of the road: ‘It’s been abandoned for 22 years. In the beginning, when we started going to Pibor again, we used a compass, weaving through the trees. And those tyre tracks became the road.’ At first the road is all right, a rough track winding between little red-trunked acacias; we pass Dinka villages, their cows with horns in the shape of lyres, and their luaks, immense straw stables with pointy roofs, much larger than the tukuls for the humans. But after about 50 kilometres the trees come to an end and we find ourselves in a vast expanse of dry grass, without any sign of life, which the Murle call the baaz. During the rainy season, it is completely flooded and impassable; the water kills the trees, and the rare ones that survive burn during the dry season. The track is abominable, its mud churned up by trucks so that it dries to form what people call ‘corrugated iron’. The vibrations shake your insides, and you can feel the jolts all the way down to your liver. The baaz is about 70 kilometres wide and takes two hours to cross; somewhere in the middle, a tall, smooth, brown pole stuck into the yellow grass and leaning over, marks the border between Dinka and Murle lands. You pass many antelopes, which bound away, then the first Murle herds. A little before the end of the steppe, we finally catch up with the convoy, escorted by policemen in bottle-green uniforms standing on the flatbed of a pick-up. It was on this road that a Murle rebel called David Yaw Yaw attacked a good number of convoys, and even though he is now said to be east of Pibor, the escort does not want to drive at night, so we stop in Gumuruk, where the returnees pull blankets and mattresses out of the buses and sleep on the ground. Young men in flip-flops, with Kalashnikovs on their shoulders and scarified arms, circulate laughing; they are local policemen, hanging around to protect the community leaders, because people are still scared of Yaw Yaw. He too was disappointed by the April 2010 elections, a civilian who wasn’t able to get his civil service job back after he lost it and took up arms with some former militiamen, raping and killing many civilians, almost all of them Murle.
In the morning, the convoy makes an early start and by eight o’clock we are in Pibor. Among the crowd of returnees are three women with babies much paler than they are, with Arab complexions and hair. ‘We asked them about it,’ one of the UNHCR staffers in Bor told me, ‘and they say that they had Arab boyfriends. But, frankly, the children don’t look mixed. They could have abducted them in Khartoum. The Murle have a history of taking children, you know.’ The colonial-era sources I consulted confirm that the Murle have long had fertility problems, linked to the spread of venereal diseases in their region, but the solutions found by the women of the time, which ranged from buying Dinka children born as a result of incest to enticing fertile young Nuer men down to Murle country to play stud in exchange for a few cows, do not seem to have included kidnapping children. The story remains somewhere between rumour, slander and myth.
Those who joined Yaw Yaw were probably former members of the militia of the ‘sultan’ of the Murle, Ismail Konyi Alau, a pro-Khartoum commander who during the civil war kept the SPLA out of a large swathe of eastern Jonglei. Today he has joined the new government and holds court in Juba. To find him, I go to the Konyo Konyo mosque, near the port; his house is just across the street. Ismail claims he is a Muslim, a rare thing among the Murle. Just past the gate stands a burgundy Hummer with Texas plates; then begins a labyrinth of reed palisades separating rectangular huts with canvas roofs, surrounding a little house with a small porch reached by a flight of steps. Ismail, a short, stocky man with cunning little eyes in a wrinkled but lively face, welcomes me with a bath towel around his waist and a gold Rolex on his wrist. When he sits down, near the huts, flies swarm over his feet and legs, but he pays them no attention. Aside from Murle, he only speaks Arabic, with large gestures and a sly smile. Fortunately he had another visitor that day, who introduced himself in irreproachable English as Colonel Thoknaath Koak-Nyuon Thuokok. ‘It’s the general who sent me to study there. You see, people always talk about problems between the Nuer and the Murle, but I am Nuer and we drink tea together. I served under his orders for 18 years. He is like a father to me.’ The conversation, of course, centres on Yaw Yaw. Ismail denies knowing him, and offers very diplomatic statements about his relations with the Juba authorities. But his resentment finally breaks out when he mentions weapons being handed out to Murle civilians to fight Yaw Yaw: ‘They gave guns to civilians so that Murle will fight Murle. Why not give guns to Dinka civilians to fight George Athor? Why only to Murle? That is the question. You are a journalist. You have to figure it out. They are supposed to send the army to fight. You go understand that.’ It is true that the SPLA is not at home in Murle country; and it’s no accident that the commander of the brigade based in Pibor, Joshua Konyi Irer, is himself a Murle. But the authorities categorically deny that weapons were distributed; on the contrary, they go on about the disarmament campaign they carried out among the Murle with the support of the elders, which brought in thousands of firearms.
While we talk, a dozen teenagers surround us and listen in: they are all Ismail’s sons, much taller and thinner than their father. ‘I have 173 children,’ he boasts, laughing, ‘Al-hamdulillah! And 43 wives.’ One wonders how he keeps count; the children themselves have a hard time keeping track. ‘What’s really annoying,’ his son Konyi Ismail, a handsome 18-year-old wearing a white jellabah, tells me later, ‘is that often someone will greet me in the street, it’s my brother, and I don’t even recognise him.’ Here, in Juba, Ismail puts up a dozen of his wives and around 40 of his children; the others, apparently, are in Pibor, or abroad. ‘And you,’ he asks me, ‘how many children do you have?’ My reply surprises him: ‘Two children? You only have two children? But how old are you?’ When I tell him, he bursts out laughing: ‘You’re 43 and you only have two children?’
‘You know, it is too expensive in Europe to have children. So you can’t have too many.’
This hypocritical explanation seems to make some sense to him. ‘I see. And how many cows do you have?’
‘I don’t have any.’
‘Then you have nothing.’
This piece was translated by Charlotte Mandell.