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Story Publication logo July 5, 2012

On the Frontlines in South Sudan


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An immersive, transmedia book project for the iPad on the birth of the world's newest country from...

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Since photographer Trevor Snapp and I started working on the stories for our iBook project, South Sudan and Sudan have kept us busy reporting on a series of crises.

At the beginning of the year, South Sudan made news for a bloody tribal war in its eastern Jonglei state. The conflict was a stark reminder of how far South Sudan has to climb to turn its sovereign country into an actual cohesive nation-state. During the conflict, two neighboring communities – the Lou Nuer and the Murle – mobilized armies of youth against each other in a civil war in which the government itself was at best an impotent observer, at worst a secondary facilitator of the violence.

In the most brutal attack, up to 10,000 well-armed Lou Nuer marched south, torching every Murle village they came to and killing whomever they could, leaving a death toll at least in the hundreds and possibly in the thousands. I went down to the Murle capital, Pibor, at the end of February 2012. By that time, Murle were already streaming back from the bush. The market was once again in full swing. On the edge of town I found Martha Meroi, a woman surrounded by a several half-clothed children. Meroi, in the late term of pregnancy, had survived the Lou Nuer attack by disappearing for two weeks into the wilderness. She barely escaped again when the enemy militia pinned her group against a river bank.

After she returned to her village, though, she found that soldiers from the South Sudanese army had moved in. She and neighbors tried to rebuild their lives, but the soldiers harassed them, hurling insults and raping two teenage girls and a third mother. So they decided to flee again – this time to the edge of Pibor, where they now live a homeless existence, trapped between an enemy tribe and their own.

Meroi's story was just one version of a story I'd heard many times. Not only do South Sudan's armed forces do little to contain the internal violence in the country; the army itself is one of the prime contributors of the abuses. The issue went beyond security to political representation – the Murle are a minority and marginalized tribe, with almost nobody representing them in the government.

What does independence mean for the Murle? Does it mean swapping one oppressive ruler for another? The whole episode in Jonglei raised other question as well: Does all the U.S. support to South Sudan – including some $300 million to the SPLA – have any chance at actually reforming the country's political and military leadership, or will the international backing only solidify and embolden the already corrupt elite?

At the beginning of April, I snuck across the border into Sudan's Nuba Mountains. I'd flown there without permission twice in the previous year, but this time air access was a no-go, so the only way up was on a dirt track road.

The fate of the Nuba people is one of the tragedies of Sudan's partition last year. Siding in large numbers with the South Sudanese rebels during the long war, the Nuba became a sacrificial lamb for the goal of wider peace and South Sudan's independence. A month before South Sudan's independence, war returned here with a fury. Armed with South Sudanese weapons, the Nuba quickly established control over an area twice as large as they ever controlled in the previous war. In retaliation, the Sudanese government has unleashed a primitive but surprisingly effective aerial bombing campaign that has successfully driven civilians from their villages and in to the relative safety of the mountainside caves. Traveling through the war zone, I rode through fallow fields, burnt out villages, and rebel outposts. Food has run out, and hunger is a daily reality.

As I was exiting the Nuba Mountains, South Sudan and its Darfur rebel allies (also allied to the Nuba rebels) captured Heglig, a major oil outpost near the border. A photographer, an AP correspondent, and I were the first to enter the desolated town, now a forward operating base for an offensive northwards. A few days later, South Sudan cut off access to Heglig, and we were forced to cover the border war from Bentiu to the south. Being further removed from the front lines didn't necessarily make us safer. Twice during my stay, Sudanese jets swooped over and launched missiles into Bentiu deep inside South Sudan territory. Shortly before leaving, our vehicle had barely crossed the town's strategic bridge when a missile sprayed a gusher of dirt some 50 yards away. I filed several stories from the frontlines, and was reporting on air for CNN.

South Sudan eventually pulled back to the original de facto border. I took some time digging up what had actually happened, and was able to report intelligence from diplomatic sources that the Heglig attack was not spontaneous, but in all likelihood a calculated strike coordinated with its Sudanese rebel allies to increase the pressure on the regime, possibly quicken its downfall, and strengthen South Sudan's hands at the negotiating table. In other words, Sudan's conflicts are becoming even more complex, and possibly, intractable.

Making matters worse for the government of South Sudan, in May officials admitted that at least $4 billion had been stolen by the country's leaders since the 2005 peace agreement.

The crises continue, an unrelenting hailstorm. In mid-June, I traveled to South Sudan's eastern border with Sudan, where aid agency MSF was reporting that refugees streaming out of Sudan were dying for lack of water. When I arrived there, I found that there was an even larger unreported story across the border, where these refugees' villages were being torched and wells poisoned in a scorched earth government offensive against the state's own SPLA-North rebellion. Blue Nile is the twin conflict with the Nuba Mountains, and the rebels there fight under the same name. South Sudan maintains close ties with both, and closely coordinates with SPLA-North commanders.

If you are reading this and wondering how to make sense of all the violence and boggling set of actors and allegiances, then: thank you. Despite the complex political alliances and power games, much of the media coverage and especially the commentary from "experts" has continued to portray the conflict in terms of worn-out simplistic narratives. In today's situation, viewing Khartoum as simply the evil aggressive state and South Sudan as the morally-superior victims obscures the current dynamics far more than it helps elucidate them.

All of these events and on-the-ground reporting have of course given us abundant material for our iBook project. With each new development, South Sudan's story grows more focused, and the pixels multiply. With so much breaking coverage, the launch of our iBook is being delayed so we can catch up with events as they move. But that's one of the benefits of the digital medium – publishing is now as flexible as even the most volatile of stories.

For more of Alan Boswell's dispatches for McClatchy and TIME see:……………,8599,2112356,00.html,8599,2113381,00.html





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