No Country for Civilians
The sudden exodus from war-torn South Sudan is the largest Africa has seen since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This is what a nation without civilians looks like.
The rebels took a mystical view of their fight. The former taxi driver Lokujo wore charms around his neck with bits of supposedly magic tree bark meant to protect him from grenades. The rebels credit forest spirits for a key victory at a place called Jokat, where they blocked the government’s advance. According to their legend, a tree fell across the road, trapping an army convoy and allowing them to kill the army soldiers and capture two vehicles and many weapons. After the battle, they claimed, the tree righted itself. They believed history was on their side, too. “Definitely we are going to win,” Brig. Gen. Lokujo said, pointing to a mountain that once served as a base for the Anyanya, a southern Sudanese rebel group that fought in the area in the 1960s. “We are following the footsteps of our forefathers.”
One person they didn’t assign mystical qualities was Machar, who has portrayed himself as the rightful leader of South Sudan according to a Nuer prophecy. Though the rebels in Kajo Keji recognized Machar as their leader, none venerated him personally, and they dismissed the idea that the IO was Machar’s personal force. They also scoffed at his sidelining in South Africa. “Even if he is no longer with us, still the war will go ahead,” Moses said. “The movement is not belonging to him. The movement is a movement of the people, and people are the ones who fought.”
But the people are also the ones bearing the brunt of the war. Dozens of civilians have been killed in Kajo Keji alone, mostly by government forces. Rebels to the east, meanwhile, have repeatedly attacked road convoys, indiscriminately firing on civilians and soldiers alike. It’s impossible to say how many IO soldiers have died in Kajo Keji. The officers insisted that they rarely lose men in battle, but they also sought to hide their wounded. In one medical clinic west of Loopo, they told us that a young man with a gunshot wound in his abdomen was a civilian. Later, he was manning a rebel checkpoint.
The only other patient in that clinic was a young boy with malaria with his parents and baby sister. The small family had earlier fled to the forest after government forces burned their village. They stayed for a month in the bush, surviving on wild fruits and leaves, before returning to their village. The clinic’s doctor, a former SPLA physician named Mike Abut Ali, said the boy had come for malaria treatment twice that week, but due to a government blockade of aid deliveries to rebel-held areas, he had only enough drugs to administer half doses each time. Ali begged for aid groups to defy the blockade and deliver medicine. “You cannot forget us. We are not animals. We are human beings, like you,” he said, cradling a rifle as the small family sat on a stoop nearby. “In the government side, you do assist there, but here you don’t assist.”
The next day, bumping along the county’s orange dirt roads in their pickups, the soldiers sang their favorite war song, vowing to bring “fire” to Kiir, the Mathiang Anyoor, and the Dinka. “Seven years! Six years!” they chanted — a prediction of how long they would fight. “Forget your wife! Forget your child!” At one point, the boisterous rebels drove past the small family we had met at the clinic. The parents, carrying their malaria-stricken son and baby girl, were walking west toward the displacement camps and the Ugandan border. They were one more family leaving South Sudan, a land that is no country for civilians.