David Morse, Energy Wars and Lost Boys in Sudan

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If Somalia, occupied by U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops and in the midst of a chaotic, growing insurgency that has hardly been noted here, could well be our new Afghanistan, then what might Sudan be? Perhaps the starting point for the next disastrous oil war on this planet? Right now, in the American mind, Sudan is essentially Darfur, where a genocidal ethnic-cum-energy war run out of Islamist Khartoum is already underway — a subject which independent journalist David Morse took up at this site in 2005 and 2006.

Now, thanks to the support of the Nation Institute (which also supports and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Morse takes us along on a two-part journey he made with three young refugees, three “Lost Boys,” returning to the homes they fled years ago in the midst of a bitter civil war in southern Sudan. Though this region is largely ignored in the U.S. at the moment, that is unlikely to last for reasons Morse describes in his dramatic first-person account of traveling through the southern part of a Sudan poised at the edge of the abyss. Tom

With the Lost Boys in Southern Sudan
“Starting from Zero” (Part 1)
By David Morse

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 modest payroll.

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 ethnic war.

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, why 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 mujahideen, 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 “Lost Boys,” 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 U.S. citizens.

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, Illinois 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 W.H.O. 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 quality.

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 rear-view 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. W.H.O’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 4×4 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 salaries.”

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 the South?

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 was cynicism.

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.

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 website: [email protected].

[Note: Part 2 of “With the Lost Boys in Southern Sudan” will appear at this site Tuesday morning.]

Copyright 2007 David Morse

David Morse is a writer whose articles and essays have appeared in Dissent, Esquire, Friends Journal, The Nation, the New York Times Magazine, The Progressive Populist, and various on-line publications including Alternet, Counterpunch, Mother Jones, and Salon. He is now writing a book about the Darfur situation.