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A mother and daughter sit in their makeshift home in a camp at the UN base in Bentiu, South Sudan, in June. Since then, famine has exacerbated the effects of the young nation’s bloody tribal conflict. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ADRIANE OHANESIAN
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NASIR, South Sudan – When she was a girl in the 1960s, Sarah Kier’s parents fled southern Sudan with her. The Sudanese civil war, in which black African residents from the south of the country fought for autonomy against an oppressive Arab-dominated government in the north, had been raging for more than a decade. Kier’s family moved to the mountains of western Ethiopia. When she grew up, Kier knew about the struggle of the south. He joined the southern rebel militia, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and became a combat medic. He spent much of his early life around violence and death.
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On a foggy afternoon last April, Kier was in the passenger seat of an old Land Cruiser, moving through those same hills, thinking about what it was like not to have a childhood. “You know, like for a young person in another place, you go to the disco,” he told me. “We do not know that. We [Sudanese] have never lived with guns, from the word.”
The road emerged from a forest into a valley, and Kier gasped and smiled – as a girl, she suddenly remembered, she had lived in a house near there. It seemed a lifetime away. Then he noticed that the trees were cut down to make way for the farm. She shook her head and clucked her tongue. “I tell you, this is sad,” she said, looking out the window. “I mean, I’m connected to those trees.”
That morning, Kier had left in the Land Cruiser from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where for weeks she had been living in a small, bare room in a boarding house with South Sudanese friends. They lived in exile, watching from afar as their country, less than three years old, disintegrated.
The civil war that had driven his family continued, and still, until 2011, when the south finally gained independence. The creation of the Republic of South Sudan, in July of that year, was the most jubilant scene of African progress since the end of apartheid in South Africa. But in December 2013, the violence returned. The two dominant and most populous tribes of South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer, were facing off. Longtime rivals who had fought over land and resources since at least the 19th century, their fragile détente was under the new republic. Without him, there could be no South Sudan. And now, faster than it seemed possible—so fast it seemed somehow destined—they were once more at each other’s throats.
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VIRGINIA W. MASON AND KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI, NGM STAFF; ANGELICA QUINTERO. SOURCES: INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR MIGRATION (DATA FROM JULY 2014); UNHCR (DATE AS OF SEPTEMBER 2014); ARMED CONFLICT LOCATION AND EVENT DATA PROJECT (DATE AS OF MID-SEPTEMBER 2014)
As thousands died and hundreds of thousands were displaced, the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, who is a Dinka, declared that the conflict originated in an attempted coup, and laid the blame at the feet of his former vice president, Riek Machar. Machar, a Nuer, made damning accusations of his own: Kiir had not only fabricated the coup plot to kill him, Machar claimed, but also had in mind a genocide of the Nuer. Machar fled the capital, Juba, for his seat of power, in the northeast of the country, and organized a revolt (as with an improbable speed), and battles and atrocities followed.
All this came as a shock to the outside world, still looking at their younger nation with pride. The shock was particularly strong in Washington, the main foreign cheerleader for, and financier of, South Sudanese independence. In May, Secretary of State John Kerry was sent to bring Kiir and Machar to the negotiating table; the ceasefire that he promised lasted a matter of days.
UN peacekeepers from Mongolia look after children at the edge of the camp in Bentiu. Photography by Adriane Ohanesian.PHOTOGRAPHY BY ADRIANE OHANESIAN
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In June, a woman walks through the flooded field at the UN base in Malakal. Photography by Adriane Ohanesian.PHOTOGRAPHY BY ADRIANE OHANESIAN
Sarah Kier was on her way to the village of Nasir in South Sudan’s Upper Nile Province, the heart of Nuerland and Machar’s headquarters, with a soldier and a bodyguard. She was a veteran of the civil war, and after independence had been appointed a minister in Kiir’s government; but when the fight broke out in December, she was targeted by his troops – because she is part Nuer, I believe. (His father is Nuer, his mother Dinka.) He joined Machar’s uprising, and went to Addis Ababa, where members of his inner circle had gathered to lobby the Ethiopian government and the world external for support.
Kier and his companions planned to sneak over the border into the Baro River and had agreed to take me with them to meet Machar. (Kiir’s office had declined my request to speak with him.) On top of the Land Cruiser were jerrycans of oil, bags of rice, supplies and messages destined for her camp, where she was to attend a meeting of his generals. His forces had been stopped outside Juba and sent back. The war had come to a standstill. Kier hoped to convince Machar to put her in charge of one of the battle theaters.
Even before the conflict began, Machar was the most controversial of South Sudanese public figures, considered by some a selfless patriot, by others a shameless traitor. It is in many ways the embodiment of South Sudan’s war, the main harbinger of what historian Francis Deng has called his country’s culture of “ritualized rebellion.” And Kier, who is unmistakably Sudanese in appearance—very tall, very dark—couldn’t be prouder to be in their orbit. A phone to each ear, the mother of seven spoke excitedly about returning to the battlefield. “I’m going to war, I’m going to war, honey,” he told a friend on the phone. “I’m going to shoot my own gun.” He referred to Machar as Dr. Riek, or The Big Man. “We’ll talk to The Big Man when we get there,” she said, when I asked if she knew a National Geographic reporter was coming with her.
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On December 16, 2013, SPLA soldiers from the Dinka tribe looted and burned Nuer houses in a neighborhood of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Photography by Adriane Ohanesian
She recounted how she had arrived from Juba when the fighting began. An old friend and fellow soldier called. “He told me, ‘Leave your house now,'” he said in a quick note. “I told him, ‘Give me a gun. Me, don’t die. Give me a gun. Don’t die like that.’ Four months later, I couldn’t believe what happened. “Could it be one of those bad dreams, when you wake up, you say, ‘Oh, God, thank you, it was a dream’? Because we thought we were coming right now to enjoy our country.”
Rio, the soldier, a tall, broad Nuer in his early 30s, was squeezed into the cargo hold in the back of the truck, a green patrol cap pulled over his forehead. He was more solemn than Kier. When the fighting started, he said, he was in his barracks in a village outside Juba. “They all just shoot their gun and shoot each other.” He escaped and went to the capital, where he found a group of soldiers secreting Machar and other officials out of the city. He joined them. “What happened that day was something planned.”
As they talked, Kier stirred. How did his homeland fall so easily into suicide? she wanted to know. How did his country, whose creation had given so much hope to the world, turn on itself so quickly? “Children were killed. Innocent. Innocent blood,” he said. “For what? Because of the tribe? A tribe is not by choice.” Rio was quietly pondering this. “I can only conclude,” he offered, “that the Dinkas have a kind of leadership style that easily leads people into chaos.”
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That afternoon, the air was thick, the landscape mountainous, and the conversation turned to the supernatural. Kier and his companions consider themselves good Christians, like many South Sudanese. But they struggled to reconcile this with what they had seen.
“What happened in South Sudan,” said Kier, “I think even God would not have allowed it, because the sin is too much.”
“God is punishing South Sudan,” said Jacob, the bodyguard, who compared his land to Israel. “I think they did a bad thing a long time ago.”
Kier nodded. “God can punish an entire nation because of one person,” he added, appearing to have Salva Kiir in mind. “As God can still save everything
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