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A human face in South Sudan

Most people’s impressions of South Sudan are likely to have been formed by the pictures of anonymous rebels, soldiers and refugees they keep seeing in the news. The crisis is real, but there’s more to the South Sudanese than that. Here’s one man’s story.

“You should visit South Sudan. It is a very beautiful place.”

Objectively, South Sudan had not been anyone’s tourist destination lately. Waiting to board his plane to Nairobi, Gai is simultaneously fleeing his country whilst promoting it.

When fighting erupted in South Sudan on December 15th, the pictures that flashed across television screens worldwide were exactly what you’d expect: images of mass displacement; streams of barefoot children swatting away flies; men with guns. Cries of “another genocide” were heard, and the launch of international intervention eventually triggered a ceasefire on January 23rd.

For many who know little about South Sudan, or any other country in Africa for that matter, the footage of barefoot fly-swatting children in the city of Bor could be any African city. Flicking through the news, one could affiliate this scene to the DRC or CAR right now, before switching channels to glimpse protests in Ukraine, Turkey or Venezuela.

Obviously, the complexities underlying the social, economical, political and historical issues plaguing these countries are anything but homogenous. But, to the television-flicking eye, it might be hard to find a face, or a voice amid the international crises that seem so far away. Especially so when it’s easier for the international media to show anonymous, faceless masses than individuals. Yes, the crisis is real. However, show nothing but pictures of armed rebel fighters and malnourished children and eventually that’s all anyone can imagine when they hear the name of the country.

But, waiting to board my flight to Nairobi, I meet a face and a voice.

A man with his face painted in the colours of the South Sudan flag at the Independence Day ceremony in Juba. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS
A man with his face painted in the colours of the South Sudan flag at the Independence Day ceremony in Juba. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS

With his impeccable dress code (pointy leather shoes, gold wrist watch, and fitted jacket), Gai is one of those rare men who can pull off a purple velvet jacket with ease.

A Christian from the Nuer tribe (I mention that troublesome word here only because it is relevant to one of the first things he says once we start talking), Gai studied economics at Juba university, where all of his subjects were taught in Arabic. He did not receive the traditional Nuer coming-of-age markings (known as the gaar): six straight, parallel lines cut into his forehead with a razor blade leaving a permanent, shining set of scars. “I grew up in the city, so I did not receive the gaar. But if I did have them now, I would be dead,” he says.

In a country where people have been killed according – but not exclusive – to their group of origin, the Nuer markings could not be a clearer indicator of something one may wish to hide.

So, what does the fighting in South Sudan mean to Gai?

“It was initially political,” says Gai. ” But then it turned tribal,” he says almost to himself, as if trying to understand how things escalated in the way that they did.

“Our president, Salva Kiir, comes from the Dinka tribe. His deputy, Riek Machar, is Nuer. When Machar announced his plans to run against Kiir, the fighting began.”

With the ousting of Machar came the loyal and violent defense of his name.

This, in an overly-simplified nutshell, is what had caused the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, with almost 70,000 taking refuge in United Nations bases. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated that 413,000 people have been internally displaced and almost 75,000 have fled the country, including Gai.

More independence day euphoria. If such images registered at all, they are easily dislodged from the world’s memory by a relentless torrent of conflict-related images.
More independence day euphoria. If such images registered at all, they are easily dislodged from the world’s memory by a relentless torrent of conflict-related images.

Waiting to board, Gai passes a few words in Arabic with a fellow passenger. He too, is tall and dark skinned. Later, Gai says to me:” That one, he is a government soldier. He is Dinka. He left because he disagrees with the fighting. We have both left because, as an educated person, it is not good to kill someone. ”

Is there tension between you two? I want to know. “No, it is normal. We don’t want the fighting.”

On this fifty seated plane to Nairobi, a Dinka and a Nuer sit a few chairs apart, fleeing the killings that they both condemn.

For Gai, luck married with financial advantage, allowed him to escape with his life. He is educated university graduate, and oil-affiliated businessman.

“I was going to Khartoum for business on December 14th. But it was postponed. On December 15th, I heard bullets being fired and I decided then to drive to Uganda.”

The next day, Gai was stopped with his brother by military soldiers. They were told to get out of the car.

“They spoke to me in the Dinka language, which I don’t understand. Then they asked in Arabic for my identity card.” He points to his name on his passport, his finger resting on ‘Chuol’. “When they say this part of my name, then they knew.”

Gai was carrying $30,000 dollars at the time, premeditating that he may be away from home for long. As a businessman, he was hoping to do some work along the way too.

“They took that money. I tried to tell them: I am a businessman, not a politician. I am not involved in this fighting. My brother resisted and they beat him up. Eventually they put us in a cell.”

Estimating to have been imprisoned with over 50 other cellmates, Gai mentions the thing that stood out to him the most: “There were two young girls there too. Probably aged around 4 and 6. I was only there for 6 hours, but none of us received water or food, not even the girls.”

When a “soldier with a star over here” (Gai points to his shoulder) entered the cell, Gai was able to reason with him that both he and his brother had no political intentions. They just wanted to leave the country safely.

By a stroke of luck, this “soldier with the star” believed them. He let them go, demanding the soldiers that had arrested him take him to the airport. They agreed, but refused to return his passport.

“I managed to get a new one form UNMISS.” UNAMIS is the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, which was launched for a hopeful interim period after South Sudan’s independence in 2011.

A dancer holds the South Sudanese National flag during the preparations for the celebrations of South Sudan Independence. (Photo: EPA)
A dancer holds the South Sudanese National flag during the preparations for the celebrations of South Sudan Independence. (Photo: EPA)

Gai was then able to take the next flight to Entebbe. But what will happen to those left behind?

“There is a cease-fire, but the government is violating it,” says Gai with surety. Since then, various news sources have reported that both government and rebels had violated the ceasefire.

“My grandfather fought for South Sudanese independence so that we could have a country. If he were alive today he would not be happy. This fighting is baseless, it is meaningless.”

“The way I see it, there are two options for potential future elections. 1) There will have to be some type of power sharing or 2) Kiir will have to be killed.”

South Sudan is the youngest country in the world and it has seen some of the most prevalent fighting over oil, ethnic affiliation, land and political power since its establishment in 2011. It is almost easy to understand why Gai would see these as the only options.

Many believe that the fighting is an offshoot of deep-rooted, divisive tribalism. [Hate to use the word but it’s what many attribute the fighting to.] But, some feel there is much more to it than this.

Earlier this year The Guardian quoted Edmund Yakani, the executive director of a South Sudanese civil society organisation (Cepo), as saying that the situation needs to be seen as a ”national problem”, rather than a mere tribal one.

Yakani said that after a survey carried out by Cepo, which found that South Sudanese want ”a national dialogue on issues of state building, the building of a national army, discussions around national identity and looking at government institutions to make them meet the expectations of citizens.”

But for Gai, this is not what he has seen.

“It is still a beautiful country,” says Gai, clearly yearning to show there is another side to the fighting that has plagued his country, both before and after independence. “It is so green,” he says, before our planes takes off from the ground.

Gai plans on returning home as soon as he believes it to be truly safe.

The latest on South Sudan is that the government and the rebels are to resume peace talks.

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