Men perform a traditional dance, Juba, July 9, 2011, Greg Marinovich/The Stand

New Country, Old Conflicts

Greg Marinovich

South Sudan. 9 July 2011

Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir flew home from South Africa Monday despite a court order that he be held to face charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide brought by the International Criminal Court and stemming from for the conflict in Darfur.

The conflict in Darfur, a western region of Sudan, began a struggle for independence in 2003. The conflict exploded when an alliance of rebel groups made a bid to expel Sudan’s government troops and functionaries. The state responded with great ferocity, leaving between 200,000 and 300,000 dead, mostly civilians, leading to the ICC charges.

In the south, various mostly Christian ethnic groups waged a 30-year war for independence from the Arab dominated Muslim north. The South’s fight finally ended when South Sudan became the 54th African state in 2011. It was the first African nation to redraw colonial era boundaries, which had been seen as sacrosanct.

Q&A with Greg Marinovich

 

You were in South Sudan for its independence, how was that?
There was a great sense of expectation in the days leading up to the day, but also some trepidation.

What do you mean?
The former rebel groups who had united to be the new government were in fact already running the south. Many civilians were nervous that old tensions between different factions would resurface.

There were some fun celebratory images, the dances. Who were those people?
Those were a group of Massalit who had journeyed five days in buses and trucks over some of Africa’s worst roads to celebrate the South’s independence. The Massalit are one of the ethnic groups fighting for their own independence in Darfur.

While the conflict is often simplistically seen as the African Christian South against the Arab Muslim North, that is not right. The Massalit are Muslim and African and want to be free of Khartoum. And neither is it right that it is Arab against African, that also would be far too easy an answer to a very large and complex country.

Actually, two countries…
Yes, yes, that’s right.

How was independence day?
It was a scorcher. Really hot and humid, but people were having a great time, it was something so many had sacrificed for. There was a really funny moment when the president of Sudan (you know, the north) Omar Al-Bashir kind of got trapped in a crowd of people making their way up the VIP grandstand. A man who usually gets his way, who has abused his power of life and death over millions of people, there he was unable to move, angry and frustrated. He was surrounded by his bodyguards and South Sudanese protection officers, who must have enjoyed the moment. I was just a metre away, and had fun taking those images – pretty rare to see power constrained, even in such a meaningless way.

And the fear that South Sudan would return to conflict proved correct, yes?
Tragically. In 2013, President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar re-ignited a power struggle that has all but destroyed any hope of development in the South, even though they enjoy massive oil wealth.

The war is across ethnic lines, mostly pitting Dinka against Nuer. Many people had left their lives in Khartoum to try and build up the South, moving to new neighbourhoods carved out of the bush on the outskirts of Juba. Many of these urban, educated people had married across those tribal lines. I wonder what has become of them.