Michael Busch

In late 2013, South Sudan erupted into civil war. The fledgling government, which had taken power just two years earlier during the formal creation of the country, fractured from intrigue and infighting. Violence quickly consumed South Sudan, playing out largely along sectarian lines. Ethnic Dinka soldiers predominantly stuck with the government of President Salva Kiir, while those from the Nuer tribe tended to take up arms against the government under the leadership of former (and now current, again) Vice President Riek Machar. 

The civil war shattered whatever hopes had been held out for South Sudan. By some estimates, 300,000 South Sudanese were killed in the conflict. Hundreds of thousands more fled the fighting to other countries. According to the United Nations, roughly 13,000 children were conscripted into battle, and mass atrocities were committed by government and rebel forces alike. Over a million South Sudanese were displaced internally, many finding safety on UN bases where they remain to this day. 

While an agreement reached last summer between the government and rebels brought the worst of the fighting to an end, South Sudan limps along under a precarious peace. The economy, crippled by the conflict, shows few signs of life. Periodic violence continues to erupt, and any hopes of bringing the perpetrators of mass atrocities of justice have been sacrificed in the name of South Sudanese stability. Indeed, there’s been an absence of official effort to even properly tally the number of dead. And as journalist Nick Turse discovered, even locating the remains of those victims is difficult—a chilling fact considering the scope and scale of the slaughter.    
Over several visits to the country beginning in 2014, Turse travelled through South Sudan, taking stock of the wreckage wrought by war and gathering firsthand accounts of the devastation from survivors of the conflict. The result, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, offers a bracing—at times harrowing—account of South Sudan’s civil war from the perspective of those who survived the conflict and continue to struggle in the absence of accountability for wide spread human rights violations. Nick and I recently discussed Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, the continuing crisis in South Sudan, and what may be in store for the world’s youngest country.   

Michael Busch: First things first: What drew you to South Sudan?

Nick Turse: I am a national security reporter by trade, covering the U.S. military. That’s my day job. But before I was a reporter, I was a historian. For years, I did a lot of work on the Vietnam War and U.S. atrocities committed there. I had come across, as a grad student many years ago, a collection of documents -- the military’s own investigations into its crimes in Vietnam. They were very detailed reports that had been buried away for decades. This find led me on a ten year odyssey working from the documents—traveling around the United States, looking for witnesses and perpetrators, interviewing them, and then going to Vietnam to get the Vietnamese side of the story, and finally blending it all together. The result was a book, Kill Anything That Moves. 

After more than a decade working on that project, it felt as if I had been immersed in atrocity that whole time. Strange as it might sound, I felt like I needed a change. So obviously I headed for a war zone filled with atrocities. I know it sounds odd, but it didn’t seem so counterintuitive to me at the time. This was 2014, and South Sudan had plunged into a brutal civil war months before. I wanted to report on the humanitarian situation, the fallout from the war, and how it was affecting average people. I didn’t see myself as going to cover atrocities, per se. I intended to visit the United Nations bases there that had become something like open-air prisons, and to talk with people about what life was like since the war had begun -- about their often desperate situations. 

When I started interviewing them, though, it didn’t take me long to realize that there was something unnervingly familiar about this new work and my years spent investigating atrocities in Vietnam -- the grim tales I started to hear were awfully familiar. I was talking with people in sun-drenched limbos—refugees in their own country—about family members who were gunned down in the streets, about rapes and assaults – the hideous stories that form the fabric of modern war. I was taking them down, but I still didn’t plan on focusing on that side of the story. My plan was still to focus on the humanitarian situation, on the lack of sufficient food, the dearth of adequate shelter, the ravages of disease. But one night on one of these U.N. bases I was talking to a couple of men who had been reporters before the war. Since the conflict began, they had taken shelter at the base and were working for the United Nations. 

I was asking them what their lives were like, what they thought was going to happen to their country, what they had seen on the base. But these guys were more interested in learning about me, learning about my background. I wasn’t forthcoming enough for one of them, apparently, so he took to Google and looked me up while we were sitting and talking. He found my Vietnam War book, and said, “You have a background in investigating war crimes. Why are you here writing about life in a camp for internally displaced people? Why aren’t you investigating war crimes here? This place is full of them.”

I demurred in a number of different ways, and told him that I simply didn’t know enough about the country to conduct detailed investigations. When I was writing about the U.S. in Vietnam, I said, I was writing about my own country about which I know a lot. But I told him that I was still learning about South Sudan, that investigations of this sort should be written by South Sudanese. But these reporters said I needed to tell this story. One of the reporters told me quite bluntly that if he tried to tell the story, he’d be killed. “But you,” he said, “you can write about this.” And even if I didn’t get the complete story, he said, I could write the first draft of this history. South Sudanese could finish it later, perhaps, when there was peace, but until then, they urged me to write on the subject. Again I balked, but what he said stuck in my head. It wasn’t long after that that I decided I would return to South Sudan and try and record some of the stories from the firsr weeks and months of the civil war. I returned in early 2015, thinking that I would write a couple of articles – and I did.  But something larger also poured out. I wasn’t expecting to come out of that trip with a book but it sort of took shape on its own.  That’s how I ended up writing Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead. 

MB: You point out an astonishing fact about the bloodshed in South Sudan, namely that unlike many other sites of mass killing, there are no burial grounds to visit, no bodies to count. Can you talk about the experience and challenges of researching and reporting on widespread slaughter in the absence of clear evidence?

NT: It’s very difficult. No one knows how many people have been killed in the current civil war which has technically been over for more than six months but nonetheless continues to take lives. For about a year, people used the figure that was proffered in the first days of the conflict: 10,000 dead. Then it bumped up to 50,000. That number was arrived at in the fall of 2014 by the International Crisis Group, and many people have stuck with that. Some estimates put the number at as high as 300,000, but the truth is that no one knows. The only people who are attempting to count the dead are in a small group that I write about in the book, Naming the Ones We Lost. Now the project is actually called Remembering the Ones We Lost. It’s a group of volunteers that have taken it upon themselves to collect the names, they’re attempting to begin an actual count. Right now they have about 5,000 names, a fraction of those killed, but it’s a valuable and impressive start. 

So this is the situation all of us are dealing with in South Sudan.  I would go out to interview people, and try to make sense of their stories of pain and loss.  I would collect names myself.  But there are no master lists of the dead and corroboration is difficult.  It’s a polarized environment in South Sudan where there are deep ethnic enmities.  People have reasons to shade the truth one way or the other, so corroborating is key and also a challenge. I also went looking for mass graves.  This too was difficult.  You know these bodies are somewhere but the graves are extremely hard to find. Bodies were trucked out to remote areas. And so you get a tip and go looking in this deserted field or in that secluded area, but you don’t find solid evidence. 

Of course, I just returned from another trip to South Sudan and this time the situation was different. I was in a place called Leer and there, if you know where to look, you can find evidence of mass atrocities. I walked out into a field of scattered human remains: skulls, spinal columns, pelvises, rib cages. There, in Leer, the evidence was apparent; other places, it’s less so. You can only try to tie together accounts and paint the fullest picture possible, and in this I have relied a great deal on work done by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other nongovernmental organizations. They’ve all made valiant efforts, as have many reporters who have endeavored to put these stories together. In Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, I was hoping to weave together some of this testimony to give the reading audience, especially American audiences a glimpse of what the situation in South Sudan has been like. It certainly doesn’t tell the whole story in any way, but is designed to give readers a sense of what the scale of violence has been.

MB: On the point about American audiences, which you brought up a moment ago, it seems to me there’s a tension here. On the one hand, many Americans are not all that familiar with the situation in South Sudan. And yet, the United States has a long and unique relationship to country. Can you talk about the US connection to the founding of South Sudan? And what’s been the American approach to the country since independence?

NT: This is something I left out earlier when you asked what drew me to South Sudan. When the country collapsed into civil war in late 2013 it drew my attention because I had been reading about the new nation on and off for years. South Sudan was supposed to be America’s great nation-building project in Africa. Many people in the United States don’t know that. When they think of American nation-building, they think of Afghanistan and Iraq, which of course came about through very different circumstances and were disasters for other reasons.  But South Sudan was another of these efforts and a longer-term one.  The United States had worked for the independence of South Sudan for decades. Starting in the 1980s, there were former members of Jimmy Carter’s administration that latched on to this proto-state of South Sudan, as well as Republicans, evangelical Christians from Midland, Texas—George W. Bush’s hometown —that were driving forces behind this. 

The latter saw the civil war in Sudan as a clear instance of Christians battling Muslims. The north of Sudan a Muslim area, the south as Christian -- this was how the situation had been painted in broad strokes. American politicians ended up championing the South and aided in the independence struggle.  The southern Sudanese, of course, were the ones that bled for it. They fought two very brutal civil wars. The first, from 1955-1972, where the South won some concessions. And the second, in the early 1980s, when the war sprung back into life. It lasted until 2005. During that time, the United States sent arms to the rebels through neighboring countries, and supported them in many ways. After the war ended in 2005 -- until independence in 2011, Washington pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the national army. Patricia Taft at the Fund for Peace has referred to the effort as “nationhood by whatever means necessary.” There’s real truth to that. The United States invested a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of diplomatic effort into what John Kerry indelicately called “midwifing the birth” of South Sudan. South Sudan became the world’s newest nation and there was great hope in South Sudan and in Washington about its prospects. But it didn’t last for very long.

Money alone doesn’t guarantee that you have any of the structures needed for statehood, and South Sudan did not really possess these structures. President Salva Kiir may have been a formidable guerilla leader but as a head of state he has proven quite lacking. Nor are there many stable institutions. There was, however, oil. At the time of independence, prices were high and it looked like the country could fund itself through the sale of oil. For the sake of expediency, I think that the United States was willing to look the other way when it came to building real democratic institutions in South Sudan, as were other players in the international community.  And they didn’t do much to set South Sudan on a path to real peace or stability. I think these are some of the reasons why the country quickly plunged into war. 

MB: And then there’s all the displaced people. You described the UN bases where South Sudanese are housed earlier as resembling open-air prisons. How did this happen? And how can we understand the role the United Nations has played in all this?

NT: We’re talking about a country dotted with fenced-in camps protected by U.N. peacekeepers.  Years after the outbreak of the civil war, half a year after a peace pact was signed, there are still roughly 180,000 people stranded on these bases.  Now, the United Nations has a mixed record in South Sudan, and there are certainly plenty of reasons to take them to task for their actions in the country. But one thing they did do that saved a lot of lives was throwing open their doors the first night that killings began in Juba in December 2013. Soldiers were stalking through the streets, killing ethnic Nuers, mostly. Salva Kiir is a Dinka, and his troops from the national army were killing Nuers on the basis of their ethnicity. The UN opened up its bases—these weren’t meant to be refugee or IDP camps, but that is what they became. The UN scaled up as best it could, but many times I think it was inadequate.   

I visited a number of these UN bases where people became trapped. Some of the camps -- known as “protection of civilian” sites or POCs -- were exceptionally squalid, but I think giving people a place to run to did save lives. The UN hasn’t, however, done a great job at times protecting those bases. Just recently there was a government attack on a base in Malakal – it was a camp I had visited in 2014. It took an inordinately long time for UN peacekeepers to respond and drive off the attack by government troops on defenseless people in the camp. Many people were killed; it was a real mess. And this wasn’t an isolated circumstance. Sometimes it seems that the UN has also been too willing to appease the government, but they are walking a fine line trying to maintain relationships, and making sure they can provide protections in a difficult environment.  

MB: You mentioned a moment ago that you just recently returned from another reporting trip to South Sudan. Is the situation largely the same there, or have things changed at all since you finished the book?  

NT: Since the book was written, there was a peace deal signed by Salvar Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar. Just days ago, Machar returned to Juba to rejoin the government as First Vice-President. There has been a lot of cautious optimism, I’d say, about all this. There are reasons for this optimism, I guess. But in many cases it looks to me like there have been very few actual solutions to the root problems. We are effectively back to status quo antebellum now. The same intractable issues that began this war in 2013 are all still there. Except two years have passed, the economy has collapsed, hundreds of thousands have been killed, wounded or traumatized, millions have been displaced. There has been no accountability, no healing, no real peacemaking. Long-standing grievances have basically just been papered over. I am hoping against it, but I fear that in the coming months or years we are going to see the country collapse back into conflict. I fear it could be even worse than what happened in 2013. I hope against hope that I am wrong about this, but I fear that war will return to South Sudan.  

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com , a contributing writer reporting on national security and foreign policy for The Intercept, and a fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. His work has appeared in the New York TimesLos Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, the Village Voice, and many other publications. He has received a Ridenhour Prize for Investigative Reporting, a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

Michael Busch is Senior Editor of Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.