April 14, 2012
Juba, South Sudan
On Friday the thirteenth the newsroom was full for our morning editorial meeting. South Sudan had captured Heglig, a region just north of the border, in Sudan (an area that happens to have a major oil field.) This came after several weeks of (North) Sudan bombing towns and refugee camps in the South. The African Union (AU) and the UN had asked South Sudan to withdraw its troops. On Thursday South Sudanese President, Salva Kir, had given a stirring and bellicose speech in Parliament to a romping and stomping floor, no withdrawal. The peace talks in Addis collapsed. The President of the North (who, to complicate matters, is an indicted war criminal because of alleged war crimes in Darfur) withdrew from planned talks in Juba. The discussion in the newsroom was how to cover all of this; who to call as sources, and what tone the station should take, not only in news programming, but in music. Other stations are playing patriotic music, stirring the pot. There is nothing like being in a newsroom during a crisis.
The staff’s instincts are good and the station’s coverage has been too. The conflict is complex. South Sudan has fought two wars of independence since the whole of Sudan won independence from Britain in 1956. The most recent war lasted more than 20 years. It was not simply a war between north and south. There were also tribal sub battles that made the fighting more complex and deadly. The North (still called Sudan) is mainly Moslem and Arab, or Arab assimilated African tribes. The South (an independent country since last summer called South Sudan) is mostly Black and Christian mixed with traditional (animist) religions. The North had styled the last civil war as a jihad. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended the war and enabled the referendum that allowed South Sudan to secede but left several issues unsettled. Two states, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, were to have borders set after a consultative process. These states are mostly black African. Throughout the long wars the North drove the original population south, especially after oil was discovered. The consultative process was never really completed, but a ruling at The Hague set the borders where the North had drawn them when Sudan was one country. Both states have insurgent movements demanding either autonomy or attachment to the South. Heglig was originally a Dinka (the main tribe of South Sudan) town. The South believes that the Hague ruling is not valid, that Heglig is their town and that the British colonial maps confirm that. The presence of oil reinforces each side’s resolve.
There is another disputed region, Abyei. Abyei was to have a plebiscite but the North occupied it and there has not been a vote. There are now UN peacekeepers there. (Note, in November 2012 the situation is still unsettled.) Abyei is close to Heglig. The North has been bombing the South for several weeks, claiming the South, especially residents in the refugee camps, are giving aid to the insurgencies in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. The South has no air force to defend its territory from the bombers, some of which are old Soviet cargo planes. The Northern crews open the cargo doors and just push out the bombs: not very accurate, but still deadly. The South claims it attacked Heglig in retaliation for the bombing. After a protest from South Sudan the UN has asked the North to stop bombing the South as well as asking the South to withdraw from Heglig. The UN and AU have both spoken. We’re now waiting for George Clooney (an outspoken critic of the North.)
The South has other problems. Hundreds of thousands of Southerners are stranded in the North. They were workers, students, and refugees. On April 8 they lost their “status” there so now need to be repatriated. The border war will not make this easy. Many live in dire circumstances. We saw one group of returned refugees in Juba Town, picking up bags of grain on Thursday afternoon.
I was in town Thursday to cash my per diem check. That morning the bank ran out of dollars. South Sudan stopped pumping its oil to market in January because the pipeline runs through the North to the Red Sea. The South claims that the North was both stealing oil (under counting the barrels) and charging too much for transit. No oil, no dollars. The bank told everyone to come back after 2 PM.
At 2 PM the bank was crowded and was being careful about how much money it was handing out to any one person. To cash a check you need both the check and a letter from the company issuing the check, with the company’s stamp, authorizing the check. The woman in front of me was from a Chinese company. The check was made out for $4,000 USD (US Dollars) but there was a typo in her letter (“My boss is not too good with English”) and the letter said the check was for $4000 STD. It was only a typo but she was sent back to her office for a new letter. One company representative came to the bank with several checks. The first was for a large amount. “We cannot give you that much money.” So he produces a smaller check. “Still too big.” Finally they settled on a third, even smaller check (and he had even smaller checks in reserve.) After standing on my second line for more than 45 minutes my leg started to freeze up. I did knee bends in place. Others in the line asked what I was doing. I explained I had knees that froze up if I stood too long. Two Sudanese in front of me invited me to take their place on the line. There is respect for older people here and I have a white beard.
Petrol is in short supply in this oil rich county. There is no refining capacity here. Gasoline comes from Kenya or Uganda. South Sudan needs dollars to buy that petrol. There are long waits at every gas station with swarms of motor bikes near the pumps and lines of cars along the sides of roads.
While I am working in a newsroom and make forays into Juba Town, at night I’m behind guarded razor wire in what one colleague calls “the white concentration camp,” although all races share it (Japanese peacekeepers, and expat workers; European, Bolivian, Indian, black and white Africans and Americans of all races.) If it is a “concentration camp” it has 5 stars with a swimming pool, gym, air conditioning, good food and, seemingly, an unlimited supply of gin and tonic to fuel interesting trans-global conversations.