At Quiet Rebel Base, Plotting an Assault on South Sudan’s Oil Fields
By JACEY FORTIN, The New York Times
April 03, 2014 (NASIR, South Sudan) — There are only four bullets in the rifle that Liep Wiyual plans to use against government troops on the front lines in South Sudan.
“When I go to fight, I will get more bullets,” he said. For rebel fighters like him, rushing onto battlefields to seize weapons and ammunition from the enemy is a common practice.
Mr. Wiyual, 22, is a former hotel receptionist from Malakal, in Upper Nile State. Two of his brothers were killed after clashes erupted there in mid-January. All around him, civilian militants in the rebel force known as the White Army are gearing up for a new offensive to take the Paloch oil fields in northern Upper Nile State.
But Mr. Wiyual’s reasons for joining this battle have little to do with oil, or even with former Vice President Riek Machar’s political dispute with President Salva Kiir, which erupted in violence on Dec. 15 and quickly led this young country into civil war.
“We are fighting the government for killing people,” Mr. Wiyual said. “We aren’t fighting for Dr. Riek.”
South Sudan’s former vice president, Riek Machar, speaks about plans for his rebels to attack oil fields that supply revenue to the government of Salva Kiir.
Mr. Machar is plotting the offensive on the oil fields from a hide-out in Upper Nile State. It is a quiet outpost, save the incessant chirping of birds, and the former vice president keeps company with a small team of bodyguards. He has a satellite phone and a shiny touch-screen tablet in a battered brown case, and in his free time he is working through a paperback copy of “Why Nations Fail.”
The book, he says, inspires him to reflect on whether he is making the right decisions, though he holds Mr. Kiir responsible for South Sudan’s bloody conflict.
“I think a government which kills his own people is discredited,” he said. “The presence of forces loyal to Salva Kiir in Paloch, to buy more arms to kill our people, to bring foreigners to interfere and kill more of our people, is not acceptable to us.”
Of course, rebel forces have been implicated in widespread civilian deaths during the course of the war as well, with the United Nations reporting “mass atrocities” committed by both sides.
Mr. Machar acknowledges the White Army’s lack of discipline, admitting that the civilian fighters have their own reasons to fight and “are definitely difficult to control.”
“They are in defense of their own areas,” he said, “in defense of themselves.” But he maintains that defected armed troops, not civilians, made up the core of his rebellion.
Maj. Gen. Gathoth Gatkuoth, who commands both formal and civilian troops for Mr. Machar in Upper Nile State, gave a different account, estimating that the White Army’s civilian fighters numbered 60,000 to 80,000 in the state, plus 20,000 rebel soldiers who defected from the government. He said that capturing the oil fields would not only strip the government of revenue, but also devastate the government’s military abilities in Upper Nile State.
The government controls several regional state capitals, including Bor and Bentiu. But since Upper Nile State contains the country’s still-functioning oil fields, its capital, Malakal, is now the main focus of the rebels.
“We withdrew from it some time ago,” Mr. Machar said, referring to previous back-and-forth battles for the city. “We want to go back to it. It’s our town. That’s why you see mobilization taking place.”
The hundreds of White Army fighters now in Nasir will approach the city by boat, by car and even on foot, with Paloch their intended final destination, the rebels say.
“It’s our target,” Mr. Machar said. “It was supposed to have been done a month ago. We should have been in the oil field. We want to take control of the oil field. This is our oil.”
White Army fighters rarely cross paths directly with Mr. Machar, whose hide-out is fairly secluded. Instead, the Nasir fighters report to Cmdr. Hokdor Chuol Diet, a taciturn man dressed in fatigues and a red beret. His headquarters are not far from the river, in a dilapidated concrete structure covered in black graffiti. “T-Pain,” says one of the scribbles, referring to the musician. “Justin Bieber,” says another.
Rebels say they operate according to an unusual strategy, enabling them to go to battle with government forces 10 times as large: pack light for the battlefield, run straight toward the enemies, and overwhelm them with speed and proximity. One South Sudanese observer compared the typical onslaught to a swarm of hungry ants.
“Our leader is Dr. Riek Machar,” Commander Diet said. “If the leader doesn’t give us the order to stop, we go with our plans. But if the leadership says there is peace and the other side respects it, then we will stop.” He demurred repeatedly when asked whether Mr. Machar ever ordered the White Army to stand down for the cessation of hostilities signed in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Jan. 23, which fell apart very quickly.
Nhial Tuach Riek, a force commander sitting to Commander Diet’s left, offered a very different assessment.
“We cannot wait for an order from someone else, because we know the government killed these people,” he said. “Dr. Riek cannot order us to do anything because we are not fighting for him.”
Commander Diet and his officers then sat in the shade of a tree, where a group of fighters were waiting to settle a dispute. Two men claimed the right to a rifle that was taken from a killed government soldier, and the White Army commanders listened intently as both sides made their case.
Another civilian seeking the militant leaders’ guidance sat outside the White Army headquarters. A mother of five wanted to settle a marital dispute. Her husband wanted to go to the front lines, but she argued that she needed him at home to help feed the family.
For the rebels, civilian participation is indispensable. But for the fighters’ own communities, it is disruptive. The rainy season is approaching, and now is the time to plant seeds for the coming harvest or to move cows to greener pastures. Young men are leaving women and children behind to care for homesteads, and humanitarian groups worry that this could lead to hunger — or even famine — in a few months’ time.
“I am angry because we don’t have food to eat,” said the mother, who gave her name as Nyadang. She does not oppose the war itself, she said; her own brother was killed in Juba, the nation’s capital, where government troops have been implicated in civilian detentions and killings. “It would be better for my husband and me to go together. I am ready to fight because of what happened in Juba.”
People like Nyadang are essential to the White Army, whether they go to the front lines or not. The force says it is underfunded, with food and support coming mostly from personal networks.
“We don’t have anything,” General Gatkuoth said. “We don’t have money. We are just depending on the local resources of our people. It’s the people who are helping us now.”
For arms and equipment, government soldiers are inadvertent suppliers. Defected troops bring government-issued weapons, while White Army fighters seize equipment and loot cars as they take cities. Nasir is now dotted with white pickup trucks and Toyota Land Cruisers, many of them hot-wired to start without a key. The stolen goods are a point of pride in Nasir, where White Army fighters like Mr. Wiyual, who prizes his barely loaded rifle, are eager to show off what they have.
Mr. Wiyual says he does not rely on people like Mr. Machar for guidance or support, arguing that civilian fighters can depend on one another. “If you are going to fight, it’s not you alone,” he said. “When you fight, you run with your brother.”
Despite the extensive negotiations that have taken place between the two sides, Mr. Machar says he does not hold out much hope for a peaceful resolution that would leave Mr. Kiir in office.
“I don’t know what sort of compromise would be reached with him remaining in power,” he said. “I don’t see the ingredients of such a compromise. What would that entail?”