Knowledge Will Not Save Us

Stuck in the mud in South Sudan

Mongezi Ncaphayi, Unit Structures II. 2019, stone lithograph. 15 × 13 4/5''. Printed at Atelier le Grand Village. Courtesy of Atelier le Grand Village. @atelierlegrandvillage.

I first met Peter Gadet in the back room of an empty bar in an empty hotel in Addis Ababa. He sat at the head of a long table, as if about to chair a company meeting, though the hotel, with its lurid purple walls, felt more like the set of a bad horror film than the headquarters of a busy corporation. His affable private secretary, Denay Chagor, translated Gadet’s gruff Nuer—the language of South Sudan’s second largest ethnic group—into English. “The world,” Gadet said, “has not forgotten about Peter Gadet.” I wasn’t sure if this was a question or a statement.

It was June 2015, South Sudan’s civil war was in full flow, and Gadet was a general in the principal rebel group in the country, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO). Two years earlier, South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, had dismissed his Nuer vice president, Riek Machar, along with the rest of his cabinet. Kiir then centralized power around a clique of loyalists who built up a series of militias recruited from among the Dinka, the president’s ethnic group. Six months later, in December 2013, after a contested meeting of South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), clashes broke out between Kiir and Machar’s bodyguards. This gave the government the excuse it needed to send its militia forces into the streets of Juba, the state capital, where they went door-to-door killing Nuer civilians in a deliberate campaign to polarize the nation along ethnic lines. It worked.

Gadet told me that when he first got word of the killings in Juba, he was in Bor, serving as the commander of a division of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), South Sudan’s army. Government forces had killed seven of his sons. “I had to do something,” he said, “or we would all die, all Nuer.” He led his division of the SPLA into revolt, and it became the nucleus of the SPLA-IO. In reaction to the killings in Juba, the entire country split into two: on one side, Kiir, his militias, and the weight of the South Sudanese state; on the other, Gadet and the largely Nuer SPLA-IO, under the command of Machar.

For six months, fighting centered on the Greater Upper Nile region as the two sides contested control of its major cities. Each time the cities changed hands, more and more buildings were razed and there was less and less to win. By mid-2014, the cities’ former residents were huddled in UN bases, staring out at the ruins of their homes. Still, Gadet was hopeful. Only the intervention of the Ugandan army, he explained, had saved the government and prevented the SPLA-IO from marching on Juba. Others were less enthusiastic about Gadet’s prospects. The European Union imposed sanctions, including a travel ban, claiming in its official journal that he was responsible for “fueling the cycle of violence . . . and for serious human rights violations.”

“How have these sanctions affected you?” I asked. Gadet looked at me, his eyes twinkling. “They have made Gathoth Gatkuoth extremely jealous,” he whispered, naming another rebel general. He gestured out of the room to the bar and its floor-to-ceiling windows, from which you could see all of downtown Addis.

Gadet’s dreams didn’t last long. By 2015, government forces had retaken all the major urban centers, and recriminations were underway. The politicians around Machar criticized the generals for failing to rally the Nuer of Unity State, Gadet’s home area. The problem, Gadet told me, was the politicians. He blamed Machar for failing to secure matériel for his forces. His anger was palpable, and it came as little surprise when only two weeks after we met, he and several other generals in the SPLA-IO were dismissed by Machar, as the South Sudanese opposition fragmented.

After a couple of hours, Gadet became tired. He didn’t look well. His eyes still shone, but he seemed withdrawn, a faded print of the photographs I had seen of this famous warrior. I thanked him and went to leave. Don’t forget Gadet, he said as I exited the room. I told him that was unlikely.

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