LEER, South Sudan — I’m sitting in the dark, sweating. The blinding white sun has long since set, but it’s still in the high 90s, which is a relief since it was above 110 earlier. Slumped in a blue plastic chair, I’m thinking back on the day, trying to process everything I saw, the people I spoke with: the woman whose home was burned down, the woman whose teenage daughter was shot and killed, the woman with 10 mouths to feed and no money, the glassy-eyed soldier with the AK-47.
Then there were the scorched ruins: the wrecked houses, the traditional wattle-and-daub tukuls without roofs, the spectral footprints of homes set aflame by armed raiders who swept through in successive waves, the remnants of a town that has ceased to exist.
And, of course, there were the human remains: a field of scattered skulls and femurs and ribs and pelvises and spinal columns.
And I’m sitting here — spent, sweaty, stinking — trying to make sense of it all about 10 feet from a sandbagged bunker I’m supposed to jump into if the shooting starts again. “It’s one of the worse places in the world,” someone had assured me before I left South Sudan’s capital, Juba, for this hellscape of burnt-out buildings and unburied bones that goes by the name of Leer.
A lantern on a nearby table casts a dim glow on an approaching aid worker, an African with a deep knowledge of this place. He’s come to fetch his dinner. I’m hoping to corral him and pick his brain about the men who torched this town, burned people alive, beat and murdered civilians, abducted, raped, and enslaved women and children, looted and pillaged and stole.
Before I can say a word, he beats me to the punch with his own set of rapid-fire questions: “This man called Trump — what’s going on with him? Who’s voting for him? Are you voting for him?” He then proceeds to tell me everything he’s heard about the Republican frontrunner — how Trump is tarnishing America’s global image, how he can’t believe the things Trump says about women and immigrants.
Here, where catastrophic food insecurity may tip into starvation at any time, where armed men still arrive in the night to steal and rape. (“They could come any night. You might even hear them tonight. You’ll hear the women screaming,” another aid worker told me earlier in the day.) Here, where horrors abound, this man wants — seemingly needs — to know if Donald Trump could actually be elected president of the United States. “I’m really afraid,” he says of the prospect without a hint of irony.
Of Midwifery and Militias
After decades of effort, the United States “helped midwife the birth” of the Republic of South Sudan, according to then-Senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry. In reality, for the South Sudanese to win their independence it took two brutal conflicts with Sudan, the first of which ranged from 1955 to 1972, and the second from 1983 to 2005, leaving millions dead and displaced. Still, it is true that for more than 20 years, a bipartisan coalition in Washington and beyond championed the southern rebels, and that, as the new nation broke away from Sudan, the U.S. poured in billions of dollars in aid, including hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance.
The world’s youngest nation, South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 and just two and a half years later plunged into civil war. Since then, an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 people have been killed in a conflict pitting President Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, against Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer and the vice president he sacked in July 2013. That December, a fight between Dinka and Nuer troops set off the current crisis, which then turned into a slaughter of Nuers by Kiir’s forces in Juba. Reprisals followed as Machar’s men took their revenge on Dinkas and other non-Nuers in towns like Bor and Bentiu. The conflict soon spread, splintering into local wars within the larger war and birthing other violence that even a peace deal signed last August and Machar’s recent return to the government has been unable to halt.
The signature feature of this civil war has been its preferred target: civilians. It has been marked by massacres, mass rape, sexual slavery, assaults of every sort, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement of local populations, disappearances, abductions, torture, mutilations, the wholesale destruction of villages, pillaging, looting, and a host of other crimes.
Again and again, armed men have fallen upon towns and villages filled with noncombatants. That’s exactly what happened to Leer in 2015. Militias allied with the government, in coordination with Kiir’s troops — the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA — attacked the town and nearby villages again and again. Rebel forces fled in the face of the government onslaught. Fearing execution, many men fled as well. Women stayed behind, caring for children, the sick, and the elderly. There was an assumption that they would be spared. They weren’t. Old men were killed in their homes that were then set ablaze. Women were gang raped. Others were taken away as sex slaves. Whole villages were razed. Survivors were chased into the nearby swamps, tracked down, and executed. Children drowned in the chaos.
Those who lived through it spent months in those waterlogged swamps, eating water lily bulbs. When they returned home, they were confronted yet again by pitiless armed men who, at gunpoint, took what meager belongings they had left, sometimes the very clothes off children’s backs.
This is a story that ought to be told and told and retold. And yet here in Leer, like everywhere I went in South Sudan, I couldn’t get away from Donald Trump. So many — South Sudanese, Americans, Canadians, Europeans — seemed to want to talk about him. Even in this ruined shell of a town, Trump was big news.
The “Endorsement” Heard Round the World
Back in Juba, I settle down in the shade of my hotel’s bar on a Saturday morning to read the Daily Vision. In that newspaper, there’s a story about the dire economic straits the country finds itself in and the violence its breeding, as well as one about violations of the 2015 peace pact. And then there’s this gem of a headline: “Nobody Likes Donald Trump. Not Even White Men.”
A fair number of South Sudanese men I ran into, however, did like him. “He mixes it up,” one told me, lauding Trump’s business acumen. “At least he speaks his mind. He’s not afraid to say things that people do not want to hear,” said another. I heard such comments in Juba and beyond. It leaves you with the impression that if his campaign hits rough shoals in the U.S., Trump might still have a political future in South Sudan. After all, this is a country currently led by a brash, cowboy-hat-wearing former guerrilla who mixes it up and is certainly not afraid to speak his mind even when it comes to threatening members of the press with death.
Compared to Kiir, who stands accused by the United Nations of war crimes, Trump looks tame indeed. The Republican candidate has only threatened to weaken First Amendment protections in order to make it easier to sue, not kill, reporters. Still, the two leaders do seem like-minded on a number of issues. Kiir’s government, for example, is implicated in all manner of atrocities, including torture, which Trump has shown an eagerness to employ as a punishment in Washington’s war on terror. Trump has also expressed a willingness to target not only those deemed terrorists, but also their families. Kiir’s forces have done just that, attacking noncombatants suspected of sympathizing with the rebels, as they did during the sack of Leer.
So it didn’t come as a surprise when, in March, the Sudan Tribune — a popular Paris-based website covering South Sudan and Sudan — reported that Salva Kiir had endorsed Trump. It even provided readers with the official statement issued by Kiir’s office after his phone call with the U.S. presidential candidate: “Donald Trump is a true, hard-working, no-nonsense American who, when he becomes president, will support South Sudan in its democratic path and stability. South Sudan, the world newest nations [sic], is also looking forward to Donald Trump’s support and investment in almost all the sectors.” Trump, said the Tribune, “expressed his thanks for the endorsement and said he will send his top aides to the country to discuss further the investment opportunities.”
It turned out, however, that the Tribune had been taken in by a local satirical news site, Saakam — the Onion of South Sudan — whose tagline is “Breaking news like it never happened.” That the Tribune was fooled by the story is not as strange as it might first seem. As journalist Jason Patinkin observed in Quartz, “Kiir’s reputation is such that many Africa watchers and journalists found the story plausible.”
I, for one, hadn’t even bothered to read the Tribune article. The title told me all I needed to know. It sounded like classic Kiir. I almost wondered what had taken him so long to reach out. But South Sudan’s foreign ministry assured Patinkin, “There is no truth to [the story] whatsoever.”
For now, at least.
Will He Win?
There’s a fever-dream, schizophrenic quality to the war in South Sudan. The conflict began in an orgy of violence, then ebbed, only to flare again and again. As the war has ground on, new groups have emerged, and alliances have formed while others broke down. Commanders switch sides, militias change allegiances. In 2014, for example, Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang, the rebel army’s spokesman, called out the SPLA for “committing crimes against humanity.” Kiir, he said, had lost control of his forces and had become little more than a puppet of his Ugandan backers. Last year, Lul split from Machar to form the “South Sudan Resistance Movement/Army” — an organization that attracted few followers. This year, he found a new job, as the spokesman for the military he once cast as criminal. “I promise to defend SPLA in Media Warfare until the last drop of blood,” he wrote in a Facebook post after being tapped by Kiir. Of course, Machar himself has just recently returned to Juba to serve as first vice-president to Kiir.
In a country like this, enmeshed in a war like this, it’s hardly surprising that ceasefires have meant little and violence has ground on even after a peace deal was signed last August. Leer was just one of the spots where atrocities continued despite the fact that “ended” the conflict.
More recently, the war — or rather the various sub-conflicts it’s spawned, along with other armed violence — has spread to previously peaceful areas of the country. Cattle-raiding, a long-standing cultural practice, now supercharged by modern weaponry and military-style tactics, has proven increasingly lethal to communities nationwide, and has recently even bled across the border into Ethiopia. A South Sudanese raid into that country’s Gambela region last month killed 208 Ethiopians, and the attackers abducted 108 women and children while stealing more than 2,000 head of cattle.
While in Leer, I do end up talking at length with the Trump-intrigued aid worker about local cattle-raiding, as well as the killings, the rapes, and the widespread looting. I was always, however, aware that, like many other foreign aid workers and locals I meet, what he really wanted was an American take on the man presently dominating U.S. politics, an explanation of the larger-than-life and stranger-than-life figure who, even in South Sudan, has the ability to suck the air out of any room.
“This Trump. He’s a crazy man!” he tells me as we sit together beneath an obsidian sky now thick with stars. He reminds me that he’s not authorized by his employer to speak on the record. I nod. Then he adds incredulously, “He says some things and you wonder: Are you going to be president? Really?!”
A couple of other people are around us now, eating dinner after a long, sweltering day. They, too, join in the conversation, looking to me for answers. I find myself at a loss. Here, in this place of acute hunger ever-teetering on the brink of famine, here, a short walk from homes that are little more than hovels, where children go naked, women wear dresses that are essentially rags, and a mother’s dream is to lay her hands on a sheet of plastic to provide protection from the coming rains, I do my best to explain seething white male anger in America over “economic disenfranchisement,” “losing out,” and being “left behind,” over Donald Trump’s channeling of “America’s economic rage.” I’m disgusted even articulating these sentiments after spending the day speaking to people whose suffering is as unfathomable in America as America’s wealth is unimaginable here.
Some of Leer’s women fled with their children into the nearby swamps when armed men swept in. Imagine running blind, in the black of night, into such a swamp. Imagine tripping, falling, losing your grip on a small child’s hand as shots ring out. Imagine that child stumbling into water too deep for her to stand. Imagine slapping frantically at that water, disoriented, spinning in the darkness, desperate to find a child who can’t swim, who’s slipped beneath the surface, who is suddenly gone.
And now imagine me trying to talk about the worries of Trump supporters “that their kids won’t have a chance to get ahead.”
I really don’t want to say anymore. I don’t want to try to make sense of it or try to explain why so many Americans are so enraged at their lot and so enthralled with Donald Trump.
The aid worker lets me off the hook with another assessment of the Republican candidate. “Things he says, they are very awkward. When he says those things, you think: He’s crazy. How can he be a presidential candidate?”
How to respond? I’m at a loss.
“If he wins the election, America will not have the influence it’s had,” he says.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, I counter. Maybe not having such influence would be good for the world.
It’s the truth. It also completely misses the point. Even here, even as I’m revolted by talking about America’s “problems” amid the horrors of Leer, I’m still looking at things from a distinctly American vantage point. I’m talking about theoretically diminished U.S. power and what that might mean for the planet, but come 2017 he’s going to be out in the thick of it, in this or some other desperate place, and he’s obviously worried about what the foreign policy of Donald Trump’s America is going to mean for him, for Africa, for the world.
I go silent. He goes silent. Another aid worker has been listening in, piping up intermittently between mouthfuls of rice and goat meat. “So is he going to win?” he asks me.
I look over at him and half-shrug. Everyone, I say, thought Trump was going to flame out long ago. And I stop there. I’m too spent to talk Trump anymore. I don’t have any answers.
My companion looks back at me and breaks his silence. “It can’t happen, can it?”