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One Year Later: South Sudan's Ongoing Conflict


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. South Sudan declared its independence just over a year ago, but the serious problems that plagued Sudan before it split - tribal conflict, oil disputes, corruption, hunger, continued fighting - have not gone away.

Jon Lee Anderson traveled to the remote Nuba Mountains in Sudan, where the conflict between north and south is now centered. Through interviews with rebel commanders, refugees, and North Sudanese government officials, he got a unique window into South Sudan's first year and the ongoing rebellion in the north. And he writes about it in this week's New Yorker magazine.

Writer Jon Lee Anderson joins us in a moment. If you've been to Sudan or South Sudan recently, what did you see, and whom did you talk to? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll talk about why it's so hard to make good friends beyond age 30 or so. But first, on year out from South Sudan's secession from the north. Jon Lee Anderson joins us now from a studio in Dorchester, England. Welcome to the program.

JON LEE ANDERSON: Thank you, it's good to be here. Thanks, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: You start your report with a description of South Sudan's independence ceremony. Can you take us back to that day and what it felt like at the time? But you write that there were hints of what was to come.

ANDERSON: Yes, this was July 9th of last year, 2011, and, you know, this was an extraordinary moment. A year earlier, the people of the southern part of Sudan, after - in a U.N.-administered referendum, voted overwhelmingly to secede from the country with which they had been at odds ever since independence in 1956, in two very long, almost continuous civil wars.

The longest civil war in Africa since colonial times has occurred in Sudan, with the deaths of millions. And there was a cease-fire in 2005 and then a kind of cooling-off period again, administered by the U.N., culminating in this referendum, in which 98 percent of South Sudanese voted for independence. So the day came.

Leaders from all over Africa flew in, people like Jacob Zuma and Goodluck Jonathan, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea Obiyang, Gadhafi not because he was still fighting for his life there in North Africa. Extraordinarily, the dictator of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, with an ICC arrest warrant against him for genocide in Darfur, was invited and was the VIP, the ultimate VIP at the event because...

LUDDEN: Wow, talk about extending your hand, a hand of peace.

ANDERSON: That's right. You know, he had allowed this to happen. So there was this kind of suspension of hostilities. The South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, a rather rustic figure who always wears a black cowboy hat, was there to greet him.

And then in this tiny little outpost of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, which really is not so much a city as a kind of, well, a refugee settlement, with a few paved streets and a lot of people living in huts around it, a kind of little boomtown, as well, on the Nile, a big square of dirt was cleared.

Chinese flagpole engineers were onsite in the days running up to this to make sure that the flags were hoisted and lowered at the same moment - South Sudan's and Sudan's. And bleachers set up in the hot sun, and for seven hours there was this extraordinary spectacle of leaders wilting in the sun as speeches were given, as, you know, marching bands came by.

LUDDEN: You said some security guards actually fainted.

ANDERSON: Many, many fainted. They would - they shook in - nobody had thought to give out water. So it was pretty miserable. But the people were ecstatic. And believe it or not, when Bashir, the dictator, spoke, you know, these tens of thousands of people that were there actually cheered him.

And I remember thinking at the time: Many of these people must have lost family members at - you know, indirectly speaking at his hands, at the wars that he had prosecuted, and yet here they were cheering him. And I really couldn't understand it.

I talked to a chief of the Anwak tribe that I met later that day, and he explained that there was a term in his language called gertong(ph), which meant that if you could - even after a brutal war, if you could reach an agreement with your enemy, and if the payoff was freedom, you could forgive him from then on.

And that was definitely the spirit of the moment, but...

LUDDEN: But with some foreshadowing.

ANDERSON: Exactly. I mean, in the weeks running up to the independence, Bashir, who is a past master at divide and rule, had actually moved troops into a disputed area on the new border, one that was to be - in the oil-rich area, precisely, along the new border, and had, you know, displaced 30,000 or 40,000 people, perhaps more.

He had armed in the previous six months or so four to six militias, from breakaway groups of the Southern People's Liberation Army, Sudan People's Liberation Army, which was the new government in the South, and weakening, you know, government control or would-be government control, again, in the north and along the new border, and had also invaded two neighboring provinces where units of the Southern revolutionary force had remained behind, outside of the secession agreement.

So he moved his troops in in order to shore up his control of the new border. But there he was on that day, with Hillary Clinton, you know, in the presence of Hillary Clinton and Ban Ki-moon and the great and good of the world and of Africa to say that, you know, he looked upon the South as brothers, and he looked forward to a wonderful future, you know, as a comrade with the past left behind.

LUDDEN: Well, even the new president of South Sudan, you write that he kind of said something in his speech about continuing to support rebels.

ANDERSON: Yes, well, that's right. There was this nod to the comrades left behind in the north. It was all very, you know, ambiguous. But there was this sense that because they weren't part of the south or what has ever been considered part of the south, sort of armed branches of this rebel movement - which at one time and for many years fought for the unification of all of Sudan but ultimately brokered a deal for secession in the south - left behind, you know, extensive combat units in these neighboring provinces.

And so Salva Kiir was both expressing on the one hand the hope that they could work through their differences and that this new country would have a chance to consolidate itself, and he - but he also pointedly said, quite diplomatically, that, you know, that the comrades in these neighboring provinces, specifically the Nuba Mountains and in the Blue Nile, were not forgotten in the South.

It was difficult to know at the time what that meant, but soon time would tell.

LUDDEN: And so for people who, you know, may have not really paid much attention this past year, you may have thought, oh, great, OK, the country is split in two, that's - newly independent, they've got it sorted out. In fact, you go and meet with all kinds of people who still have not given up this idea of overthrowing Khartoum. Tell us where you traveled.

ANDERSON: Well, that's right. So I traveled to the Nuba Mountains, and I returned months later, quite recently, and traveled to the Nuba Mountains, just over the new border in the north. And now this is one of the areas where his troops had invaded just before the independence ceremony, which he attended.

And in the intervening months of last year, what you saw was a situation in which the north, Khartoum, had essentially been very bellicose and moved its troops into the areas where it wanted to buttress its control. After all, you know, it could be seen by its enemies as having been weakened, as having lost, and indeed it had. It lost a third of its territory.

And it also lost two-thirds of the territory where Sudan's oil was produced. Now, the two countries were sort of bound together inevitably because although two-thirds of the oil production in Sudan remains in the south, the oil is shipped out to the Red Sea via pipeline and to refineries that are in the north.

LUDDEN: And the independence agreement didn't quite work out how that was going to function, right?

ANDERSON: That's right. All of these things, it's a bit like trying to solve, you know, the problem of Palestine and Israel without ever discussing Jerusalem. It was - in effect, it was - you know, the big problem question was left unresolved, and with diplomats from both countries, you know, ad nauseum meeting in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia as they have for many years and only to return to their respective capitals and tear everything up with facts on the ground, which is what happened.

So you began - you have a situation where the - there was already war effectively occurring in South Kordofan in the Nuba Mountains. The comrades of Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, continued to fight in the North. And, you know, it's the same organization.

So there's no - there's an unmarked border. The South continued covertly to support its comrades in the north to fight Khartoum. Khartoum wasn't - is not - doesn't have a strong enough army to control the entire territory. So effectively it flies daily missions, bombing missions, over this vast area and literally bombs what it sees.

So when I traveled up there, I found, you know, a couple of hundred thousand people living in these extraordinary stone massifs that rise from the dry - it's not really desert, it's semi-desert floor, kind of savannah, bushlands. And there are these extraordinary stone mountains hundreds of feet high of gigantic boulders piled on top of one another.

And since time immemorial, the Nuba people, who are a quite unique ethno-linguistic group, tribal Africans with - you know, depending on which anthropologist you talk to, there are either 50 or 99 tribes with as many tongues between them, but with a common sense of identity.

And until the 1960s, they were virtually cut off from the outside world. In fact, they wore no clothes. They were - they're very rich, culturally speaking, and they have always gone to these massifs whenever outside invaders had come over time. They regard themselves as the original Sudanese and as Africans, and they were the object of slaving missions in the past.

And so they do have this relationship with these mountains, and they were hiding from their government there.

LUDDEN: And I'm going to ask you more about that in just a moment, about their daily life now. We're talking with The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson. If you've been to Sudan or South Sudan recently, tell us what you saw and who you spoke with there, 800-989-8255. Or email us at I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Just over a year ago, South Sudan proclaimed its independence. In Juba, tens of thousands of Southern Sudanese turned out to watch their new flag hoisted, to sing their new national anthem and to celebrate their newfound freedom. But this year, there's far less to celebrate.

The conflict with Sudan is ongoing. Political corruption is thriving. The population is not, with half of the South Sudanese living below the poverty line and enduring what the World Bank says are some of the lowest education and health levels in the world.

If you've visited Sudan or South Sudan recently, we'd like to hear about what you saw. Our number is 800-989-8255, our email address Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for The New Yorker is my guest. He traveled to the Nuba Mountains in Sudan and wrote about it for the magazine's most recent issue.

Jon, you were talking about the Nuba people in the mountains, where for centuries they have taken refuge when times were tough. Tell me about their daily life now as you've described bombing planes, bombing from the north randomly. What is daily life there like?

ANDERSON: For many of them, their villages, you know, they live in hut compounds, and they live off of sorghum. They are settled people. They are not pastoralists. They don't have cattle herds like the people in the south of Sudan. They have - they are farmers, and they - everything - it's sorghum world. The eat - everything is sorghum, and without sorghum, they really have no life.

And so because the bombing began a year ago, more or less, and has been pretty much sustained, they were unable to plant. And so many had to flee to these stone mountains, where there is water sources underneath. And they sort of live in crevices and in caves there.

And those that can try to farm around the edges. A few trade with local communities if they have anything left to trade, those who haven't been burned out or bombed. There's a kind of mixed bag. But there's at least a couple of hundred thousand living completely in the open or in these caves, as I say, and with no means to any longer to feed themselves.

Now, they now, the men of the families get up at dawn and go walking into the bush, up to - when I was there, this was a couple of months ago - up to an hour and a half away in order to find - to forage for food. And they were coming back with, you know, wild fruits or nuts, things like this.

And, you know, they were beginning to tell me the stories of the first people succumbing to this sort of difficulty, a woman who'd been eaten with her children by hyenas, someone else who'd fallen and died, you know, hitting their head climbing a tree for fruit, this kind of thing. And there is a general, you know, scarcity of water.

Since I was there, the rainy season has begun, which means that, you know, they've not been able to plant for an entire yearly cycle. And so the humanitarian agencies that look on or have in the past tried to help the Nubans because there was this whole previous history of war, are increasingly worried because, you know, they are now reaching the end of a kind of cycle, and it's believed that famine could begin.

LUDDEN: Well, you talk about how impossible the situation is. Because of the ongoing conflict, you almost can't get enough food in there by land or air.

ANDERSON: No, no, there isn't. I mean, recently Bashir, you know, he's very clever at gaining the high ground. There was a news report a couple of weeks ago that he had agreed to allow humanitarian access after prohibiting all international relief agencies from going into the area for the past year.

Now cynics told me that, you know, they said he did this a week before the rains began. And in the rains there, you really can't move. To give you an idea of how bad the terrain is, I mean, there are no bridges. There is no paved roads. In the south of Sudan, there's only 30 miles of paved road in a country the size of Texas.

Last summer, before the rains, I took a trip of 80 miles. It took eight hours. They say that the same trip in the rainy season takes three to four days. So there is effectively no way to get in there. Now, he sees the headlines a couple of weeks ago, as I was saying, saying that he had now allowed access. Well, effectively, you know, there is no access.

And he - it would have to have been done through the Sudanese Red Crescent, which his government has compromised, and so forth. So the rains have begun, and there is no means to get food to these people. Air drops are expensive. The international community doesn't want planes shot down. So, you know, the problem has begun.

LUDDEN: You were talking to a group of I believe it's at this place in the Nuba Mountains, a group of rebels about the stark situation, or maybe they were civilians, and kind of laying out, clarifying your points, the dire situation they were in. And they seemed almost numb to this reality.

ANDERSON: Yeah, you know, in the last war, they were herded into government-controlled feeding centers where, you know, men were picked off. They were effectively - you know, food has always been part of the arsenal of war of Khartoum. We saw it in Darfur, where, you know, a huge part of the casualty figures that we know of have to do with starvation and forced starvation because these people are so - you know, these are very simple people who live literally off the little plots of land that they can farm.

If they're not able to farm, they begin to starve. And so, you know, the government forces - tries to force them into areas where it can control them and thus starve their armed men, you know, separate the fish from the sea, as in the old Male dictum.

So you have a situation that's beginning to hemorrhage seriously. There is an armed group there. They are of the people. And so the government feels that it has the right to simply bomb anyone, and it does. I stayed for some days in a hospital there, where the only expatriate, that is to say he's an American from New York, left in the region at the time was tending to 450 Nuban people.

His patients were 450. And he was the only surgically trained doctor in the entire region.

LUDDEN: Right.

ANDERSON: And many of them were bomb victims.

LUDDEN: And let me just remind people we're talking to Jon Lee Anderson, whose latest article in The New Yorker talks about the situation of Sudan and South Sudan. If you have questions for him about what he saw there, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or email us,

Could you talk about the time that you spent with this lone American doctor? He said he had not actually left the medical compound in a year and a half. Is that...?

ANDERSON: That's right. This man, Tom Catena from Amsterdam, New York, and he was in the Navy for a while, a Navy doctor, is this extraordinary figure. He's very shy to talk about himself, but I spent almost a week with him and dragged it out of him. And he feels inspired by Albert Schweitzer, the example of Albert Schweitzer.

He feels he has a duty to be there. He's been there for four years. He appears to have no personal life. He's only 47. He reads a lot. He was reading that book "Matterhorn" when I was there, and he's full of questions. But he works literally 16-hour days. And I watched him - once I watched him perform surgery for I think it was 12 hours straight, went to sleep for two hours and got up and did it again.

One night alone, there were 50 casualties from the government offensive that started when I was there, one evening alone. And he was literally the only guy who had any medical wherewithal there. He has a few locally trained health workers. There was an American who'd come to volunteer for a few months with him from Oregon, I think it was. And there's a couple of nuns from Mexico who are there.

But really, you know, that's his life. I was a huge admirer, and it was one of these situations where you see someone who's just simply a very good person trying to do an extraordinary thing in, you know, in really incredibly adverse circumstances and almost in complete anonymity.

And, you know, there weren't enough medicine. There weren't - there wasn't enough of anything. And, you know, he just carried on. And people regard him as something of a, you know, maybe a god is a little too much, but they regard him as something of a saint, I think, and they all call him Dr. Tom. They love him. It's quite an extraordinary story.

LUDDEN: OK, let's get a caller on the line. Vince is in Columbus, Ohio. Hi there, Vince.

VINCE: Hi, I have a quick question. Given the enormous size of Sudan and the almost near necessity of the Sudanese government to use air force and helicopters to attack their opposition, what is to keep, or what's been holding up individual nations, either openly or clandestinely, from simply taking the air force out or the airports out or the fuel supplies for the air force? And I'll get off the line and listen for the answer.

LUDDEN: Thank you, Vince. Jon Lee Anderson?

ANDERSON: Well, Vince, I mean, that's a good question, but it's a very hypothetical one. I suppose there is nothing stopping X or Y nation from doing so. But, you know, that's not been done. I think - you know, I was speaking with someone who's long advocated on behalf of South Sudan and, for that matter, the other people of Sudan who have been besieged by their regime - the Darfuris, the Nubans - John Prendergast, who set up the Satellite Sentinel Project together with George Clooney, who has lent his extraordinary, you know, global public appeal to the Sudanese cause.

And they have sort of a satellite tracking for - aimed at trying to highlight, reveal human rights abuses by the regime. But, you know, I spoke with him about this very subject recently, and he said, you know, with all of the commitments the United States, for that matter - not to speak of the West as a whole - has around the region, you know, they're not going to commit their forces or spend time in Sudan.

Just - let me step back and just say, in general, I would say this is Sudan's problem. It's - you know, this conflict, as I said at the beginning, has been going on for so long that one more blip on the screen, although it may wound people's sensibilities and cause grief and distress, is seen as sort of just beyond the horizon line of our immediate duty to attend to. This is white noise.

And so it was one of the challenges I found in trying to write about it. How do you frame white noise for a public that is, you know, inundated by stories of disasters around the world? How do you tell the story of Sudan, how to make someone from Akron, Ohio, or Brussels care about what's going on there?

I mean, what I would say is that, you know, we're all more and more aware of how interconnected we are, and the people in South Sudan are pretty much the same as us. They just don't have as much. And, you know, I met many extraordinary individuals there, and I tried to - I do try to people the canvas a little bit so that readers, my readers, don't merely think of them as victims who need to be fed.

No. These are people who are, you know, fighting for their rights, who have all kinds of habits and folklore and - by the way, they love to watch WWF wrestling, and they do so on solar-powered televisions, at least in the rebel commanders' compound. You know, they have real characters. They have real personalities...

LUDDEN: All right.

ANDERSON: ...but they're being bombed.

LUDDEN: Let's get another caller here. Randall(ph) is in Huntsville, Alabama. Hi, Randall.

RANDALL: Hi. Hi. Thanks for taking the call. So the question is about technology. And I go to places like Haiti, where even if you put in all the right technology, the people will still never have the right end-user technology to really affect their lives. Do you find that that would be the same in a place like Sudan, that even with high-level broadband access and communication, the end user, which is the people, would not be able to get, you know, the computer, the phone, the laptop to change their lives?

ANDERSON: Well, you know, we're talking about a different - people living in a different level. These are not people - I mean, sure, for those who have the need and the wherewithal to communicate, as you're saying, as we believe it's now essential to do in our world, you know? But we're talking about people who literally need to plant sorghum in the land and see it sprout and harvest it and then eat it. If they don't, they can't live.

They're not talking - they're not thinking about laptops or even electricity. This is a land that is pre-electricity. These people - there is no plastic there. The beds I slept on were made out of hand-woven baobab bark. You know...

LUDDEN: Baobab is a local tree there.

ANDERSON: Yes, exactly.

RANDALL: May I ask a quick question?

LUDDEN: Sure. Go ahead, Randall.

RANDALL: So the Clinton Global Initiative that goes after things like technology in impoverished or disaster areas, what it sounds like - and I saw this in countries I've been to - what it sounds like is that no matter what technology you put in, the people aren't even interested in (technical difficulty)...

LUDDEN: Oh, I think we lost you, Randall, there on the cellphone. But thank you for calling. Jon Lee Anderson.

ANDERSON: Sure. Randall, I would say that it's not that people aren't interested. It's that they're just trying to survive. It's not about - it's not a matter of interest. It's about not ever having had the stability or peace to begin to sustain an ordinary life and begin to think about luxuries like, you know, a future with electricity and broadband and that kind of thing.

At the moment, they're just trying to, you know, make sure that their kids survive infancy. They do have - you know, they do teach their kids. It's extraordinary to see. Even in these cave complexes, I saw palisade, little palisade, sort of stick palisade schools where teachers were teaching the children. And so there are many, you know, very uplifting things that you see. These are not people with - sitting there with their hands out.

LUDDEN: Right.

ANDERSON: They're very much trying to get on with their lives, and they're not particularly complaining about being bombed. They're used to it. But as an outsider coming in to see it...

LUDDEN: Well, you...

ANDERSON: know, it's an extraordinary and extremely distressing thing to watch. Yeah.

LUDDEN: You write that there are generations that know nothing but conflict. And one of the saddest things, reading through your article, is the lack of hope, really, that anything is going to change anytime soon.

ANDERSON: Well, that's right. And, you know, it's not only in Sudan. I think we've seen this around the world in places where you have a generation that - of - especially of young men and boys. But in the case of the Nubans, it's the entire community that live effectively at war. They are used to it.

You know, being a victim doesn't - isn't a virtue. We've also learned that, I think, from after-wars in other countries. You know, it's an extreme problem. When you violate the social fabric of a country and/or a society and you do it over a generation, what are you left with? You're left with young men and old men, entire population groups that only know how to negotiate with one another at the point of a gun.

And, you know, politics at times can become, you know, subsumed by war. And for some societies, war is the stuff of politics, war is politics. That's what we've seen in Afghanistan. We will see it when the Americans leave. There will be a civil war there. And we are seeing it in a place like Sudan.

Both Khartoums does not know how to govern its own people. It has always used the stick and militias in order to suppress and control its peripheral populations, you know, the people in this vast, ungovernable land. It's always been done by force. And so, for that matter, the people who have had to fight back only know force as well in order to defend themselves.

LUDDEN: And we're going to have to leave it there. Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for the New Yorker joined us from a studio in Dorchester, England. His piece is called "A History of Violence" in this week's New Yorker Magazine. Jon Lee Anderson, thank you so much.

ANDERSON: Thanks a lot for having me. Really appreciate it.

LUDDEN: Up next: If you're over 30, maybe you've noticed you don't make friends like you used to. We'll talk about why not. Call us at 800-989-8255. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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