Sudanese Tribes Confront Modern War |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 7, 1999; Page A1
WUNLIT, Sudan The airport delegation gathered behind an extremely tall, extremely thin man in an amazing hat. Fashioned from a fur of brilliant red, this hat featured not only earflaps turned down in 100-degree heat, but also a pair of fuzzy red balls that dangled from those earflaps and jounced cheerily as the airplane door opened and Chief Madut Aguer Adel rushed, laughing, into the arms of his enemy.
"Welcome!" Madut cried, planting his feet, locking his fingers and hefting Chief Isaac Magok Gatluak into the air. Isaac, once returned safely to the ground, placed his hand over Madut's heart.
As beginnings to peace conferences go, these trust-building talks in a dusty village called Thiet would be what international observers call "auspicious" if, in fact, any international observers were around. None was.
The civil war in Sudan seldom attracts attention abroad, even though the country is physically the largest in Africa and its decades-old conflict between north and south has claimed an estimated 2 million lives.
Also obscure is the devastating effect that the war has had on the mostly black population of southern Sudan, whose ancient cultures have been torn apart by the encroachment of modern warfare. The south has paid the heaviest price in the fighting, sparked by its rebellion against domination by the largely Arab north.
When the southern rebel movement began to fragment early in this decade, the divisions fell, predictably, along tribal lines. Automatic weapons fire excited rivalries once held in check by deeply anchored traditions. The old familiar cycle ran from attack, to retaliation, to attack.
Until, all at once, the people decided to end it.
It happened in the tiny, sun-baked mud-and-thatch village of Wunlit, across 10 unlikely days this spring. Prodded by a former Presbyterian missionary from Vienna, Va., two competing tribes chose to save themselves and their children by drawing on the very traditions that had been endangered by the impersonal, indifferent way that conflicts are decided in 1990s.
Their efforts were designed not to end the wider war between north and south but the divisions that had pitted southerner against southerner. And if their accomplishment seems as remote and timeless as its setting a tawny plain studded with acacia shrubs and long-horned cows the lessons learned in Wunlit while the world was watching Kosovo may have applications in other parts of the world.
Combat in Sudan has little in common with the push-button wars waged by developed countries. But in a place where just a generation ago making war meant pushing a blade into another man's skin, the trigger of an AK-47 qualifies as remote control. Even the relatively short distance between killer and victim that an assault rifle affords is welcomed by military commanders here.
So in this corner of southern Sudan, civilians decided that the way to peace lay in making war personal again.
They are the Dinka and the Nuer, the largest tribes in southern Sudan. Both greet the dawn by singing. Both live in square huts with round, uneven roofs. Both walk the roadless plain split by the White Nile. And both honor their scrawny, hump-backed cattle as the center of the temporal world, at once wealth on the hoof and a mystical link to the spiritual plane.
The Nuer word for "thousand" means "lost in the forest," because that's where your cattle would be if you had that many of them. Almost no one does, however in no small part because Dinka and Nuer have been stealing cattle from each other for as long as anyone can remember. Cattle raiding is a hoary tradition of pastoralists throughout East Africa, as natural here as a young man's hungering for enough cows to pay the bride price for a wife, as normal as a neighbor striking at the intruders he sees hogging prime grazing land.
If people died in these raids, it was "maybe one, two or three," said Madut. And the victims were almost always warriors, slain with the spears that were still the weapons of choice in southern Sudan in 1983, when the war against the Arab north entered its current phase. That year, the Khartoum government imposed Islamic law on the entire country, including the parts that were not Muslim, like the south, where people mostly adhere to traditional beliefs or Christianity. Rebellious southerners formed the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, and young Dinka and Nuer began to carry AK-47s.
Until 1991, the guns were used mostly against northerners. But that August, there was a split in the rebel army. The fault line was tribal. A Nuer rebel officer, Riek Machar, tried to topple the rebels' supreme commander, a Dinka named John Garang. When the coup failed, the rebel escaped with forces loyal to him, mostly Nuer. The war had entered a new phase. Southerners started killing each other.
"I used to be living here," said Peter Wakoich, a Nuer in Dinkaland. "The Dinka and Nuer were one. It all went bad overnight." Shortly after the rebel leaders parted ways, the man from the next hut stole all of Wakoich's cattle and slit the throats of four of his children.
Children, women and the elderly used to be off-limits during raids, traditional set-piece battles in which women waited at the edge of the fight to tend the wounded and retrieve lost spears, said Sharon Hutchinson, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist who lived with the region for most of a decade. Now 110 were killed in a village attacked precisely while its young men had gathered elsewhere.
Tradition in both tribes held that causing a death created "spiritual pollution." A bit of the blood of any man a Nuer speared to death was thought to be in the slayer, and had to be bled out of the upper arm by an earth priest. To drink or eat before reaching the priest was to die.
But that was for a death by spear, pressed into victim by one's own muscle and bone. What to do about death by bullets "a gun's calves," as the word translated from Nuer? Rebel commanders argued to chiefs that a gun death carried no individual responsibility, that traditional belief did not apply in a "government war."
And the guerrillas came to see it the same way. "They believe, 'The ghost of the deceased will not haunt me, because I did not kill with a spear,'‚" said Telar Deng, an American-educated Dinka judge.
Once removed from its moral consequences, killing became easier. Jok Madut Jok, an assistant professor of history at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, returned to his native Dinkaland last summer to research the culture of violence. He found armed youths running roughshod in a society whose dysfunction paralleled that of inner cities 8,000 miles away: Arguments once settled by fighting with sticks were now being decided with assault weapons.
The warriors, Jok said, were simply too young to remember any power but the kind that came from a gun.
The elders, however, could.
"This meeting alone is a sign you have decided to save your life," Chief Muorwel Agok Manyiel announced to the Dinka seated to his right and the Nuer to his left. He stood in the dim light of a specially constructed long house speaking into a microphone powered by solar panels pointed beyond the thatch roof to a merciless tropical sun.
Outside, a soldier patrolled in a fatigue jacket and a pleated skirt. Inside, one man wore a leopard-skin print and another an actual leopard skin, traditional attire of a Nuer earth priest who had come along with a Dinka "spear master" to add their pagan blessings to proceedings organized by Christian missionaries.
The Rev. William O. Lowrey of Vienna, Va., spent eight years overseeing the Presbyterian missions in Sudan. A compact figure who seems to make himself smaller by some calculation that he will be more useful the less he is noticed, Lowrey knew both the traditional peacemaking avenues of the tribes and the modern theories of conflict resolution. The two had come together tidily enough in his doctoral thesis on organizational development. Now he was trying it in real life.
Things seemed to go well enough last year, when Lowrey and the New Sudan Council of Churches gathered eight chiefs across the border in Kenya, a neutral site. Dinka and Nuer took turns relating what one had done to the other. Lowrey showed diagrams of conflict resolution. In the end, the enemies embraced and vowed to urge their neighbors to a much larger peace conference in the dry season.
"Things had really deteriorated to the point where people realized if they didn't figure out some way to get this together, they were just going to self-destruct," Lowrey said.
By the time Madut and Isaac were lifting each other off the ground in mid-February, trust was blossoming. The visit by Isaac and other Nuer chiefs to Madut's home village of Thiet was meant to demonstrate that Nuer could safely visit Dinka territory. The Dinka women of Thiet carried the visiting Nuer chiefs over their heads. The oldest chief washed their feet. A white bull was sacrificed and every person present asked to step over it, to signify what was dead between them.
By the time the main conference convened in Wunlit two weeks later, the momentum remained strong, but the omens were mixed. The white bull sacrificed at the opening feast a massive, ornery ox did not want to die. He snorted. He bellowed. He charged the men dancing around him with spears. It took five minutes to bring him down, and the roar he let out before the blade tore his throat was terrible.
To cultures that value symbolism, the message was clear.
The conference had a chairman, a dais and Hello-My-Name-Is lapel tags. Except for the dirt floor, it might have been the Roanoke Room of a Beltway hotel.
The program was long on genial, tedious rounds of welcome and platitudes, reassuring formalities of African society that would be key to making peace. So with the white boards on their easels and the markers in hand, the last thing anyone expected from the report of the "working groups" was a bolt of mortal danger.
The tally of villages destroyed by raids 417 all told had passed without objection. So had the list of shared border stations, police and courts intended to enforce the future peace. The problem was the committee on abductions the people, mostly women and children, carried away in raids over the years. The question was how they would be returned to their families.
Frowns appeared as Dhol Acuil Aleu, one of the educated southerners who formed the conference's crucial bridge between traditional rural Sudan and the outside world, announced an abrupt departure from a foundation of the conference. That foundation was amnesty: Anyone who returned what they had stolen be it cattle or people would avoid the customary fines levied in cows.
But now Aleu was saying that a fine would apply against any man who abducted a married woman and made her his own wife. "This is the most serious violation of human rights," he declared.
From the gloom at the rear of the building, a Nuer elder rose.
"If we are not going to return the captured cattle," he said, "and we are not going to bring back to life those who have been killed, then these reparations for adultery will not happen."
A Dinka delegate refined the point in ominous terms. "The woman in question has been captured," he said. "She's still alive. She could have been killed. Her husband is, in a sense, a lucky man."
There it was: If in addition to returning an abducted woman her captor also was obliged to pay a fine, he might choose instead simply to get rid of the evidence. Here was a committee report that made abducted women worth more dead than alive.
"They will be killed," hissed a Dinka commissioner who hurried to the head table.
Lowrey, who had been watching impassively from his three-legged aluminum camp stool, was impassive no more. "Was that discussed in committee?" he asked. Aleu shook his head.
"What should we do?" Lowrey asked. An open-faced man named Peter Kok had the magic bullet: "Let's form a committee," he said. Lowrey made the announcement to the suddenly restless crowd and hastily moved on to the next report.
The man who stood up and prepared to read it looked like a problem. Neither tall, like a Dinka, nor scarred on his forehead like the Nuer that he was, Farouk Gatkuoth Kam admitted aloud that he looked like an Arab then, with a big smile, asked, please, not to be killed on sight.
When the laughter died down, Farouk detailed the remaining obstacles to peace, listing warlords and rebel chiefs who would have to be brought into the embrace of this assembly if it was to succeed.
But as his voice rose and his manner grew more and more emphatic, the challenges began to sound like affirmations of what had already been accomplished. By the time Farouk sat down, the better natures to which he was appealing had become palpable. Lowrey seized the moment.
"Is the conference ready to accept this report?" he asked, in a voice like an altar call. Amid the swell of answering applause, a Dinka woman stood and began to sing, her voice bell-clear. The back row picked up the chorus, and by the time the Nuer replied in song, the room was lit not only with slanting afternoon sunlight but with the glow of a unity that rose in the chest like hope.
"This," said the preacher who rose to close the session, "is the peace we have been calling for these many years."
Such was the arc of the covenant. The Wunlit Dinka-Nuer Covenant, signed the following afternoon, March 7, not only named the terms of the cease-fire, but called for its expansion to all of Sudan's aching south.
"The political movements that are fighting to liberate the Sudan, they didn't come from the blue," a conference organizer named John Luk reminded the delegates. "They didn't come from nowhere. They came from the people. I can't imagine anybody in the south, in any political grouping, that can afford to go against the wishes of our people if they are united."
A day later, another bull was tethered outside. Every one of the men circling it with spears had put his thumb print on the covenant. The words they kept repeating between dramatic, joyous leaps high in the air was a message for the animal to carry into the next world: Whoever breaks this peace, they said, will be cursed.
"Doar!" the chiefs chanted. Reconciliation!
The bull circled, reached the end of its tether . . . and waited. There was no fight in it.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company