There are 200 bodies rotting in the streets of Bentiu, a horrible little frontier town in South Sudan, put there by rebels who claim to be saving the place. At stake is oil, and power, and the egos of Big Men who sacrifice others in pursuit of their own petty ambitions. In many ways, the town is a gruesome metaphor of all that is wrong with the world’s newest nation. By SIMON ALLISON.
Last week, South Sudanese rebels seized control of Bentiu, a dusty, ramshackle town near the Sudanese border, from the government. In the process, more than 200 civilians were butchered – some in a mosque, others in a church, still others by the side of the road. The extremely graphic pictures emerging from Bentiu bring to mind images of the Rwandan genocide: dozens of bodies casually strewn on the ground, forming a carpet of corpses so thick that the bulldozers had to be called in to clear them.
The rebels, led by long-time militia leader and former Vice-President Riek Machar, deny responsibility. They know nothing about the deaths, Machar told Al Jazeera. “I contacted the field military commander in Bentiu who told me that such accusation is false. First of all we respect our people, and the majority of the forces are from the region and we can’t kill our citizens.”
The United Nations puts the blame squarely on the rebels. A report by UN investigators said that the rebel militants “searched a number of places where hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians had taken refuge and killed hundreds of the civilians after determining their ethnicity or nationality”. This was, the UN concluded, an ethnically motivated atrocity, complete with radio exhortations to kill the men and rape the women from other ethnic communities.
The identity of the dead lends credence to the idea of rebel culpability. Ethnic targeting has been a feature of the current bout of internecine violence in South Sudan, with Dinkas perceived to be aligned with President Salva Kiir (himself a Dinka) and the Nuers with Riek Machar (a Nuer). Initial reports from Bentiu suggest that many of the dead were Dinka, killed only because of their tribal identification; others targeted included Nuers who refused to cheer the rebel entry into the city, and some of Bentiu’s large Darfuri population (rebels from Darfur, in Sudan proper, are allegedly supporting Kiir).
In some ways, although killing on such scale is always shocking, it’s no surprise that such an atrocity happened in Bentiu – a town that sits astride so many of South Sudan’s major faultlines.
The first of these is oil, of course. Unity State, of which Bentiu is the capital, is one of just two oil-producing states in South Sudan. Oil provides 98% of the new country’s revenue – its importance is impossible to overstate. Unity State, in good times, produces nearly 100,000 barrels of the stuff every day. It’s been a while since the good times, however; production has been on hold since the fighting began in December. Since then, Bentiu has changed hands between the government and the rebels several times, both aware of the town’s incalculable strategic importance.
Another faultline is the Bentiu’s proximity to Sudan proper. The border is just 40 kilometres away, and it means that there is plenty of movement between the two countries that, not so long ago, were just one. Bentiu is full of Sudanese, even though they enjoy few rights in South Sudan (some, such as many of the Darfuris, enjoy even fewer rights in Sudan). It also means that the town is permanently on edge, nervously watching for any sign of Sudanese Armed Forces activity that might indicate the end of the fragile stalemate. Indeed, unconfirmed reports suggest that a Sudanese aircraft had bombed the town in advance of the rebel attack, killing five civilians, allegedly in coordination with the rebels.
Yet another is Bentiu’s near-complete lack of government services, a state of affairs it shares with the rest of the country. Power comes from generators, sewage flows onto the streets, roads are just muddy tracks, largely impassable in the rainy season. Oil aside, it’s not much of a prize. The same might be said of South Sudan.
The Daily Maverick’s Richard Poplak visited Bentiu in November 2012. He was not impressed.
“Bentiu is a grim, electricity-less, water-less, undeveloped flat, marshy, hellhole of a town. Shortly before our arrival, it had been dumb-bombed by the Sudanese when the dispute over oil revenues had turned nasty. In fact, we toured the disputed pipeline, walking along its length for a few hundred metres — it looked like a nicely graded mountain bike trail. But make no mistake, the town is as strategically important as any in the country, perched on the borderlands with the north, rich in oil, with the massive Chinese-built oil plant nearby.
“We sat up nights in a hotel with members of civil society institutions, mostly Lost Boys returned from America trying to make a difference. Their education and experience counted for nothing, because they had no connections and could not get work nor access to leaders. When we were there, the governor of Unity State, of which Bentiu is the capital, had buzzed in for a quicker visit, but was too afraid to spend in time in town, and was thus spirited off to his bush hideaway. When we asked a Lost Boy if the governor — an ex-warlord — was corrupt, he laughed and said, “he is the most corrupt man in Africa.”
“I’m sure there are worse places on earth than Bentiu. It’s just that right now I can’t think of one,” Poplak concluded.
Since Poplak visited, little has changed. Add a few dozen rotting corpses to his impressions and you’ve got a pretty decent picture of what the town is like today: violent, rudderless and hopelessly poor, a helpless victim of the petty power games of the Big Men who would rule it. Pretty much the same can be said for South Sudan on the whole. DM
Photo: A photograph made available on 09 March 2014 shows a South Sudanese woman carrying wood in the biggest IDP camp for Dinka ethnic group placed in Minkamman, South Sudan, 04 March 2014. EPA/JM LOPEZ
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.