MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Happy holidays to you, and thanks to my colleague Celeste Headlee for sitting in for me while I was away. With New Year's around the corner, you might be thinking about New Year's resolutions. We'll meet a young man who's made keeping his promises a year-round commitment. We'll hear from him and how he's inspiring others to do the same thing. That's later. But we want to start the program today by bringing you up to date on developments in the world's newest country, South Sudan.
It gained its independence from the north in 2011, and it's still feeling some growing pains. Observers, in fact, are worried that the country might be slipping into civil war - that after the country's former vice president and soldiers loyal to him took up arms against the government. We wanted to talk more about what's going on, so we've called upon NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner. He just returned from South Sudan, and he's with us now from Nairobi, Kenya. Gregory, thanks so much for joining us.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: Can you just give us the roots of this? Now I said it was the vice president who was sacked by the current president, and his forces were taking up arms. I guess I should say they're both taking up arms against each other. Is that your understanding of it?
WARNER: You know, one of the fascinating things about going to South Sudan and doing this reporting is the completely different narratives that you hear. I mean, there is just - they're just absolutely opposite depending on who you talk to and of course the tribal affiliation often of the person you're talking to. So there's one narrative that - and really all this has to do with the events of the last two weeks. I mean, we could go back further, but let's just talk about the last two weeks. As you said, a couple months ago, there was this falling out between the president and the vice president who even before that didn't like each other.
But two weeks ago, either - depending on who you talk to - the deposed vice president, whose name is Riek Machar, tried to instigate a coup against the president, who's Salva Kiir. Or he didn't, and President Salva Kiir made up the idea of a coup in order to clean house, arrest some government officials who were opposed to him and commit ethnic violence against some civilians that would be tribally affiliated with the Nuer, who were in support of Riek Machar. Now this is kind of a confusing way to begin because we're beginning with two totally different narratives. But that's what South Sudan is like these days.
MARTIN: The U.S. was a strong supporter of South Sudan and its independence, as were a number of other players in the international community. Was there any warning of this? I mean, was there any sign that these kinds of tensions were emerging before they actually erupted into violence?
WARNER: You know, it's funny. If this violence had happened two and a half years ago when South Sudan gained its independence, it would have in a way been less of a shock because at the time when South Sudan broke away from Sudan, it was widely predicted among observers that all the different factors in South Sudan - which are mostly, you know, ethnic tension, loose guns, lots of different militia groups which were then invited into the army, so not a very disciplined army, an army that has a reputation of violence against civilians - all these factors and all kinds of economic problems, of course, being a powder keg to ethnic tension.
People said it was going to break out in civil war. That didn't happen. In fact, it was - President Salva Kiir was elected. People were singing in the streets. And except for tension in Jonglei state, it's been mostly peaceful - relatively peaceful. So when this happened, it was a shock to many people. However, when you look back on the developments, the arrests, the tension, it seems sadly inevitable.
MARTIN: In fact, you spoke with an aid worker named Gatluak (ph). And he was talking to you about how these kind of grievances seem to kind of build on each other. The suggestion - well, let me just play the clip, and then you can sort of talk a little bit more about what he was telling you here.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
WARNER: It's like a wildfire.
GATLUAK: Exactly. What happened in Juba, if my brother or sister or wife has been killed based on her tribe or his tribe, mean that - me personally, I would do the revenge. That's why now, we have fighting in every state and every country because of that.
MARTIN: What's interesting, though, about that is that a number of these areas where people had been living...
MARTIN: ...Ethnic backgrounds had been living together seemingly perfectly fine. Right?
MARTIN: So is there any sense of - he said a wildfire - is there any sense of what was the spark?
WARNER: Well, yes. Absolutely, there was a spark. And what many civilians are reporting - and I should back up and say that almost 70,000 people are now hiding out in U.N. compounds. Basically, this is a peacekeeping mission - U.N. has a number of compounds around South Sudan. Thousands and thousands of civilians have fled there, and they're not leaving, even though there's peace in the area. So in Juba - in the capital Juba, there's peace in the town. You can walk around. It's fine.
There are 15,000 people, maybe more, camped out. Why? Because they're afraid that if they venture outside of the U.N. compound walls, they'll be targeted. And the stories they tell are just - are horrible. Of course, you hear about violence that happened. This was two weeks ago, right after the attempted coup or alleged attempted coup. The stories they tell - I mean, I met one man. He had a machete wound on his head. He was obviously - had been tortured, tied up. He said that he had been taken to a room with 200 other Nuer civilians. Five by five they were removed.
He heard gunfire, and they were shot. He fortunately spoke a little bit of the Dinka language, and he doesn't have the traditional tribal markings. So he said that he was able to survive. When he got out, he saw a shallow grave full of all the bodies. And in fact, the U.N. has said that it found mass graves on both sides. Now we ask, so how is it that possibly, that people can live together, and then all of a sudden they're killing each other? I think, you know, we have to understand that tribalism and politics in South Sudan are completely interrelated.
So in this case, the accusation is that soldiers in various different militias who were under control of various political figures - mostly the two main men that we're talking about, Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir - instigated this violence. It's kind of like when you hire thugs, they're going to maybe do more than you ask them to. But clearly, they were set against civilians.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about new developments in South Sudan. That's the world's newest country. It gained its independence in 2011 amid much celebration. But now the situation has very much deteriorated there. NPR's Gregory Warner is bringing us up to date. He recently returned to Nairobi from South Sudan, and he's telling us about all the reporting that he saw there and the situation there.
So, Gregory, as we mentioned, that the - we know, for example, and people who've been watching the news over the holiday know that the U.S. - that there have been a number of U.S. citizens there. We know that they have been evacuated. We know that there are U.N. forces there now. Are there not?
MARTIN: What are they doing? Is anybody taking any steps to restore order or to protect civilians?
WARNER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the U.N.'s role is very challenging. I was in Malakal, which is in the north. It's right near the border of Sudan. It's in fact the capital of the most oil-rich state in South Sudan. So it's obviously a target because the oil fields. Oil is 99 percent of South Sudan's revenue. And control of that oil, over those oil fields is, obviously, helps you militarily. So I was in Malakal, which has been under siege since Christmas Eve. And really, when we drove through, it had just - the airport had just been opened. The government soldiers had just let us enter and in fact let the humanitarian coordinator enter.
We saw bodies in the streets. We saw looted buildings. When we got to the U.N. compound, though, we found tens of thousands of people living without fresh water, without food, without any shelter. And there was worry of a cholera epidemic about to erupt because there was no latrines. You know, it's not to fault the U.N. on this. They certainly weren't prepared for tens of thousands of civilians to come knocking at their gates, essentially. But right now the big challenge is, well, what's going to happen when those civilians refuse to leave because as we see in areas which are peaceful, the civilians are not leaving.
They fear ethnic violence. And it's the U.N. mandate to protect them. So they're budgeting $166 million in just basic humanitarian need as necessary. But they're budgeting that through March, which means they're expecting these people to stay a while. And I think the longer it takes for South Sudan to get back to normalcy - I mean, assuming the military part of this conflict can be resolved. The second part of this conflict is going to be, will those people feel safe enough? Will they feel protected enough by their government? Or will they retreat, essentially, into tribal safety - safety in numbers, sticking together and hanging out with U.N. peacekeepers who really don't want them there.
MARTIN: And finally, what's the prognosis here, Gregory? We mentioned that you just got back. It's been difficult to reach other reporters operating from the region, as we have tried to do over the course of the last couple of days. The word genocide has been raised. I mean, there are...
MARTIN: ...Suggestions by some observers who have spent time there that that's where this is headed. Do you think those are credible fears?
WARNER: Yeah. I mean, look, like the aid worker that you quoted - that you played a part of my story, Gatluak, he said, this is going to be the next Rwanda. And I've heard that statement. I will say it's encouraging, I think, that the people that you meet, in general, they don't hate each other. They don't want to kill each other. And in fact, a lot of people say, you know, these are just the politicians. They're fighting over things, and we wish they would stop. A lot of people say that.
MARTIN: Of both sides?
WARNER: From both sides.
MARTIN: Members of both groups. OK.
WARNER: Members of both groups tell you they really wish that both sides would stop. Although, they all - they blame the other guy for instigating it. But anyway, they wish the politics would stop so they can continue on with their lives. You know, again, the way in which - the way in which people think about tribe, though, is that your tribe is also your access to economic opportunity and to political voice.
And so it's a real question going forward, if Riek Machar, this deposed vice president who allegedly led a coup, is supposed to talk with President Salva Kiir, what are they going to talk about? I mean, really, like, if one guy just tried to depose the other, and the other one says, no, you just massacred thousands of my tribesmen, I mean, it's really hard to imagine them agreeing. There doesn't seem to be anything other than a political solution to this political power struggle between these two men.
MARTIN: Gregory Warner is NPR's East Africa correspondent. We reached him in Nairobi in Kenya. He just returned from South Sudan and is bringing us up to date on developments there. Gregory Warner, thank you so much for speaking with us.
WARNER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.