By PBS News Hour, 10/02/2017
HARI SREENIVASAN: With assistance from the United States, the country of South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Civil war took over the new nation in just two years. It has led to famine, accusations of ethnic cleansing, and a massive refugee crisis. In tonight’s signature segment, a rarely seen side of the story — an American citizen who is leading a rebel group fighting to change South Sudan’s government.
This report was produced with support from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center to Prevent Genocide. NewsHour weekend special correspondent Simona Foltyn and journalist Jason Patinkin made the treacherous journey into to South Sudan.
SIMONA FOLTYN: In the hills of northeastern Uganda, a concealed forest path leads across the border into South Sudan. The young nation, mired in a four-year civil war, is increasingly difficult for journalists to access, so we use this hidden route to enter into rebel-held parts of the country. We are traveling with Martin Abucha, a commander with a rebel group called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army In Opposition. What separates Abucha from other combatants in this war is he’s a dual South Sudanese and American citizen with family in the United States.
MARTIN ABUCHA: I would like to enjoy eating hamburgers, I’d like to enjoy going to Burger King and McDonald’s with my daughters, and things like that. But I feel it’s an obligation that I must carry. I don’t want my kids to go through this.
SIMONA FOLTYN: As we pass the peak of this hill, we cross into South Sudan and meet the rebels. For the next four days, we’ll travel with Abucha to a base to see how these soldiers live and why they fight. Abucha is 45 and his life now is a far cry from his comfortable life in the United States.
MARTIN ABUCHA: I have a tent, but it’s necessary to have a sleeping mat. This is my military fatigue.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Abucha is determined to fight to overthrow a government that stands accused of widespread human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing.
MARTIN ABUCHA: You know, to us, we are not rebels. We’re people fighting for their rights.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Abucha’s life now is a far cry from his comfortable life in the United States. Abucha’s journey to the U.S. began in 1995, when at age 22, he obtained a visa to enter the U.S. as a refugee from Sudan. He followed an uncle to Phoenix, and ended up living there, on and off, for 15 years.
MARTIN ABUCHA: My whole goal of going there was just to getting an education.
SIMONA FOLTYN: After earning a bachelor of science, engineering, and masters of business degrees, Abucha worked for companies like Honeywell and Hewlett Packard. He started a family, became a citizen, and a leading figure of Arizona’s growing community of South Sudanese refugees.
MARTIN ABUCHA: Phoenix is still my home, that’s where I have my buddies.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Do you sometimes miss the comforts of the United States?
MARTIN ABUCHA: Sometimes yes, sometimes, but if I look into the suffering of our people, I think I should spend more time here. This is primitive, yes it is, but we are good with it as long as nobody sits on us. We don’t want to be imposed on. We want to govern ourselves.
SIMONA FOLTYN: When South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011, Abucha went back and took an IT job in the Census Bureau in this new nation of 12 million people. Abucha says there was rampant corruption in the fledgling government.
MARTIN ABUCHA: To be honest, over 20 to 30 percent of the money went to where, we don’t know. We knew there was money in there, but we don’t know what the money was used for.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Disillusioned, Abucha left and went back to Phoenix. In 2013, just two years after the country won its independence, the civil war began as a power struggle over the country’s top post between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, who mobilized their rival tribes the Dinka and the Nuer. The war has since spread through the country’s southern Equatoria region, drawing in other ethnic groups, including Abucha’s called the Madi. Abucha, who underwent compulsory military training as a young man in Sudan, went back in 2014. He initially joined the rebels as a member of Machar’s negotiating team. In 2015, the U.S. brokered a peace deal, but it fell apart last year. Now, with peace talks on hold, he’s living the life of a soldier.
Much of South Sudan is covered with dense forest, which is why this area is so conducive to guerrilla warfare. The bush provides cover and prevents the government from bringing in tanks and other heavy machinery. This allows the rebels to sustain their insurgency, even though they’re outgunned.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Government troops control the main towns and roads in the area while the rebels have the upper hand in the bush. Many young men join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army In Opposition, because of atrocities committed against their communities. Lokuku Charles says the South Sudanese army went after his family in Equatoria.
LOKUKU CHARLES: They went to my home. They came and arrested all the family members. My three sisters were arrested. And my mother arrested. And my wife and my children, which means all of my future.
SIMONA FOLTYN: What do you think happened to them?
LOKUKU CHARLES: What I think happened to them is they are dead. That’s why I have four years in the bush. I have nowhere to go
SIMONA FOLTYN: To show us the devastation of the war, Abucha wanted to take us to his hometown, called Loa. But to get there required traveling deep into rebel territory. First we crossed the Nile River, which flows north through South Sudan, in small dugout canoes. Then we hiked for two days through the dense bush escorted by the rebel soldiers. Every so often, we stopped to wait for the green light of a reconnaissance unit ahead of us to make sure it was safe. Approaching the village, we saw dozens of burned houses.
MARTIN ABUCHA: When we came here last year in September, the houses were all intact. Now they are gone. All had property inside now you can see.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Christian missionaries built this cathedral in the early 20th century.
MARTIN ABUCHA: This was a very beautiful church. We used to do the Way of the Cross during Easter, we go around, we go back this way to the altar. I was an altar boy here in this church as well.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Last year, rebels say government soldiers looted and ransacked the church, its health center, and school, turning this once vibrant community into a ghost town. Independent observers, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, blame President Kiir’s army for most of the atrocities in this war, including civilian massacres and mass rape. But the rebels are accused of atrocities too. For instance, in Equatoria, they’ve carried out attacks on army convoys that sometimes escort civilians. Abucha accuses the army of using civilians as human shields and denies targeting them.
MARTIN ABUCHA: We have no intent of killing any civilian. Even if a civilian gets hurt in an operation where our forces are engaged, it’s very unfortunate. And lately, the government starts moving with civilian vehicles and soldiers in these vehicles shooting, and this is very dangerous for these civilians.
SIMONA FOLTYN: But you still attack convoys with civilians?
MARTIN ABUCHA: We don’t attack a convoy of civilians. We have never done that. It’s only that when we begin to take fire from these vehicles. They may be civilian vehicles, but they are shooting at us, that’s when personnel will defend themselves.
MARTIN ABUCHA ADDRESSING TROOPS: “You, my army, you are here to do your job.”
SIMONA FOLTYN: Martin Abucha is frustrated the international community hasn’t done more to end the war. As a rebel negotiator, he had a front row seat to the diplomacy behind the failed 2015 peace deal. He blames John Kerry, President Obama’s last Secretary of State, and the former Special U.S. Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, for forcing through a peace deal that backfired.
MARTIN ABUCHA: Many times just delivering an ultimatum. The parties were not allowed to negotiate, but things were imposed on them. And it was very unfair, and unfortunately, the agreement collapsed.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Abucha says the U.S. imposed a power-sharing agreement that divided government posts between President Kiir’s loyalists and Machar’s camp, but failed to ensure it was implemented. The demilitarization of South Sudan’s capital, Juba, never happened, and the ceasefire never took hold.
MARTIN ABUCHA: When the United States signed off that document as the guarantor, when things went wrong, they were not there to support it. When it was being violated, they did nothing about it.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Abucha says U.S. diplomats failed to stop President Salva Kiir from reneging on the deal. Three months after Riek Machar returned to Juba last year to serve again as Vice President. Kiir’s army chased him out of the country, and Kiir appointed another politician as his number two. In the past 15 months, as the fighting escalated again, South Sudanese civilians fled their homes, mostly across the border to Uganda.
MARTIN ABUCHA: Today, if you have over one million people displaced and have taken refuge in Uganda in particular, it was because of that crisis.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Food shortages resulting from the civil war have left 6 million South Sudanese, half the population, dependent on international aid. As Martin Abucha sees it, political negotiations needed to end this war require stronger engagement by global and regional powers. He says the U.S. offers humanitarian aid but stands on the sidelines as the violence continues.
MARTIN ABUCHA: The United States’ government is saying they’ll spend over two billion dollars since 2013. But I’m sure they should have spent less and stopped this war. You’re talking about just the cost of human justice. I don’t know how many people have died. You can never put value to that number of lives lost.