Machot Lat Thiep is a front line supervisor at the north Seattle Costco store, a graduate of the University of Washington and a 32-year-old family man with a wife and three young sons. No, that is not him pictured above. But he’s quite familiar with that look.
Many years ago, Thiep was one of the Sudan’s famous ‘lost boys’ who spent years fleeing conflict, struggling to survive and bouncing between refugee camps in East Africa. In 1995, he was able to emigrate to the United States as part of a United Nations’ resettlement program and was sent to Seattle as a foster child – which was also quite difficult at times, at least until he ended up with a family that actually cared for him.
So why, with all that trouble behind him, a good job and a young family, would Thiep decide to join up with a fellow known for getting himself into dangerous places and go after the infamous African warlord Joseph Kony?
“I want to help people understand what’s going on with my people, why they are being killed,” Thiep said. One of the less appreciated angles on what is happening currently in the newly conflicted South Sudan, he said, is the Ugandan military’s attacks on tribal communities that are judged unfriendly to the current besieged president of the country.
“The Ugandan military doesn’t do anything without consulting the Americans,” Thiep contended. “Why are they bombing my people? Why are they even in South Sudan?”
“Yeah, isn’t that interesting? Why aren’t people asking those questions?” added Robert Young Pelton, an adventurer, journalist and author of, among other things, a popular guide book of sorts called The World’s Most Dangerous Places.
You may recall that Humanosphere reported on the plan by Pelton to go find Joseph Kony, the so-called warlord made infamous by a somewhat bizarre organization in California, Invisible Children. A viral video made in 2012 by the group made Kony a household name and spawned a number of efforts by both the US and African military teams to hunt him down and bring him to justice as a war criminal.
As we noted in the earlier interview and podcast with Pelton, many can be expected to scoff at this latest adventure – Expedition Kony – as either absurd in the hubristic view that one guy and a film crew can locate this guy if American special ops working with African military teams can’t seem to get it done; or absurd simply because it’s Kony and so much about Kony seems absurd.
What’s absurd about all this, says Pelton, is the lack of attention to all the red flags that the entire Kony saga should have raised. Why is this one, now fairly marginalized, thug in the bush so important to so many people, organizations and government?
“And why the hell is the Ugandan military using its mandate to find Kony to go into Sudan and bomb people?” Pelton said. One of the primary goals of Expedition Kony is to raise the questions others ignore or try to sluff under the rug.
Pelton and Thiep leave this weekend to begin the first stages of Expedition Kony, the latest hunt for the elusive warlord. But he is believed to be somewhere in the Central African Republic – a nation also torn by warfare at the moment – so why are they headed first to South Sudan?
“Riek Machar, the rebel leader who is fighting against Salva Kiir (the president of South Sudan), brokered peace talks with Kony in 2006 and 2008,” Pelton said. Thiep knows Machar, who was South Sudan’s vice president until he was sacked last year by Kiir. Thiep and Machar are members of the Nuer tribe. Kiir and most of the government in the world’s newest nation are members of the Dinka tribe.
Some say the current warfare is largely tribal. Others say it isn’t really, or at least didn’t start that way.
South Sudan split off from Sudan in 2011, becoming the world’s newest nation and inheriting most of the Sudan’s oil-producing geography. Sporadic conflicts between Sudan and South Sudan, as well as small internal tribal conflicts, have erupted over the last few years but they had been regarded as ‘growing pains’ for the new democracy and independent state.
The accusation by Kiir of a coup attempt by Machar and others in late 2013, however, followed by their dismissals and arrests (of those who didn’t flee) on grounds of treason have set off a civil war in which forces loyal to Kiir are fending off rebel forces led by Machar. It’s actually more complicated than that. But the net effect is that thousands have died and more than half a million have fled the their homes since fierce battles erupted in the capital city of Juba. Kiir was able to hold on to his turf with assistance from the Ugandan military.
Usually left out of the Kony story, Pelton said, is the fact that Kony emerged out of the Ugandan government’s genocidal attempt to wipe out his tribe, the Acholi, many years ago. The Nuer, he said, see the Dinka-dominated government led by Kiir and its support from Uganda, as a potential repeat of what happened to the Acholi. “They share a common fear,” said Pelton.
“We want to talk to Machar, who is on the wrong side of the conflict according to the standard narrative, because that’s where the story is,” he said. “We’re going to try to find Kony, and Machar can help us. But in the meantime, we’re going to be telling other stories that need to be told.”
Seattle’s former lost boy Thiep, who knows Machar, wants to assist Pelton as much as he can. In 2004, Thiep said, Pelton and a mutual friend of both helped the foirmer lost boy rescue family members being held for ransom by Somalis who abducted them outside a Kenyan refugee camp. They assembled a truckload of soldiers and police and, after distracting the captors, broke down the locked door of a hut to free Machot’s mother, sister, niece and nephew.
Sounds like something Pelton would do. It’s also an illustration of how Pelton operates; he establishes and maintains solid, meaningful relationships with many people throughout the world, often in the most dangerous places, which allows him to sometimes cut through the standard official inertia and red tape to take action.
Chances are, there will be lots of stories — maybe even some featuring Kony — out of this trip. Pelton said the website for Expedition Kony will have regular, probably weekly, updates so people can keep track. They didn’t make their fund-raising goal, which would have paid for a documentary film and more interactive capabilities.
“But I was going to go do this anyway, whether we got the funds or not,” Pelton said. He has a book deal in the works and also some private sponsors that support his aims of trying to tell the story of Kony – and all the stories swirling around him – free from the message filtering that comes out of reports from governments, the military or any particular humanitarian organization.
“I want people to know our side of the story in South Sudan,” said Thiep. “Robert is a great story teller.”