Seattle man, former Lost Boy, in Vice report on South Sudan crisis

Pelton and Thiep
Pelton and Thiep
© Robert Young Pelton, all rights reserved

Machot Lat Thiep usually works at the north Seattle Costco store as a line supervisor.

But today, Thiep, formerly one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, is a central character in a special report at Vice.com entitled Saving Sudan, written by Robert Young Pelton with photographs and video by Tim Freccia.

Humanosphere’s been following this project from the beginning, as we reported earlier here and here, partly because of Thiep’s involvement but mostly because we think Pelton’s perspective on this unfolding catastrophe is fairly unique. It’s also a bit unique for Vice, which, as the Poynter Institute noted, has devoted its entire print magazine to the examination of this political and ethnic conflict.

What does the current crisis in South Sudan, the weird ongoing hunt for African warlord Joseph Kony, Uganda’s recent use of cluster bombs in South Sudan,  the American military and Howard Buffett all have in common? Pelton, in his report for Vice and also for Defense Standard magazine, has a provocative answer:

“These are all related to the U.S. government’s desire to expand its military presence in Africa,” Pelton told Humanosphere. “I mean, we sent Ospreys and KC-135 stratotankers to help Uganda find Joseph Kony? Those aircraft are nearly useless if the goal is to find a small band of thugs in the jungle. Nobody is even asking these kinds of questions.”

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, appears to be unraveling due to conflict between two ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer. That part of the story is getting covered by the mainstream media.

What is not getting looked at in much depth is why this is happening, why the peace there is so fragile (and not necessarily the goal of all the players) and what is driving the U.S. government’s seemingly arbitrary response to this and other such crises in sub-Saharan Africa.

“What’s really going on here is that this is about a shift in our military priorities,” Pelton says. “None of this really makes much sense unless you look at this in that context.”

Map of armed conflicts in Africa between 1997 - 2011. Click on to see full-size
Map of armed conflicts in Africa between 1997 – 2011. Click on to see full-size
UCL Centre for Advance Spatial Analysis

There’s no question that parts of Africa have an affinity for erupting in spasms of stunningly brutal violence that, to an outsider, may seem chaotic and without any clear over-arching issue at stake other than turf.

Likewise, the response to these crises by the U.S. government can seem equally arbitrary and lacking in any kind of comprehensive strategy.

A few years ago, it was the high-profile barbarity of Joseph Kony and his crazy, deadly Lord’s Resistance Army’s raping and pillaging across central and east Africa that prompted an international response.

Thanks to a Christian organization called Invisible Children that made a hugely successful video dubbed Kony 2012, the international community rallied to ‘capture or kill’ the brutal warlord. The U.S. government and other Western powers responded by sending military experts and equipment to assist with Uganda.

It turned out, those paying attention knew Kony wasn’t actually in Uganda anymore, but never mind. The hunt for Kony goes on and he remains at large, likely somewhere in the war-torn Central African Republic.

Now, the U.S. government and other western powers are responding to the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian school girls by sending in military and hostage experts. But why hasn’t there been the same kind of international outrage, and military response, to the abductions, rapes and killings in, say, DR Congo, CAR or other parts of the continent?

“Those are the questions we’re trying to answer,” Pelton told Humanosphere. Why did Howard Buffett and another rich philanthropist from Texas, Susan Sedgwick Davis, fund a private paramilitary venture to go get Kony? That scheme failed, and has received some scrutiny, but it just looks weird and inexplicable taken in isolation.

Pelton and Freccia, in video, photos and lots of text, pull it all together in a narrative that documents the horrible nature of this conflict, how the opposition leader Riek Machar connects to Kony’s story, the global geopolitical agenda at play here and especially the difficult personal journey this becomes for Thiep.

Thiep, as the video and text story documents in painful detail, started out enthusiastic and with the best of intentions – trying to find a way to help his people, the Nuer (led by Machar). But along the way, Thiep is frustrated by the chaos and then, apparently, devastated by the violent and abusive behavior of the people he has come to help. No good guys in this story.

It’s a powerful documentary of a brutal conflict, presented in horrific detail and with a lot of historical context.

But what may be the most provocative element is the subtext, that many if not all of our government’s gestures of humanitarian support in this war-torn region of east and central sub-Saharan Africa are motivated by a military and political agenda.

Soldier, South Sudan
Soldier, South Sudan
© Robert Young Pelton, all rights reserved

“Do people really think the Obama Administration wants to find Kony?” laughs Pelton. “Kony was just a bogey man for a much bigger agenda, of expanding our military presence in Africa.”

When civil war broke out in South Sudan, one of the first things the government of President Salva Kiir did was ask the Ugandan military to take a side and attack the Nuer. Uganda is a key political ally of the U.S., which supplies and advises the Ugandan military. Why no outrage, no hasthtags on Twitter, at the Ugandan military dropping cluster bombs on the Nuer in neighboring South Sudan.

“People need to start looking at what’s really going on in Africa,” Pelton said. “If you just listen to the officials statements and the Hollywood narratives claiming humanitarian intentions, you won’t figure it out….  We’ve been setting up drone bases, training proxy armies and spending billions to stabilize things there for a much bigger agenda.”

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.