x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The shattered lives at the brink of the two Sudans

A visit to a military hospital evinces the terrible human cost of border clashes between South Sudan and the nation it broke away from. And it could get worse, Bradley Hope, Foreign Correspondent, reports

Ring Gou, a 23-year-old SPLA soldier, is treated at the Juba Military Hospital in the South Sudan capital. Mr Ring was badly burnt in a Sudan air raid during the South's withdrawal from Heglig.
Ring Gou, a 23-year-old SPLA soldier, is treated at the Juba Military Hospital in the South Sudan capital. Mr Ring was badly burnt in a Sudan air raid during the South's withdrawal from Heglig.

A visit to a military hospital evinces the terrible human cost of border clashes between South Sudan and the nation it broke away from. And it could get worse, Bradley Hope, Foreign Correspondent, reports

JUBA // The phrase "limited border war" has no meaning for Ring Gou, a 23-year-old South Sudanese soldier, - a bomb blast near the border with its northern foe sheared all the skin from his back.

As a doctor leant over his bed in the Juba Military Hospital earlier this week, scraping the bright red burns with pieces of cotton and sterilised water, Mr Gou, could only say, "it hurts, it hurts".

A walk through the hot, fly-infested hospital revealed the less easily quantified effects of the conflict: severed arms, muscles ripped apart by shrapnel, bones shattered by high-velocity weapons.

Mr Gou is one of the hundreds of soldiers wounded during the recent clashes at the border with Sudan. There are 423 men in this hospital and the ranks of the wounded and maimed are expected to grow. Tents have already been ordered to shelter the overflow after the hospital corridors fill.

The slide towards full-scale war between the Khartoum government and the world's newest nation seems inexorable here.

The two sides are under pressure from abroad to return to the negotiating table.

The death toll from the border fighting has not been officially revealed, but South Sudan's minister of information said on Wednesday that at least 112 of the country's soldiers had died since the beginning of the year.

The issues that were set aside for the sake of the widely-hailed creation of an independent, southern Sudanese state in July - including how the two countries would share oil revenue - have reared their heads with a vengeance. Few are willing to venture whether South Sudan is stillborn or simply going through growing pains.

Colonel Philip Aguer Panyang, the spokesman for the South Sudanese army, is the one who described the conflict with the north as a "limited border war". There are three main fronts: the borders of Western Bahar Al Gazal, Unity and Jonglei states. South Sudan's soldiers have mostly machine guns, with a few tanks, while Sudan is said to have been sending MiG-27 and Antonov planes to drop bombs across the border and farther south.

Some of the battles have been waged directly by the two armies, but others have included militias alleged to be supported by either country. The entire border has become a jagged danger zone, 1,800 kilometres long. Thousands of residents have fled their villages, creating the beginning of what aid groups say could be a new humanitarian crisis.

The disputes that have brought the two nations to the precipice are a tangle of unresolved borders and long-standing political and ethnic resentments, as well as oil rights.

 

A full-blown conflict still could be avoided. Sudan and South Sudan have both given signs that they would return to the negotiating table.

In an attempt to avert a new war in Africa, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution on Wednesday threatening non-military sanctions against Khartoum and Juba if they do not halt the violence and return to negotiations.

Addressing the council after the vote, South Sudan's Minister of Cabinet Affairs Deng Alor stated his government's "solemn commitment" to comply with the resolution. But Sudan's UN Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman expressed reservations, saying peace will only be achieved if South Sudan stops "all forms of support and sheltering of proxy and rebel armed groups" and "until that is given a priority in the negotiations, it will be extremely difficult to proceed on any other matter" covered by the resolution.

One of the biggest obstacles is who will control Abyei, a roughly 10,460 square-kilometre piece of land resting between the two countries. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the two sides gave Sudan "administrative control" over the region, pending future negotiations.

South Sudan last month upended the arrangement when it captured the city of Heglig. What came next is under dispute: either South Sudanese troops were driven out by Sudan's armed forces or were withdrawn by the South Sudanese government under pressure from the international community.

Mr Gou's extensive burns were sustained during his unit's flight from Heglig, according to doctors.

The significance of Heglig - and Abyei - is oil. The main field can produce more than half of Sudan's capacity of 115,000 barrels per day, making the battle over the area as much about economic power as cultural ties and historic borders.

When the two countries split, South Sudan's new lands included three-quarters of the oil once held by the unified country. Sudan was hoping to recover a large portion of its lost revenue through transit fees paid by South Sudan for transporting the oil through a pipeline to Port Sudan. They could not agree on a fee, however, and when Sudan allegedly began confiscating oil to sell on its own, South Sudan shut down its production of 350,000 barrels a day at the end of January.

That set in motion what one Africa watcher, Alex de Waal, has called South Sudan's economic "doomsday machine" - a reference to the device popularised in the 1964 film Dr Strangelove that would launch all the Soviet Union's nuclear missiles if the US attacked. The cut-off of oil increased pressure on both governments, who could begin having trouble paying soldiers and running schools. It may come down to who folds first in desperate times.

The invasion of Abyei and subsequent battles have only raised the temperature. And even as diplomats from both countries talk of their willingness to return to negotiations, on the ground they are beating a steady drum to war. Sudan TV in Khartoum continuously broadcasts patriotic songs and images of soldiers. Its president, Omar Al Bashir, called the South Sudanese leaders "insects".

Meanwhile, vans with loudspeakers drive around Juba attacking the rhetoric of the north. There is a constant refrain among officials: we lived for decades without oil as rebels and we can do it again.

At a press conference on Wednesday, a South Sudan military commander, Benjamin Majak, was asked a simple question by a local radio journalist. What if the international community and any new arbitration decisions side with Sudan on issues like Abyei and Hegalig?

He responded: "Frankly, as a military man, I can say I don't think we have to worry. We have different approaches for settling matters if we don't get what we want."

The brinkmanship of the two countries is complicated by allegations that each is clandestinely supporting rebel groups.

Abdelwahab El Affendi, a professor at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom, said that Sudan now "appears determined to revive support for southern dissidents, which could be very destabilising".

"With the South self-starved of cash and with the government there not succeeding in holding together the diverse tribal constituencies, any small push could bring the whole edifice tumbling down," he said.

bhope@thenational.ae

twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Bradley Hope on @bradleyhope