“If you’re named ‘Anitabh’ (Bachchan), why are you so short?” 5,389 kilometers from New Delhi in Bor, a teen South Sudanese Dinka girl, Ayan Manyang, cheekily asked. Already nearly 6 feet tall, she is from the most populous Dinka tribe (estimated at over 36 per cent of the population). They are known for their height. A study has found the average male height at 5ft 9.45 inches. And we found her to be an ardent fan of Hindi movies. She even sang ‘Nazm Nazm’ from ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’ for us.
We were at a medical and veterinary camp run by UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan) by India’s INDBATT 2 (7 Garhwal Rifles) for locals in Bor over 200 kilometers from South Sudan’s capital, Juba. The Dinkas—the first to convert to Christianity—are mainly agro-pastoral, nomadic people and cattle is their most important livelihood. So, Lieutenant Colonel C Carter is revered in these parts for his team’s treatment and training of paramedics.
South Sudan is the world’s newest country, gaining independence from Sudan in 2011 as the outcome of a 2005 agreement that ended Africa’s longest civil war. But that didn’t bring conflict to an end. Civil war that broke out in 2013 after a fallout between President Salva Kiir and then vice-president Dr Riek Machar has displaced more than four million people. A power-sharing deal in 2018 is trying to end that conflict.
South Sudan has more than 60 ethno-tribal groups. The Dinkas and Nuer (mainly animistic and pastoralist) tribes are estimated to be more than 50 per cent of the population. They (and other groups) are known for cattle raiding and land grabbing since the 1800s. The rest of the people belong to the Shilluk (pastoralists who mostly live along the Nile and trace their ancestry to an independent kingdom), Murle, Azande, Bari, Kakwa, Mandari and other smaller groups. The Dinkas enjoy the most economic and political power. The first President—Salva Kiir— is of Dinka heritage. In 2016, Dr Riek Machar— a Nuer—was sworn in as Vice-President. Tension between the two men forced the latter from office and into exile. The conflict between the two mirrors the wider one in South Sudan—primarily fought between the Dinka, Nuer and Murle groups. Dr Machar is expected to return as Vice President in May, 2019 if a peace deal signed in September 2018 holds. The Shilluk King, Kongo Dak Padiet, returned in January.
Peace is still on a tenuous return, though, in South Sudan. The deal signed between President Kiir and Dr Machar has broadly stopped a conflict that has killed an estimated 383,000 people and left most of the over 12 million people facing malnutrition and severe food insecurity. The UN estimates more than 2.4 million are internally displaced or refugees in the region.
All sides are blamed for atrocities. The government and the opposition have till May 2019 to implement the agreement and form a transitional government or risk another unravelling like in 2015. Sticking points also include the setting up of unified cantonments for armed groups from both sides (the first phase for 25 camps was agreed only this month with 15 more in phase-II) and 32(that President Kiir wants) or 28 states (that the opposition wants). The deal also stipulates national elections by May 2022.
Adding to the time crunch, the U.S. and other western countries are tightening purse strings to fund the already delayed deal’s implementation. America is reviewing all assistance and National Security Adviser John Bolton has described the country’s leaders as ‘morally bankrupt’. China, in contrast, has donated $7 million to the U.N. World Food Program and is the top investor in the oil sector. Oil income is 98 per cent of the country’s budget but production is under half of what it was before the 2013 civil war. India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd has 25 per cent and 24.12 per cent stakes in two blocks.
China is also a contributing country to UNMISS with over 1000 personnel (as of December 2018). India has 2,547 men and women under the UN umbrella. Apart from personnel at the Force Headquarters in Juba, India’s current rotation is of the 11 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry Battalion headquartered in Malakal, commanded by Colonel Amit Gupta and the 7 Garhwal Rifles centred in Bor commanded by Colonel Sunil G Thomas. SNI has also learnt that an Indian Lieutenant General is in the running to be the next UNMISS Force Commander. New Delhi is also sending 150 police personnel this year.
India has overall been the largest contributor to peacekeeping missions worldwide, suffered the most casualties and taken part in the maximum missions in history. Apart from all three Indian military services at Force HQ in Juba and the two battalions, Indian Army Engineers are the only unit under the UN flag anywhere, Signals control all movement in the air, road and the Nile across the country and petroleum platoons are present in almost all forward locations. There are Army hospitals in Juba and Malakal and veterans and civilians are present in UNMISS in Juba.
Apart from creating a security environment that helps people return, SNI witnessed first-hand the bonds created with local communities in Juba, Bor, Akobo, Malakal and Kodok. Bonds that are cemented by teams led by among others Lt Col C Carter and Lt Col YS Sengar who are the ‘most wanted’ in the areas they provide veterinary services to the most precious currency in the country—cattle.
Both have been offered several plots of land and multiple local wives to stay when their units return. Of course, they politely declined both offers.
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