This is the third and final installment collating statements from the fighters pictured in Karim Ben Khelifa’s photo essay of soldiers on either side of three long-running conflicts. Today I want to extract voices from the two sides of a tribal conflict in the South Sudan between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes. Each fighter responds to Khelifa’s questions on why they fight and who the enemy is.
Of the three conflicts, this one wrenches my heart especially because the conflict is over food. Food. That people fight and die over want of food is the most awful. That people attack an enemy’s food sources is most distressing.
These are voices from the Murle tribe:
(1) “My name is Bureth Achotliny; I’m 34 years old. The members of the Lou Nuer tribe are my enemies because they have attacked me at home recently. They killed scores of young and old people; they took all our food; they took the cows, burned houses in and around the city of Pibor. We could have fought back, but the attack happened after the United Nations and the government had disarmed us. Now we can only survive because the World Food Program is helping us. I didn’t kill any of my enemies for the simple reason that we have given up our guns and when they attack all I can do is flee. Violence to me is when another tribe attacks me, like the Lou Nuer. The cause of this violence is the livestock. When my opponents are coming, of course it is for the cattle; this is food for them as it is for us. They have to do it. Freedom is the way we are inside. When I am home, nobody can interfere with my freedom. I can do whatever suits me, whatever I deem right. But the chiefs are there, and if we need to mobilize, we have to do it. Now, since we have been attacked, we are under the authority of the government and the Kowajjah, the white people; they came and told us to stop fighting and ordered us to stay in town where they could distribute food. This is where we are at now and this is not freedom. This is a major change from the past for us.”
(2) “My name is Bureth Akuer. I’m 33 years old. My tribe is the Murle. My enemy is the one who attacks me. The Lou Nuer have attacked me. The cause of the tribal war is food. As a Murle when I feel hungry, I go to the Lou Nuer land and take their food, but they won’t allow me to take it so they will attack me. This is why we fight. They did the same to us, and we had to defend ourselves. I did not kill any of my enemies because I had no weapons, but they killed three of my relatives. When they left, I followed them, but I didn’t have a gun to fight them. My heart was set on revenge, but I couldn’t take it. For me, freedom is to be able to grow food on your own land, have your own livestock. That is what I enjoy, and this is freedom for me. Violence is something I don’t really understand. Why is it happening? We are praying and asking God to let us live in peace together. Of course, it’s all about food, but we should find other ways to find food so that the violence stops. In 20 years to come, we should see improvements. We shouldn’t continue to take things by force. If we can’t do that, then the future will be dark and we will get stuck in this tribal war.”
(3) “My name is John Akuer Aborcup; I’m 18 years old. My enemy is the one who comes to attack me. Members of the Lou Nuer tribe have attacked us, but we also had to fight with members of the Dinka Bor tribe. Those tribes are our enemies because sometimes we go and take their cattle and they come back to attack us; they have killed our people. The Lou Nuer recently came to Pibor and killed my three uncles. They looted all our cattle; they burned all our houses. They cannot be my friends anymore; they have destroyed us. Those are my enemies, and I will have to take revenge. My first reaction has to take revenge and to go to the Lou Nuer land to fight the people who have attacked us. But that means that I could die and I would not be able to help my people. Freedom for me is to be able to mobilize my community, to defend my people. And violence is for me to go and attack my enemies, to get stuck in a tribal war. I think 20 years from now, all tribes will live in peace because towns are growing and reaching smaller villages, bringing development, schools, roads, and business, so the next generation can be educated. We started the tribal wars a thousand years ago with; now we use Kalashnikovs. Tomorrow I hope we will use pencils.”
And here are fighters from the Lou Nuer:
(1) “My name is Paulino Kueth; I’m 28 years old. I’m a member of the Lou Nuer. My enemies are the Murle. They designated themselves as our enemies. The problem is the cattle; the Murle come to steal it. The fighting is historical: They kill and we kill them in return. We can’t deny that we have also killed; people fought for so long now. People have suffered: Your cattle has been taken; your children are abducted; you are not allowed to work your land; you feel hunger and you go without food for a long period of time. All those things are the result of the conflict. Nobody has been solving the problem and addressing it until recently. People were not blaming the government, maybe because of the scarcity of the resources. Freedom is a situation that allows you to interact with people. If we can interact, you and I, it is because of freedom. Freedom is something that can help to find solution to solve a lot of problems like addressing hunger, the problem of fighting. Previously people were under the rule of north Sudan. We had no freedom because people were not interacting. We had no future plan, or to think of what might happen, but this time around we feel we have freedom. We are under our own rules. You can even think peace as a result of freedom. Violence is a situation where there is a lot of poverty, a lack of knowledge, no valuing of the importance of other human beings. That is why you have killings, but if you know that there is another human in front of you, you can’t simply kill another person. Therefore if people get together, sharing knowledge, they will value other human beings.”
(2) “My name is Peter Khan. I’m 28 years old. I’m from the Jonglei state, and I’m a member of the Lou Nuer tribe. My enemies are the Murle. We have suffered a lot from the tribal wars, the people from areas in conflicts like the city of Pibor. Cattle raids are the cause of the conflict; when Murles come they take all of our cattle and abduct our children. They have even killed a lot of people. We need those communities to live peacefully alongside one another. We don’t want to see any more cattle raids. I have lived through a very bad situation where I saw my relatives being killed. This has affected my life. I have not killed any of my enemies. I think of the future — we won’t fight anymore. I believe in 20 years from now will see enough developments and educational programs in Jonglei state that people don’t need to abide by the old tribal rules anymore.”
(3) “My name is Koang Kher Makuei; I’m 23 years old. I’m a member of the Lou Nuer tribe, and our enemies are the Murle. They come and they take our cows and our children; this is the problem. I fought my enemies to protect my belongings. If they come and try to kill you, even you in that position, you would kill somebody. We have suffered a lot from the tribal war; there is too much abuse. Our freedom will come from the government when they decide they will disarm the Murle. To learn is freedom, to do things that are good for you. Violence is when a group of people comes to my village; they take everything. In the future, we will be free and there will be peace between the Murle and the Lou Nuer; this will be freedom.”
After three of these profiles, I am struck by how each conflict seems to have no end in sight, yet the concept of freedom is everywhere. Everyone desires freedom and believes he or she is fighting for it. The fighters represented here are mostly male, and mostly young.
I sure wish all in all of these conflicts, the leaders and general fighters could learn to look for how they might help everyone achieve the freedom they desire.