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Bitter, Incomplete Divorce Blamed For South Sudan's Fighting


There is a new book out that tells the story of one of the world's most troubled countries. The book is called "A Poisonous Thorn In Our Hearts." That's what the leaders in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, called the south of their country during the South's long fight for independence. In 2011, South Sudan did break away, voting overwhelmingly to create the world's newest country. And that country's birth was welcomed jubilation.


Almost immediately, the region fell back into conflict over an unclear border, over control of the oil in South Sudan that could only be exported through Sudan's pipelines and over unresolved ethnic grievances.

MONTAGNE: Author James Copnall is a former BBC correspondent, who spent years covering the region. He puts much of the blame for the fighting, that's been raging within South Sudan, on, quote, "a bitter, incomplete divorce." He joined us from London. Good morning.

JAMES COPNALL: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Could you please give us the briefest of histories about the breakup of Sudan, which was Africa's largest country?

COPNALL: Yeah, exactly, Africa's largest country. And the Sudanese were very proud of that fact. But it was always a slightly strange country. People of different cultures and ethnic groups, religions, pushed together by British, and Egyptian and Ottoman Empire colonizers. And so there were two very long, very bitter civil wars between the North and the South. And the second lasted more than two decades, came to an end of 2005. And the peace deal that ended that conflict, allowed the southern Sudanese to have a referendum on their future. And in July 2011, South Sudan was born. So you now have two Sudans. But despite the split, the problems, both within those two countries and between those two countries, continues to be really an extremely difficult situation for the peoples of both countries.

MONTAGNE: Well, during the long civil war, where the South was fighting the North, a war that led to the spinning off of South Sudan, the leaders of the rebels also, on occasion, fought each other. And some of these fights were quite vicious and left quite a bit of bad blood.

COPNALL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, by some estimates, more southern Sudanese were killed in inter-southern conflicts, rather than in direct conflict with the North, with the national army. And most notably in 1991, Riek Machar, who was a major rebel leader, split away from the main rebel group. And there was a famous massacre, in the town of Bor, in which thousands of people were killed and both sides committed abuses. And then, he eventually came back to the rebel group, which took South Sudan to its independence but the enmity between him and Salva Kiir, who the president of South Sudan, the new country, was still there. So Riek Machar was the vice president, Salva Kiir, the president. And the political tensions grew over a couple of years. Salva Kiir sacks his vice president, Riek Machar. And it got to a point where there was gunfire in the capital, Juba. Now, Salva Kiir said this was an attempted coup in December of last year. Riek Machar said that it was an attempt to eliminate him and others. The consequences of this political fallout, with all of these historical origins, was what we see today, which is a civil war.

MONTAGNE: And then, of course, there's the question of corruption.

COPNALL: Yes, I think, that's been one of the tragedies of the post-independence period for South Sudan. The generation that came to power in South Sudan were largely rebel leaders. And they began to suffer what's been called the liberation curse. And what that means, essentially, is that the qualities that make you a good freedom fighter or rebel leader, don't often translate very well to the qualities needed to run a democratic country. There were scandals over millions of dollars, maybe even billions. And at one point, $4 billion had been stolen. This was a real low point because, essentially, the money south Sudan was getting from its oil fields wasn't going to develop in a terribly war-ravaged area. It wasn't going to build schools and hospitals for people who needed it desperately. In a lot of cases, it was simply going into the pockets of corrupt officials.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder about one other thing. To the degree that a lot of the world knew about South Sudan, it had to do with some very famous names, who championed the cause of independence, well-meaning, most certainly, but, you know, names like George Clooney, Colin Powell actually participated in the process. Do they, this group, have something to answer for?

COPNALL: There was clearly a very strong group within the sort of activist circle and in American foreign-policy circles, who wanted the South Sudanese to break away. In some cases, there was a pretty simplistic viewpoint that Khartoum and the political elite there was bad and anyone who fought against it was, therefore, good. And, of course, not everyone fell into that simplistic trap. But I think too many people did. So there was certainly, I think, a change in perception, even among some of those activists, in the period after separation. And there were even critical letters towards the South Sudanese government, as it became clear that corruption was a major problem and human rights abuses and things like that. But I don't agree with the idea, which is gaining some currency, that it was a mistake for South Sudan to become independent because there had been two very, very long, very devastating civil wars. And in January 2011, 99 percent of South Sudanese voted to have their own country. They wanted to be independent. And despite the civil war now, despite the many problems in the new country, South Sudanese still want to be independent. They still want their own country.

MONTAGNE: What is your view of what's ahead for South Sudan?

COPNALL: It's in an extremely bad way. There's no doubt about that. Any leader would struggle with the problems South Sudan faces. And the problem with this current conflict, in which well over a million people are being displaced and tens of thousands are being killed, is that it has increasingly taken on an ethnicized character, between the two major ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, or at least people of those groups. And communities have been set against each other. And civilians have been raped and killed. And massive human rights abuses have been committed by both sides. And it's going to be extremely difficult to rebuild that sort of community cohesion. We have seen a peace deal of sorts. But there's still huge doubts about whether it will stick. And even if it does, and that is a big if, there will be colossal challenges in rebuilding what has been destroyed, both in terms of physical infrastructure and in terms of cohesion between these different groups that have been fighting each other.

MONTAGNE: James Copnall's new book on Sudan and South Sudan is called "A Poisonous Thorn In Our Hearts." Thank you very much for joining us.

COPNALL: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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