How South Sudan won the longest war but lost peace

The complexities around the birth of South Sudan in 2011 are almost impossible to grasp. The foundation of the world’s youngest country stands on layers upon layers of intrigues, infighting as well as colonial meddling. Its future now also stands on unfettered ambition and the decisions of a select few on whose fragile shoulders the responsibilities of charting the country’s path lie.

Unfortunately though, the romance that characterised the idea of South Sudan, a breakaway from the Sudan, has over the years fizzled out. Each dawn bringing with it the introduction of more plots and subplots, all adding up to the story of South Sudan.

But past this intertwined web of events, both fortunate and unfortunate, such as the death of the country’s original seer John Garang, author Peter Martell looks past the smoke from the ever smoking guns of the brutal wars that have been fought and continue to be fought for the true liberation of the country. It also looks past the backroom deals between generals from opposing sides to bring us the story of how the country of some 12 million people won the longest war but eventually lost the peace it longs for.

First Raise a Flag is a moving reflection on the meaning of nationalism, the power of hope and the endurance of the human spirit. It does not shy away from the realities on the ground. For decades South Sudan has been in the grip of long wars that it, just recently, is trying to run away from. The nature of the brutality of the war comes out at the very beginning where Martell narrates his own 2011 experience.

“In the dry season, when grass grew yellow and thin and crackled underfoot, the bones bleached under the sun poked through the undergrowth. Twisted creepers curled up between the eye sockets of the skulls, some so small they must have been children,” he opens. “Soldiers said there were more piles as you went deeper into the field, but you couldn’t go farther even if you wanted to… They warned of landmines once laid to defend the base.”

However, it is not just a story about war. It is also a story about the hopes and ambitions of a people told through the numerous interviews the writer conducted from over a decade of covering the country.

Late last month, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir announced a tour of different parts of the country to shore up support ahead of the formation of a new unity government. Communication from Juba indicated that President Kiir would begin with a visit to Terekeka State in Central Equatoria, before heading to his own home-region of Bahr el-Ghazal and other parts of the country.

Most of the places the President will tour are not just locations. The towns and villages he will visit have a pronounced role in the history of his country. These towns, some nearly erased from memory, remain the true custodians of the country’s soul. And more importantly, these are just some of the places that Martell too has visited in his quest to tell this complex story.

Throughout the book, Martell's -- a seasoned news man -- stubbornness to stick to form compliments his natural story telling. First Raise a Flag is rich in research told not through journal annexes, but through the memories of those as old as the experiences he writes about.

The author retraces the nation’s history to 2500BC when South Sudan thrived as part of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. He tells us of the South’s first interaction with slavery and the debilitating effects of one of the worst forms of cruelty man can dish to fellow man and how this has had a role to play in the current conflicts. Also it is a story about origins.

Every war begins with a first shot. Often, in that moment it is not known that it has triggered something more, for conflicts are messy and take on lives of their own. Some historians argue that the root causes bringing the crisis to breaking point are what is important, not the spark of the flame. Yet, it does matter, for history is made up of stories. The tale of how the war in Sudan began, a conflict that would rage off and on for half a century, destroy a land and devastate a people but pave way to independence -- that is one worth telling. For sometimes, wars do begin when one person decides that enough is enough, and takes up a weapon. In South Sudan’s case, it was a bow and an arrow and it was not a glorious beginning,” Martell writes.

There is a reason why this book, to be****, is an Economist Book of The Year 2018. It is not a text book. It is not a research thesis. It is a work that gives voice to the experiences of the world’s youngest nation.

"This is a remarkable piece of work. It manages to pull off the rare feat of being both meticulously-researched and extremely accessible. Martell wades through yellowing colonial archives, tracks down Mossad operatives and quizzes white mercenaries, but it’s the experiences and reflections of the South Sudanese men and women who shaped and lived this turbulent history that dominate the narrative," Michela Wrong, author of Borderlines and It’s Our Turn to Eat, says of the book.  

[email protected]