Wars without news

So to last week’s big news: on Tuesday two thousand Chadian troops crossed the border into the Central African Republic (CAR) to help fight a new Centrafrican rebel coalition, Seleka, which for the last month has been seizing towns and territory across northern CAR, just over the border from South Sudan.

Who? Where?

Of course, this hasn’t been big news at all. Outside the Francophone African press, it’s barely surfaced save the odd wire report. The CAR army has been perennially clashing with rebel groups across diamond-rich northern CAR for nearly a decade – fighting which has scarcely registered on the international community’s agenda, despite having displaced perhaps 200,000 people, and despite the fact that this new rebel coalition has the potential to topple the CAR government in the next few days.

News of Seleka’s advance only rang a bell for me because this time last year I was in Raga, on the South Sudanese side of the CAR/South Sudan border, just east of the area where the Seleka rebel forces are now ensconced. It’s one of the most interesting places I’ve been, and when I wasn’t trying to figure out how to get home for Christmas, my brief stay in Raga helped me to understand a little better why we seem to care about some places and not others.

This sleepy corner of eastern/central Africa is perhaps one of the least understood parts of the continent. It’s liminal in every sense. Geographically, it’s where the Sahel meets the Great Lakes, on the cusp of the two great African watersheds – those of the Nile and the Congo. Culturally, it’s where many people imagine an ‘Arab’ northern Africa meets ‘black’ West Africa, although the reality is nothing like this clash-of-civilisations stereotype.

Raga market

And it also falls between the cracks of the international community’s mental map - located on the margins of Africa’s three best known, A-list wars:
  • Perhaps the most familiar of these – thanks mainly to Mia Farrow and other celebrity genocide activists - is Darfur, ninety miles to the northeast.  That’s mainly why I was there, trying to get up to the Darfur border to find out how Darfur’s ten-year conflict is spilling over into this forgotten corner of South Sudan.
  • We have George Clooney to thank for awareness of a second conflagration that has started since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011: an international stand-off resulting in a necklace of bombings and ground clashes along Sudan and South Sudan’s contested border - including (although barely publicised) here at the western end of that border.
  • Finally, serious Africa nerds (and Ben Affleck fans) may also be aware that this junction point between CAR, Sudan and South Sudan is also the forested no-man’s land where enthusiastic LRA-watchers believe that Joseph Kony and his Lords’ Resistance Army remnants are holed up (if indeed Kony is still alive and the LRA still exists in any meaningful sense, as a single identifiable force, beyond the priapic dreams of American campaigners).
And at that point we tend to reach most people’s limits of acceptable complexity – mine included. This is an interstitial region filled with too many small wars already. Those that register on the international community’s radar tend to have been fitted into two neat conceptual boxes: 

(i) intra-Sudanese wars, involving 
(ii) ‘Arabs’ killing ‘Africans’. 

In Darfur, a layer-cake of local ethnic disputes, land pressures, state counterinsurgency and proxy wars with neighbouring Chad and Libya have been compressed for advocacy purposes into a tale of a purely domestic conflict in which Sudanese government-backed ‘Arab’ Janjaweed militias kill ‘African’ villagers. The new Sudan/South Sudan border war has likewise been shoehorned into a conceptually-convenient ‘Arab’/’African’ conflict, a supposed replay of the north-south Sudanese Civil War that ended in 2005, although it too is in reality a daisy-chain of localised conflicts drawing in not just the two national armies but also southern-allied Nuba rebels; Khartoum-backed splinter groups from southern tribes; and, confusingly, Darfuri rebels now fighting alongside the Nuba and the southern army itself.  

The transnational exception to these convenient frames is the reported presence of Kony’s LRA, currently being hunted through this area’s forests by a lacklustre 4-nation contingent of Centrafrican, South Sudanese, Ugandan and Congolese troops ‘advised’ by 100 U.S. special forces. But the LRA ‘situation’ has its own unique lobby in Washington and New York that cuts through complexity all by itself.

Wedged between these three celebrity African conflicts, anything else happening in this ‘shatter zone’ simply never makes it onto the list of international priorities – those ‘situations’ on the agenda of the UN Security Council or the ICC, for example. The area’s remoteness and depopulation doesn’t help. It’s not particularly risky to get to, but it’s a bit trickier than journalists or researchers can afford to bother with in the absence of an urgent story: visitors must obtain the right travel permissions from military and civilian authorities in Juba, South Sudan’s capital; then fly on to Wau, the state capital; and then drive 200 miles on an occasionally difficult road towards the Central African Republic. The area’s population is lower than in the 19th century, thanks to late-Victorian slaving, colonial displacement and occupation, endemic tsetse-fly infestation, and post-colonial strife. The main Wau-Raga road, for example, remains largely an empty corridor today because villages along its route were cleared by the Sudanese army during the Ananya-1 civil war of the 1960s, and the thousands of residents forcibly moved to the state capital never returned.  

Wau-Raga road

But above all I think this corner is forgotten because of its stubborn refusal to fit the neat frames with which we're accustomed to read the 'celebrity wars' of eastern/central Africa. It refuses fit the narratives we've been told across four dimensions: actors, cause, geography and chronology.

Firstly, the ‘enemy’ looks different at ground level. To those fighting and being fought over, this region’s security threats don’t look anything like the neatly packaged ‘celebrity wars’ listed above. The LRA, for one thing, barely features. While Invisible Children and other high-profile American activists describe Kony as the greatest human security threat in Africa and this region as his last refuge, local authorities here barely mention the LRA as a security concern (alleged LRA attacks are, admittedly, more severe further south in DRC, but even these have been tailing off). Authorities here and in CAR occasionally blame the LRA for attacks and thefts of weapons and supplies from villages and police posts, but there’s generally little evidence about who the perpetrators actually are.** Narcotics and ivory abandoned during such raids are held up as evidence that they were the work of LRA-turned-criminals, although the whole region is wide open to all kinds of traffickers, smugglers and poachers. 

What local authorities say they worry about instead are groups and threats that don’t register on the international community’s agenda. They worry about Rizeigat ‘Arab’ militias coming southwards from South Darfur as far as CAR – movements sometimes conflated with the perennial (usually armed) migration of ordinary Rizeigat cattle-herders, but also sometimes backed by the Sudanese government as de-facto popular defence force (al-difa al-shabie) militia forces. They worry about Sudanese Armed Forces’ troops occupying the lost Kafia Kingi triangle between CAR, South Sudan and Darfur, and suspected of arming and backing those Rizeigat militias. They worry about an alphabet soup of CAR rebels manning roadblocks and occasionally skirmishing with wildlife militias and the CAR army. And they also worry, arguably out of all proportion, about the Mbororo – the reserved and self-enclosed group of Fellata cattle-herders, originally from West Africa, who travel in small groups through the DRC, CAR, Chad and the Sudans, who are suspected as outsiders of acting as spies and proxies for various enemies, and who are attacked and persecuted by militias and state authorities in South Sudan, CAR and DRC. 

These may seem like local tribal contexts to the region’s bigger security dynamics. But they are the region’s security dynamics, causing as much death and displacement the celebrity wars, and linking up those wars themselves. In the northern slice of DRC bordering South Sudan, for instance, the Congolese army – backed by UN forces – spends much of its time not chasing Joseph Kony but hunting down Mbororo herders accused of stealing crops and pasture from local populations. 50 were killed in a single clash with the Congolese army in Banda near Ango in February last year, according to local NGOs; around the same number of deaths as LRA-watchers have attributed (often with no on-the-ground verification) to ‘LRA’ attacks across all four countries in the whole of 2012

Equally, to the north, Rizeigat militias are a major source of attacks against the South Sudanese army and local populations. A Christmas Day attack three days ago by likely Rizeigat militias against South Sudanese military positions at Kiir Adem in the disputed ’14 Mile’ zone between South Sudan and South Darfur (backed later in the morning by a Sudanese aerial bombing raid) risks re-sparking the international north/south conflict in this part of the border, yet has gone virtually unreported. 

Mbororo women in Deim Zubeir, on the Wau-Raga road

Secondly, causes and drivers don’t stack neatly. This region’s overlapping conflicts are in many cases fuelled by dynamics that have little to do with the international bogeymen that we’re told have caused this region’s ‘A-list’ wars: the irrational blood-thirst of Joseph Kony; or the genocidal counterinsurgency of Omar al-Bashir. For example, regional researchers allege that one reason why Gula rebels in northern CAR - whose UFDR dissident members make up one of the three Seleka factions now marching on Bangui - have become so militarily capable is that many of their members have drawn weapons and training from a major EU-funded anti-wildlife poaching initiative, ECOFAC, which for nearly 25 years has quietly operated their own Gula-dominated armed militias in CAR, led by Russian and French mercenaries serving as EU ‘technical assistants’ (a story documented single-handedly by US anthropologist Louisa Lombard). Lombard reports that members of these militias, equipped both with EU-funded equipment and heavier weapons (including ‘light-aircraft-mounted mortars’ allegedly procured through contact with Russian oligarch safari hunters), have massacred alleged poachers, fought other armed groups from Chad and Sudan, and then drifted off to join formal armed rebellion against the CAR government. This is not to argue that the EU’s militarized conservation efforts have caused the CAR civil war; but certainly the EU project has provided material resources to armed actors in an already over-militarised region, and has itself been the source of considerable military combat and civilian deaths.

Thirdly, the geography’s all mixed up. Distinctions between the region’s different conflicts don’t make very much political, military or geographical sense to their combatants. This is a place where borders matter too much, and simultaneously not at all. Or rather, territory matters rather than borders. Tribal access to disputed territory is the pretext for both militia attacks and formal military occupation at the CAR/Sudan/Chad junction. Yet armed groups also conceive of this whole region as their area of operations, and national borders as almost irrelevant. A hundred miles outside desertified Darfur, for example, there are pockets of Darfur rebels in the forests here, both on the South Sudanese side of the border and further south into northeastern CAR (including near to a Darfuri refugee camp in Sam Ouandja, which the Seleka alliance took two weeks ago).  We sat with one of their commanders – last encountered earlier in the year in the lobby of a 6-star hotel in Qatar on the margins of the Darfur peace negotiations – as he described how his forces in CAR exchange weapons with CAR rebel factions, and fight LRA groupuscules and Rizeigat militias alongside the CAR rebels. Indeed, he told us that his group was so ensconced in the area that they were seeking to mediate a reconciliation between two of the CAR rebel groups – the Gula- dominated UFDR led by Zachariah Daman, and a faction of the Runga-dominated CPJP led by one Issa Abdallah. Perhaps significantly, splinter factions of each of these groups have now reconciled to form two-thirds of the new Seleka alliance marching on the CAR capital this Christmas.

Finally, conflict motives run back longer than the tour of duty of a UN ambassador. The presence of Darfur rebels here, for instance, is conventionally depicted as a straightforward spillover of the Darfur war since 2003, with allegations that the South Sudanese have established a rebel safe haven at this junction box just south of the Darfur border, to train and resupply Darfur rebels fighting against Sudanese forces inside Darfur. This is what I suspected too before I visited Raga. In fact, the South Sudanese government’s attitude towards the Darfur rebels in this corner of their new country is fairly ambivalent, and the Darfuris are here not least because of their much older connections to this  slice of central Africa. The Darfuri rebel commander mentioned above said that he drew forces and support in part from members of a marginalised Darfuri tribe, the Masalit, who have been here for nearly a hundred years. Originally from eastern Chad, with their official Sudanese ‘homeland’ (Dar Masalit) in desertified West Darfur some five hundred miles to the north, many Masalit moved down into these southern forests in successive waves of drought migration and colonial displacement from the 19th century onwards:

“A Masalit community was already present [here in Raga county] in the 1920s. At that time Masalit from El Geneina area [near the border with eastern Chad] first moved to Gereida and then to Raga. The British colonial administration refused to host all the Masalit in El Geneina and so the [British] Darfur Administrator came to visit the Dongo leaders to see whether some Masalit could be hosted in this area.”

Short history lessons like this, with which big men in this part of the world commonly start political explanations, are not just preambulatory antiquarianism. They are entirely current explanations for why people are where they are, and why they care enough about the place to fight others for it. These 'Darfuri' Masalit have a history of fighting Sudanese encroachment into their new homeland: a number fought in Raga county with the (then rebel) South Sudanese army during the second Sudanese civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

In other words, this Centrafrican junction point is not just an external rear base for the Darfur rebellion – it is the ground that some long-displaced Darfuris may ultimately defend from encroachment by Sudan to the north (as the Darfuri commander said, “Masalit do not fight for [military] positions, they only fight for land”). If our political maps say they should be fighting five hundred miles further north, neatly within Darfur’s boundaries, then our political maps are wrong. 

Nor does this mean that the fighting in this region are simply ‘primitive’ tribal skirmishes: in some (though not all) cases they are modern, networked techno-conflicts, fought with diaspora fundraising from the Gulf and London; by armed groups whose personnel have been trained everywhere from N’Djamena to Asmara; using new Chinese weapons captured from state forces to use against Chad’s new Ukrainian Sukhois or Sudan’s Iranian surveillance drones. But these globalised techno-wars are grounded in a weft of place, territory, entitlement and allegiance that drive conflict across the region, and which – for their combatants - have as much to do with this region’s slaving displacements during the Turko-Egyptian regime of the mid-19th century as they do with the corruption and predation of their current governments.


It is, of course, easy to criticize activists and securocrats trying to tackle conflicts with the haughty response that “things are complicated”. Darfur, Sudan’s border war, the LRA – these are real wars, involving real crimes, whose perpetrators should indeed be brought to justice in the way that celebrity activists suggest. But as we fit these celebrity African wars into the kind of neat explanatory frames we undoubtedly need to mobilise diplomats and aid efforts, we miss connections, misunderstand causes, ignore bigger problems outside our fields of vision. I submit humbly that perhaps we can sometimes learn about conflicts by looking at the spaces in-between them. From these spaces – empty, complicated, forgotten - we find that the actors, geography, chronology and causes of familiar conflicts look completely different; sometimes more intractable; but at least a more accurate picture to help avoid messing up.  


This post, and the navigation of my brief stay in Raga – though not my undoubtedly numerous mistakes here - owe much to the single stand-out study of the CAR/Sudan/South Sudan junction point, Eddie Thomas’ extraordinary mix of history and ethnography in his 2010 book on the Kafia Kingi triangle. 

Photographs made in Raga county, South Sudan, in December 2011.
**The SPLA did indeed capture two self-confessed LRA members last year – youths in Deim Jalab, near the border of the Kafia Kingi triangle – who claimed they had been commanded by a former LRA commander Caesar Achellam, who was indeed captured in CAR in May 2012, and a Col. Atoh Aguen. No mention of Joseph Kony.


Cotton, slavery and UK trade missions

A straightforward question: why is a UK government department helping promote foreign cotton harvested by slave labour?

The Observer reported this weekend that high-street clothing chain H&M is being accused of buying from clothing suppliers that may be using Uzbek cotton. Cotton in Uzbekistan is notorious for being produced under a government-organised labour programme which reportedly sees children taken from school and forced to pick cotton for months at a time. H&M says it bans Uzbek cotton from its supply chain.

 There's an odd paragraph at the end:

"Concerns about the use of Uzbek cotton have led to questions being asked of Peter Lilley, the former Tory trade secretary who heads the Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council, which promotes the Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair....In an emailed reply, Lilley said the council followed Foreign Office guidelines and its main role was "to broaden trade and investment between the UK and Uzbekistan", not promote cotton."

It's a weird quote, and a not-quite denial. But whatever Mr Lilley may have said to the Observer, his Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council (UBTIC) has definitely promoted Uzbek cotton.  Over the summer I was passed an email sent out by UBTIC to its members - including prospective UK investors in Uzbekistan - carrying Peter Lilley's signature, and inviting them to come to Uzbekistan and, um, sign cotton contracts. Back to that in a minute.

Why all the fuss? We all basically know that a lot of unpleasant things go on in the rag trade. Across the textile industry, child and sweated labour remains far too prevalent. But there are fairly few instances of textiles actually being made using child slave labour.

One exception is Uzbekistan's cotton industry, where an export-hungry government issues ever-growing cotton production quotas each year, and then fills them by forcing both adults - from teachers to factory workers - and children, reportedly as young as 10, to leave their schools and workplaces to work in the fields during the cotton harvest. ILO observers are banned from the country during the cotton harvest, and activists seeking to expose forced child labour have been arrested and detained. The 2012 harvest has just finished, and Uzbek activists report that international pressure has led to the youngest children being removed from the fields - but allege that teenagers are still being sent out and required to pick 60kg of cotton a day. Even the U.S. government, sometimes conservative in calling out Central Asian states on their human rights records, has said it's getting worse:

"Domestic labor trafficking remains prevalent during the annual cotton harvest, when many school-age children as young as 10 years old, college students, and adults are victims of government-organized forced labor. There were reports that, during the cotton harvest, working conditions included long hours, insufficient food and water, exposure to harmful pesticides, verbal abuse and inadequate shelter. The use of forced mobilization of adult laborers and child laborers (over 15 years of age) during the cotton harvest was higher than in the previous years."
Girl harvesting cotton in Kashkadarya, Uzbekistan, October 2011 (Anti-Slavery International)

That's why dozens of usually unsqeamish high-street clothing chains, from Wal-Mart to Zara, refuse to source Uzbek cotton. The French contact point of the OECD says that clothing companies that buy Uzbek cotton picked by forced labour and children may be violating OECD rules on business and human rights.

So: everyone happily agrees that we shouldn't buy Uzbek cotton until they stop using child slaves to pick it.

Everyone, that is, except UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a British government body under the joint aegis of the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. UKTI is tasked with promoting British business overseas. By and large, this seems like a good thing. But UKTI also works to promote overseas business to the UK - including its cheerful sponsorship of the Uzbek-British Trade & Industry Council (UBTIC), a trade promotion outfit chaired jointly by Peter Lilley MP and the Uzbek Trade Minister. Mr Lilley told me he is unpaid for his UBTIC work, but has "a part-time assistant". Despite UBTIC falling under the auspices of UKTI - a government body - Mr Lilley also said that it did not have to get UKTI's approval for any activities or communications; although he "now refer[s] anything likely to be contentious".

And so to Mr Lilley's email to UBTIC members, which I've reproduced below. As you can see, it invites them to register for the 8th International Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent, where

"participants will enjoy an opportunity to sign contracts for Uzbek cotton, set up long-term cooperation in cotton trading, as well as to be familiar with the quality of Uzbek cotton and the latest innovations in trade and logistics. Moreover, during the Cotton Fair “round tables” and bilateral negotiations between Uzbek cotton exporters and consumers will be organized."

I asked Mr Lilley, in the light of this email, whether UBTIC is involved in promoting Uzbek cotton. He replied "No - as explained" [in his quote to the Observer]. I'm not really certain how this is explained, since his email is pretty clear. It carries the logo of UKTI, and also handily attaches an invite and registration form for the Tashkent Cotton Fair. That'll be for cotton that is harvested with forced child labour, according to the U.S. government; and which a large chunk of the clothing industry has banned from its supply chains.

Nice work if you can get it. And if you can't, you can always force schoolchildren to do it.

Top image: 'In the Cotton Field' (Civil War collecting card c. 1863), Library Company of Philadelphia/Flickr/Creative Commons



In any war there are a thousand things shaping what is happening. Political calculation, displacement, weather, memory and grievance, exchange rates, magic, logistics. On and on, from a refugee’s Western Union transfer to the war song sung by a soldier’s wife. So why do weapons matter in understanding a war? Why look at the instruments of violence when there's so much else that's important going on?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years looking at weapons; looking for them; handling them and their remnants; speaking with the people using them and supplying them. For all this effort, I don’t always have a good answer to the question. One straightforward answer is that war-fighting matters in war. Even if our primary concern is humanitarian - the usually catastrophic impact of armed violence on human beings – the experience and impact of war is fundamentally shaped by the nature and dynamics of that war’s violence. And that violence is fundamentally shaped by weapons: who has and doesn’t have them, where they come from, how they get there, how they’re used and misused. Refugee camp managers should know what a D-30 is.

A more oblique answer is that weapons carry information. Often, of course, they carry the marks of their makers. But they also pick up more information as they get passed from hand to hand, down supply lines and across front lines. Perhaps more than any other objects in a war, they are fetishized, modified and personalised. Guns are palimpsests. Read carefully, even the most generic weapons can tell you something about their owners’ political, military and economic ties; who they themselves are; what they can do; and sometimes what they want.

This gun is a good example. It was captured last year from fighters of the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) in Mankien - a small South Sudanese town close to the border with (North) Sudan.

Amongst the alphabet soup of South Sudan’s armed groups, the SSLA are something of a puzzle. A loose alliance of fighters loyal to a grouping of former South Sudanese military commanders who left the southern army (the SPLA) after a disputed election in 2010, they remain in a simmering hit-and-run conflict with the SPLA that killed and displaced hundreds of people during 2011 across a swathe of South Sudan’s restive northeast.

Their leaders – at least those who sign their communiqués and deliver their forewarnings of attack on state radio phone-ins - are mainly from the Nuer group of tribes, arguably marginalized in South Sudan’s Dinka-dominated political settlement. Although most have served as SPLA officers since 2005, they have complex individual and communal relationships with the southern liberation movement that finally won South Sudan’s independence last year. Most spent the late 1990s and early 2000s with their own militias criss-crossing Unity State’s prized oilfields, repeatedly swapping sides as both southern rebels and northern army sought to exploit and manipulate local support. The result was some of the most violent episodes of the second Sudanese Civil War, with entire communities caught in the middle.

The SSLA’s fighters are equally ambiguous. Ask the government of South Sudan about the SSLA, and the unequivocal response is that they are Khartoum’s proxies: troops armed and backed by the north, sent over the border to destabilise the nascent southern nation and jeopardise its oil. The long spells spent in north Sudan by SSLA commanders like Baphiny Monteiul – interviewed by the BBC in Khartoum in December – do little to dispel this assessment. By contrast some residents of Mayom County, the centre of the SSLA’s rebellion, will tell you that the SSLA are simply ‘sons of Mayom’: local protectors of their Bul Nuer communities against the depredations of an out-of-control SPLA and its Dinka masters.

What can we learn about the SSLA from this rifle?

First off, it’s a Type 56-1: a Chinese-made copy of the famous Kalashnikov assault rifle. This actually tells us very little. Type 56s are the Ford Fiestas of assault rifles. Cheap, robust, light, short and highly portable with their simple under-folding butt-stock, compatible with the 7.62x39mm ammunition found almost everywhere, and churned in their millions from Chinese factories since the 1970s, they are amongst the most ubiquitous and anonymous of weapons in east Africa. They are found in the hands of the Sudanese Armed Forces and allied militias, their southern opponents in the SPLA, Ugandan and Kenyan armed forces, and armed communities from northern Kenya to north Sudan. Type 56s are now probably more common in Africa than the Soviet-bloc Kalashnikovs delivered to every Cold War proxy conflict since the 1950s, and in perhaps greater numbers in the 1990s when semi-private dealers famously cleaned out Eastern European state stockpiles after the collapse of communism. This shift in the ecology of African arms from Eastern European to East Asian species tells us something global about the international arms market, but at the level of an individual weapon Chinese rifles are now so prevalent that their Chinese origin doesn’t narrow down their precise provenance or former owners.

What is clear is that this rifle isn’t new. It’s almost certainly had more than one user. And like all the other rifles in the batch seized in Mankien, at some point in its probably varied history someone has tried to obscure its origin - scraping off the factory and type markings on its receiver that would prominently identify it as a Chinese-manufactured rifle.

This may mean that the rifle moved at some point from another state or stockpile to a rebel force, with those responsible wishing to conceal its provenance. But we will probably never be able to trace its original ‘licit’ purchaser. It’s almost certain that the manufacturer and purchaser records simply don’t exist.

In spite of its lost parentage, though, this rifle isn’t an orphan. It seems to be part of a batch, its unique serial number (48-38521) corresponding with other ‘48’ series Type 56 rifles amongst the seized weapons from Mankien; amongst those seized from SSLA and allied rebel groups elsewhere in South Sudan; and, significantly, in the hands of the SPLA’s own forces in Unity State. It seems plausible, in fact, that this rifle was at some point in SPLA stocks – whether acquired by them from a friendly government or client arms supplier, seized from Khartoum’s troops in battle, or even perhaps recycled into SPLA stocks from the joint SAF/SPLA units formed under the 2005 peace agreement between the two forces. The matching numbers on their own aren’t concrete proof of SPLA provenance: there are presumably tens of thousands of ‘series 48’ Type 56s. But similarities between SPLA and SSLA weapons do support accounts given by SSLA personnel and Mayom County residents, who say that the SSLA draw most of their fighters from local SPLA units themselves, which may have been taken over to the SSLA by their officers. Far from Juba, and operating within a fractured, personality-driven command structure, whether you’re fighting on any given day with the state army or the opposition rebels may depend purely on the shifting whims of your immediate commanders. Whatever South Sudan’s government may say about the SSLA being Khartoum’s shock troops, some SSLA soldiers captured by the SPLA don’t even know they’re not still in the SPLA.

As you can see from this picture, this gun has also been pimped, in a fashion. Someone has scratched ‘2PAC’ and ‘WEST COST’ onto the foregrip (in Latin letters, not the Arabic script that would be used by most - though not all - literate members of Khartoum’s troops). These tags connote much more local connections. They’re the borrowed names of South Sudanese youth gangs – self-styled ‘nigger boys’ – that have spread across South Sudan’s cities since the end of the second Civil War in 2005. Their names are everywhere on walls and street signs in Unity State’s capital, Bentiu, usually next to a simple slogan: ‘Fuck You’. That ‘Fuck You’ seems to sum up pretty eloquently the collision of two disappointments: South Sudan’s macho young men’s world of guns and cattle camps, an asset during the Second Civil War and a natural fit with hip hop gangsta bravado afterwards, but now being turned on by authorities fearful about the moral degeneration of the post-Civil War youth; and the larger broken promises of the ‘peace’. Young South Sudanese, whether brought up in the diaspora or directly under the hum of Khartoum’s Antonov bombers during the 1990s, were taught to expect unshakeably that free South Sudan, when it came, would be overflowing with milk, honey, new roads, jobs for all. Instead, like the aftermaths of so many civil wars, there’s been no peace dividend; shockingly little economic development in the seven years since the peace agreement; simmering violence and the real prospect of return to full-blown civil war. If they’re extremely lucky, probably the very best that most South Sudanese young men can hope for is that they might become a driver for the NGO circus in Juba. If it helps them to say ‘Fuck You’ to the elders who seem to have forgotten them, and in some cases to have declared social war on them, why wouldn’t they join a gang, or the SPLA, or a militia, or all three?

The scrawled words on this gun’s fore-grip support the testimony of many in Unity State’s Bul Nuer community that most of the SSLA’s foot-soldiers (or those of the SPLA units from which they may have defected) are not shock troops from Khartoum or South Kordofan over the border. They’re just local boys, with almost unimaginably limited options. Sometimes there may be no option at all. During 2011 the SPLA and police in Bentiu and its garrison town twin, Rubkhona, have been conducting intermittent sweeps for ‘niggers’ – cordoning off markets and arresting those suspected of nigger gang membership - often those who wear their trousers low or are insolent to officials. This kind of paranoid counter-insurgency against children is now a familiar part of European urban policing. In South Sudan, it can have a more serious outcome. Youths and others in Bentiu claim that the boys arrested in these sweeps sometimes find themselves forcibly in the SPLA, and sent to the frontlines against the SSLA and the northern armed forces in the west and north of the state; although local officials themselves insist that only those ‘niggers’ found to be actually in the SPLA or the police service are ‘returned to service’ in this way.

This gun is looking more and more like the weapon of a very local conflict indeed. But before we write the SSLA off as just another local militia, let’s have a look at their bullets. When I take out the magazine of this gun, and all the others in the captured batch, there’s a surprise. All are filled with a single type of well-greased ammunition stamped with a 2010 manufacture date and markings consistent with manufacture in north Sudan. This ammunition, which matches the bullets used by the Sudanese Armed Forces including in Darfur, is totally different to the much older, mainly Russian-made steel-cased rounds I’ve seen in the Kalashnikovs of the SPLA here in unity State and elsewhere in South Sudan. It has evidently been made available to this SSLA unit in generous quantities (it’s unusual to find rebel groups using just a single type of ammunition, still less a type that is practically brand new). It’s so recently manufactured that although we can’t tell for sure what its supply route was to the SSLA, it’s likely to have been pretty direct. Accounts from former SSLA members themselves about direct Sudanese government arms drops to their rear bases are starting to seem more plausible. If the government of South Sudan is looking for Khartoum’s fingerprints on the SSLA’s rebellion, this is as close as they are likely to get.

At least three layers of conflict are written on this most unremarkable of rifles. There’s the local disaffection of the local young men who almost certainly make up the SSLA’s footsoldiers: not ideological rebels but boys from nearby Mayom County, being recycled with varying degrees of commitment and coercion through Unity State’s various groups of men with guns. There’s the Nuer ‘civil war’, with South Sudanese strongmen across the region flipping the affiliation of their personal armies – and their weapons - in and out of the SPLA for personal advantage or decade-old communal grievance. And, beyond all the rumour and accusation, there’s the very real hidden hand of an international standoff here, with north Sudan arming southern proxies, however local in origin, in a mounting border conflict that has, since I saw this rifle, almost returned to a full-blown international war.

None of these signs are entirely decipherable without a lot of context. Without looking at dozens of other weapons. Without talking to the men using them and the communities where they’re used. And without moving through the landscape, political and geographical, where these guns are used. But reading this rifle helps join the dots, backs up suppositions, helps to fill in the gaps of a portrait that we’re trying to draw, in the dark, with our eyes closed.

Personally I hate weapons. But if we want them to be used less, simply trying to stem their supply isn’t going to work. We need to know who the people holding them are, and what they want. And sometimes the answers are written obliquely on guns, bombs and bullets themselves.

Photographs taken in Unity State, South Sudan, 24th January 2012.

Worth mentioning that much of the inspiration for this post comes from C.J. Chivers - it's a weak imitation of his incomparable blog on weapons at war. Chivers breaks the arms research rule 'never draw conclusions from a single gun' with aplomb, and results. See for example his elegant 'arms trade isotope' theory at work off the coast of Somalia.


Trade stats and tear gas

Why do weapons manufacturers put company logos on their products? You’d think they’d get shy of the bad publicity from their bombs and shells turning up, year in, year out, in TV footage of burnt-out houses and asphyxiated protestors. Or perhaps – whisper it – perhaps it’s actually good publicity. Of a kind.

In any case, remember the media scuffle over US-made tear gas being used against demonstrators in Tahrir Square last year? Since December there's been a smaller but no less significant controversy in Brazil, after photographs were circulated by Bahraini activists showing tear gas canisters allegedly used against demonstrators, manufactured by Condor Tecnologias Não-Letais, Brazil’s major manufacturer of police weaponry.

Condor denies ever selling tear gas to Bahrain (while conspicuously declining to rule out possible sales to Bahrain’s neighbours, including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council whose six-country 'Peninsula Shield' force entered the country last March to back up the crackdown). Condor's spokesperson, in fact, was quick not only to play down the reports, but to take sides (the customer, after all, is always right):
"Maybe activists are doing this campaign [against gas] to limit the means that police have to use against them. Is all that smoke actually from tear gas?"

The answer, it seems, is yes. All that smoke on the streets of Bahrain is from tear gas – being fired indiscriminately, in industrial quantities, day-in and day-out against men, women and children alike. Activists have reported that at least thirty Bahraini protestors have been killed by "non-lethal" tear gas since protests started last February – sixteen since the start of this year. These include elderly women sitting in their homes, like Salma Mohsin Abbas, an 81-year-old who reportedly died after a security officer gassed her house in the village of Barbar on 13 January 2012 in the aftermath of an earlier protest. And several children, like 15-year-old Sayyed Hashem Saeed, killed after being hit at close range by a tear gas canister during a protest at Sitra on 31 December 2011; and Sajida Awad, a five-day-old baby who died in Bilad-Kadim village in September, according to Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, after security forces gassed a series of villages on the capital’s outskirts where they believed protestors were based.

While the febrile international media has moved on to Syria and elsewhere – and as Formula 1 motor-racing prepares to gloss over the carnage to roll out the red carpet at the Bahrain Grand Prix on 22 April - the crackdown against Bahrain's democracy movement continues. On-going demonstrations continue to be attacked and gassed, and the government has notoriously targeted doctors for treating the injured: at least twenty doctors were sentenced to between five and fifteen years in prison for felonies reported by 'secret sources' after they were arrested while treating injured demonstrators last year (they're currently on re-trial). Bahrain’s leading human rights defender, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, imprisoned for life after being arrested in a demonstration in April 2011, may well die this week as his hunger strike passes its 60th day. [Please, please sign the petition here for his release]

In practice, of course Condor will know exactly to which countries the batches of tear gas shown in the activists’ photos were sold. They’re just not saying.

We can potentially get some clues, however, from Brazil's admirably thorough trade statistics, uploaded monthly by its trade secretariat SECEX into an online database publicly accessible here.

The Condor grenades photographed by Bahraini protestors appear to be from at least two batches, marked with manufacture dates of November 2009 and May 2011. So the second batch, at least, can't have been shipped before the start of May 2011.

Since then Brazil has reported exports under the '93' customs code grouping (covering "arms and ammunition") to three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait. Only one received goods classified under a code likely to cover weapon-fired tear gas grenades (93062100, covering cartridges for smooth-barrel shotguns/carbines): Qatar, to which over 80 tonnes of goods in this category - worth nearly US$2.5m - were shipped by sea from Santos, Sao Paolo, during June 2011.

We can’t tell 100% from the trade stats alone that these were definitely Condor tear gas grenades. Nor can we rule out the possibility that Brazilian weaponry found in Bahrain had beenshipped somewhere else but mis-classified in the statistics; or shipped direct to Bahrain but simply not reported.[1] Nor from the stats alone can we know who was the recipient of the goods within Qatar – whether a private gun shop or the Qatari security forces.

But in the absence of other evidence, the available trade data does suggest Qatar as the most likely conduit so far for the Brazilian tear gas found in Bahrain. If so, it was shipped just a month after its manufacture, perhaps a "just-in-time" delivery for Qatari forces facing unexpected operational demands. At the very least, the trade data confirms that Brazil shipped over 80 tons of arms to Qatar last year, well after Qatari forces had arrived in Bahrain, and well after it was already apparent that their operations were supporting security forces which, in full view of the world's media, were beating, arresting and torturing protestors.

Incidentally, by June 2011 it was also clear that Qatar was diverting weapons fairly openly to Libyan rebel forces in potential violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya, making Qatar a risky destination for any weapons exports.

It's hard to say that any of this wasn't known to exporting companies or governments – they just had to turn on the TV.

With the death-toll in Bahrain still mounting, the Brazilian government needs now to suspend weapons exports to the Gulf Cooperation Council members with security forces there. It also needs to explain to Brazilian activists and parliamentarians what weapons have been shipped to Qatar recently. Meanwhile, until Condor reveals definitively who they've shipped tear gas to since May 2011; and until they can prove that they had firm knowledge that its recipients, whoever they were, weren't engaged in serious violations of international law; then they too have questions to answer. The sooner the glib PR stops and the answers start, the better.

Brazilian-reported exports of ‘arms and ammunition’ to Gulf Cooperation Council member states, May 2011-March 2012


Customs Code

Value (US$ FOB)

Weight (kg)




June 2011

93062100 - cartridges for smooth-barrel shotguns/carbines

2 487 470

80 343


Santos, Sao Paolo, by sea


June 2011

93033000 - Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns

51 154



Sao Paolo airport, by air


March 2012

93033000 - Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns




Sao Paolo airport, by air


July 2011

93033000 - Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns

10 690



Sao Paolo airport, by air


Nov 2011

93033000 - Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns

9 645



Sao Paolo airport, by air


March 2012

93033000 - Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns

8 500



Sao Paolo airport, by air

Source: My compilation from Aliceweb2 trade statistics

[1] While they’re admirably public and thorough, we also know that Brazil's customs reporting of its weapons exports has sometimes lacked, er, candidness. The Brazilian government declines to report the large quantities of handguns they export each year on “national security” grounds, and other weapons exports are notoriously hidden by mis-classifications. Brazilian-made medium-range missiles sold to Malaysia in 2001, for example, were apparently reported under the customs code for ‘other long guns’, usually used for hunting rifles: fifty-one giant hunting rifles, each costing US$ 486,999 and weighing 6613kg, according to the trade stats…

Graphic: Ahmad Nady/Flickr (Creative Commons)