TBR News October 20, 2016

Oct 20 2016

The Voice of the White House 

Washington, D.C.  October 20, 2016:” https://file.wikileaks.org/file/ These files, and the ones coming, are time-consuming but well worthwhile reading.”

Duterte aligns Philippines with China, says U.S. has lost

October 20, 2016

by Ben Blanchard


BEIJING-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States on Thursday, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.

Duterte made his comments in Beijing, where he is visiting with at least 200 business people to pave the way for what he calls a new commercial alliance as relations with longtime ally Washington deteriorate.

“In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte told Chinese and Philippine business people, to applause, at a forum in the Great Hall of the People attended by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

“Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.”

Duterte’s efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous administration in Manila, marks a reversal in foreign policy since the 71-year-old former mayor took office on June 30.

His trade secretary, Ramon Lopez, said $13.5 billion in deals would be signed during the China trip.

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way,” Duterte told his Beijing audience.

Duterte’s remarks will prompt fresh concern in the United States, where the Obama administration has seen Manila as a key ally in its “rebalance” of resources to Asia in the face of a rising China.

The administration agreed a deal with Duterte’s predecessor granting U.S. forces rotational access to bases in the Philippines and further doubts will be raised about the future of this arrangement.

However, a White House spokesman stressed the traditional bonds between Washington and Manila when asked about Duterte’s comments and stuck to a U.S. approach of seeking to play down the Philippine leader’s repeated attacks.

“The U.S.-Philippines alliance is built on a 70-year history, rich people-to-people ties, including a vibrant Filipino-American diaspora, and a long list of shared security interests,” spokesman Ned Price said.

“We also remain one of the Philippines’ strongest economic partners; the current stock of U.S. foreign direct investment stands above $4.7 billion.”

A few hours after Duterte’s speech, his top economic policymakers released a statement saying that, while Asian economic integration was “long overdue”, that did not mean the Philippines was turning its back on the West.

“We will maintain relations with the West but we desire stronger integration with our neighbors,” said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia in a joint statement. “We share the culture and a better understanding with our region.”


Duterte’s tone toward Beijing is in stark contrast to the language he has used against the United States, after being infuriated by U.S. criticism of his bloody war on drugs.

He has called U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and told his to “go to hell”, while alluding to severing ties with the old colonial power.

On Wednesday, to the cheers of hundreds of Filipinos in Beijing, Duterte said Philippine foreign policy was veering toward China.

“I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there,” Duterte said. “So time to say goodbye my friend.”

The same day, about 1,000 anti-U.S. protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Manila calling for the removal of U.S. troops from the southern island of Mindanao.

Duterte’s abrupt pivot from Washington to Beijing is unlikely to be universally popular at home, however. On Tuesday an opinion poll showed Filipinos still trust the United States far more than China.

Duterte on Wednesday said the South China Sea arbitration case would “take the back seat” during talks, and that he would wait for the Chinese to bring up the issue rather than doing so himself.

Xi said issues that could not be immediately be resolved should be set aside, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.China has welcomed the Philippines approaches, even as Duterte has vowed not to surrender any sovereignty to Beijing, which views the South China Sea Hague ruling as null and void.

China has also expressed support for his drug war, which has raised concern in Western capitals about extrajudicial killing.


China has pulled out all the stops to welcome Duterte, including a marching band complete with baton-twirling band master at his official greeting ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People, which is not extended to most leaders.

President Xi Jinping, meeting Duterte earlier in the day, called the visit a “milestone” in ties.

Xi told Duterte that China and the Philippines were brothers and they could “appropriately handle disputes”, though he did not mention the South China Sea in remarks made in front of reporters.

“I hope we can follow the wishes of the people and use this visit as an opportunity to push China-Philippines relations back on a friendly footing and fully improve things,” Xi said.

Following their meeting, during which Duterte said relations with China had entered a new “springtime”, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the South China Sea issue was not the sum total of relations.

“The two sides agreed that they will do what they agreed five years ago, that is to pursue bilateral dialogue and consultation in seeking a proper settlement of the South China Sea issue,” Liu said.

China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

In 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal and denied Philippine fishermen access to its fishing grounds.

Liu said the shoal was not mentioned and he did not answer a question about whether Philippine fishermen would be allowed there. He said both countries had agreed on coastguard and fisheries cooperation, but did not give details.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Michael Martina and Ryan Woo; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

Royal Navy pledges to ‘man-mark’ passing Russian fleet

October 20, 2016


Britain’s navy has pledged to keep her shores ‘safe’ as a Russian fleet passes the British Isles bound for the Mediterranean Sea.

The aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ will be accompanied by a number of smaller vessels and it is not yet clear if it will move through the North Sea and English Channel or pass Britain via the west of Ireland.

The fleet is currently reported to be carrying out a three-day exercise which began on October 15.

Reports indicate that the fleet could pass the UK as soon as Thursday.

“They’re in the North Sea and they’re not going to turn west now – they are going to go through the Channel. It’s hard to say when,” a military spokesperson said Wednesday.

“When these ships near our waters we will man-mark them every step of the way. We will be watching as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe,” Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said.

British media first reported that the Navy had readied the HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer, and HMS Richmond, a Type 23 frigate, to intercept the Russian vessels should they approach British waters, as it is expected that the air carrier group will pass through the English Channel en route to the Mediterranean.

An RAF Rivet Joint spy plane, C130 Hercules and Typhoon jets were also reportedly on standby.

Some media outlets even speculated that the ships could take part in the Russian military operation in Syria.

The Russian Navy has not confirmed having any battle missions in the Middle East. The group will “ensure a naval presence in operationally significant areas of the world’s oceans,” the Russian Navy said in an official press release, adding that “particular attention will be paid to ensuring the safety of maritime navigation and other maritime economic activities of the Russian Federation, as well as respond to new types of modern threats such as piracy and international terrorism.”

The ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ was commissioned in 1990 and is so far Russia’s only aircraft carrier. Manned by a crew of 1,960 naval personnel, it has Granit anti-ship cruise missiles and as well as Blade and Chestnut gun systems in its arsenal and can transport more than 50 aircraft.

Netanyahu tells settlers of worries of possible U.S. action at U.N.

October 19, 2016

by Ori Lewis


JERUSALEM-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday expressed concern that U.S. President Barack Obama, during the final days of his term in office, might take diplomatic steps that could harm the fate of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Israel is concerned that the United States might not rally to its assistance in the event that an anti-settlement resolution is put to a vote in the United Nations Security Council and that Washington might not use its veto to quash such a move.

Obama’s strong opposition to settlement building on land Palestinians seek for a future state has also raised speculation in Israel that he might try to define parameters for a final peace agreement that has eluded Israel and the Palestinians since interim deals were signed in the early 1990s.

Peace talks collapsed in 2014, with settlements a key issue in the dispute between the parties.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office clarified that he had told settlers in a closed meeting last week he hoped Obama would not act in the same way that some previous U.S. administrations had done at the end of their term, when they had “promoted initiatives that did not align with Israel’s interests”. He did not specify any examples.

The statement repeated what Netanyahu had already told Israeli reporters in New York following his address to the U.N. General Assembly last month when he said: “I can only hope that the U.S.’s consistent policy will continue to the end of his (Obama’s) tenure (on January 20).”

It also denied what Israeli Channel 2 had ascribed to Netanyahu earlier on Wednesday when it quoted him as telling the settlers that “in the coming period, between the U.S. elections and the end of the term of (U.S. President Barack) Obama – the entire settlement movement is under threat.”

The United States has consistently criticised Israel over its West Bank settlement drive and earlier this month, Washington issued a strong rebuke at Israeli plans to build what it called a new Jewish settlement which it said would damage prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

In unusually harsh words, Washington also accused Israel of going back on its word that no new settlements would be built. Obama raised concerns about the settlements when he met Netanyahu in New York.

The United States contends that the project constitutes the establishment of a new settlement in the West Bank, contrary to assurances Netanyahu made to Obama that no new settlements would be built. Israel regards the planned homes as part of an existing settlement.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

 Kurds, Iraqi elite forces report fast push towards Mosul

Iraqi special forces and Kurdish peshmerga are reporting significant gains in their joined the assault on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. They are backed by attack helicopters, artillery and US jets.

October 20, 2016


The Kurdish troops descended from their positions in the mountains near Mosul, filling in defensive trenches and moving armored vehicles from the northeast on Thursday. The peshmerga said they were attacking the “Islamic State” (IS) from three different fronts, hoping to “secure control of strategic areas” near the occupied city.

At the same time, around 1,000 elite Iraqi troops moved on the nearby town of Bartella from the east. The convoy engaged IS in an intense gun battle some 15 kilometers (9 miles) away from Mosul. Iraqi artillery and helicopters were providing support to the special forces, with  US-led air strikes targeting the IS positions.

“God willing, we will take this town today,” Special Forces commander General Maan al-Saadi said of the attack on Bartella, a traditionally Christian settlement IS seized in 2014.

IS launched at least four suicide attacks on the special forces during the Thursday battle, using car bombs.

IS sends spy drones

The Kurdish offensive would “tighten the noose” around the IS troops, said the General Command of Peshmerga Forces of Kurdistan Region.

On Thursday, Kurdish fighters shot down two small IS drones. The terror group uses the devices for spying as well as to carry remote-controlled bombs. The drones shot down on Thursday were Raven RQ-11B models, originally developed for the US army, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

US defense officials said that they were deploying more anti-drone technologies, including signal-jammers, in the area.

Bracing for long battle

Iraq’s elite counterterrorism troops are expected to take point in breaching Mosul. They have proven to be a much more capable fighting force than other Iraqi soldiers and militias, and played a key role in pushing IS from cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah.

However, IS has had two years to shore up Mosul’s defenses and plant mines and booby-traps on approaches to the city.

“Our intelligence tells us the district is full of IEDs,” al-Saadi said.

A total of 25,000 troops, including Sunni and Shiite militias, Iran and Iraqi Kurdish forces, and the regular army are involved in the offensive to retake Mosul, which is the last IS bastion on Iraqi soil. Over 100 US soldiers are also embedded with the approaching troops.

The campaign is expected to take several weeks, despite the US army estimating that only up to 4,500 IS fighters would be defending the city. IS leaders were reported fleeing from Mosul after the offensive started on Monday.

Mosul’s future to be decided in Paris

Diplomats from US, Iraq, France and around 20 other countries are meeting in Paris to discuss post-IS plans for Mosul.  French President Francois Hollande is personally hosting the talks aimed at deciding how to protect civilians, distribute aid and set up a system of government in the area.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi adressed the Paris delegates via a video call, saying that the assault was moving ahead “faster than expected”

“The forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we thought and more quickly than we had programmed in our campaign plan,” Abadi told the officials.


From the FAS Project on Government Secrecy

Volume 2016, Issue No. 84

October 20, 2016


On October 14, President Obama signed Presidential Policy Directive 43 on the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Aside from the substance of the directive on the future of US-Cuba relations, PPD-43 has several incidental features of interest.

First, it is a public document.

“The policy directive was notable because it was public instead of classified,” the New York Times said in an October 15 story.

That’s not exactly wrong, but it misses the larger point that even unclassified presidential directives are often withheld from public release. The White House web site has sections devoted to executive orders and presidential memoranda, but not to presidential directives. (Some unclassified directives are linked from the presidential memoranda section, while others are not available on the White House site at all.)

Second, it is striking that near the end of his second term, President Obama has issued only 43 presidential directives. By comparison, President George W. Bush issued 66 National Security Presidential Directives and 25 Homeland Security Presidential Directives, President Clinton issued 75 Presidential Decision Directives and President Reagan issued 325 National Security Decision Directives.

What, if anything, these differences mean requires further investigation. They could reflect differences in governing style, in organization of the policymaking process, or in the use of directives as an instrument of executive authority.

It is possible that some presidentially-initiated actions are being directed and executed using means other than formal directives.

For example, on September 21, 2016 President Obama ordered agencies to take certain actions concerning Climate Change and National Security. But instead of being issued as a Presidential Policy Directive, his Climate Change guidance was framed as a Presidential Memorandum.


The answer is unclear. An administration official said that Presidential Memoranda “can be used to direct agencies on the manner in which they do something they are otherwise (by law, executive order or presidential directive) authorized to do.” So maybe — the official couldn’t say for certain — the Climate Change memorandum directed the manner of execution but did not authorize any new activity. Had it done so, that would presumably have required a presidential “directive.”

The release of Presidential Policy Directive 43, following the release of PPD 41 last July, also indicates that there must be a PPD 42, the contents of which are currently unknown.

And on October 13, President Obama issued Executive Order 13744 on Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events. The Order refers to a previously unidentified Presidential Policy Directive 40 on National Continuity Policy that was signed on July 15, 2016. That directive has not been released.

The reference to PPD-40 was noted in “Obama expands his executive power beyond Earth” by Gregory Korte, USA Today, October 13.

The problem of secret law, which includes those presidential directives that define national policy and allocate government resources without public knowledge, was examined in a report entitled ”The New Era of Secret Law” by Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice.


A comprehensive defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles remains difficult — and perhaps impossible — for several reasons, including the difficulty of achieving “midcourse discrimination” to identify weaponized payloads in a cloud of debris or decoys.

A newly released summary of a classified 2010 report on the subject prepared by the JASON scientific advisory panel explains the issue.

“In the context of missile defense, to discriminate is to distinguish among lethal RVs [reentry vehicles] in mid-course flight that should be targeted by defensive kill vehicles, and non-lethal accompanying objects, whether deliberate countermeasures such as decoys or objects that usually accompany a missile launch, such as booster stage and rocket fuel tanks. Even in the absence of countermeasures, discrimination is still necessary to distinguish RVs from these launch-associated objects.”

“Discrimination of countermeasures is a stringent challenge, because given a reasonable amount of time, money, initiative, and expertise, the offense can (in principle) field countermeasures that the defense cannot handle at any reasonable marginal cost.”

See MDA Discrimination (executive summary), JASON report JSR-10-620, August 3, 2010, released under the Freedom of Information Act on October 3, 2016.

The JASON authors found that the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) was not well-equipped to address this fundamental problem.

“MDA today has a good record of intercepting RVs, but under conditions that often do not challenge the discrimination capabilities of the missile defense system.”

Even the scope of the discrimination problem is not entirely clear, the JASONs said at the time. “Much remains to be learned about the practical feasibility and effectiveness of countermeasure threats.”

MDA itself “is not agile and flexible, and it may have trouble responding to opponents’ timelines for developing and fielding decoys and other countermeasures,” the JASONs said.

The JASON report recommended that MDA incorporate critical reviews of its programs by independent experts, establish a countermeasures test program through an independent agency, and work more closely with intelligence agencies on analyzing foreign missile threats and countermeasures. It was not immediately clear if the recommendations had been acted upon.


“Does federal law require the President to relinquish control of his or her business interests?” That question is considered in a new analysis from the Congressional Research Service.

The short answer appears to be No. “There is no current legal requirement that would compel the President to relinquish financial interests because of a conflict of interest.”

There are, however, certain legal disclosure requirements that apply to candidates for the Presidency. It is those requirements that are “the principal method of regulation of potential conflicts of interests for elected officials such as the President.”

See Conflicts of Interest and the Presidency, CRS Legal Sidebar, October 14, 2016,

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been publicly released include the following.

The Help America Vote Act and Election Administration: Overview and Selected Issues for the 2016 Election, October 18, 2016

Federal Citations to the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases, October 19, 2016

Collateral Consequences: What Role, if any, Should They Play in Crafting Sentences?, CRS Legal Sidebar, October 19, 2016

Clean Water Act: A Summary of the Law, October 18, 2016

Ocean Dumping Act: A Summary of the Law, October 18, 2016

The High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Grant Program: Overview, October 18, 2016

Next Steps for Auction of TV Broadcast Airwaves to Commercial Carriers, CRS Insight, October 17, 2016

Current Vacancies on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims: Overview and Historical Context, CRS Insight, October 13, 2016

Iran’s State-Linked Conglomerates, CRS Insight, October 17, 2016

The Senkakus (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Dispute: U.S. Treaty Obligations, October 14, 2016

President Waives Restrictions on Relations with Burma’s Military under Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008, CRS Insight, October 12, 2016

Elections Strengthen Georgia’s Ruling Party, CRS Insight, October 18, 2016

Recent Developments in U.S.-Russian Nonproliferation Cooperation, CRS Insight, October 13, 2016

A new web site provides a searchable collection of a large number of Congressional Research Service reports, modified to remove the names of the authors and their contact information. Aspirationally named EveryCRSReport.com, it does not include the latest CRS publications such as those provided above.


The Worst Place on Earth

Death and Life in the Lost Town of Leer

by Nick Turse


LEER, South Sudan — There it is again. That sickening smell. I’m standing on the threshold of a ghost of a home. Its footprint is all that’s left. In the ruins sits a bulbous little silver teakettle — metal, softly rounded, charred but otherwise perfect, save for two punctures. Something tore through it and ruined it, just as something tore through this home and ruined it, just as something tore through this town and left it a dusty, wasted ruin.

This, truth be told, is no longer a town, not even a razed one. It’s a killing field, a place where human remains lie unburied, whose residents have long since fled, while its few remaining inhabitants are mostly refugees from similarly ravaged villages.

The world is awash in killing fields, sites of slaughter where armed men have laid waste to the innocent, the defenseless, the unlucky; locales where women and children, old and young men have been suffocated, had their skulls shattered, been left gut-shot and gasping.  Or sometimes they’re just the unhallowed grounds where the battered and broken bodies of such unfortunates are dumped without ceremony or prayer or even a moment of solemn reflection.  Over the last century, these blood-soaked sites have sprouted across the globe: Cambodia, the Philippines, the Koreas, South Africa, Mexico, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — on and on, year after year, country after country.

Chances are, you once heard something about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw up to one million men, women, and children murdered in just 100 days.  You may remember the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai.  And maybe you recall the images of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical weapons attack on Kurds in Halabja.  For years, Sudan contributed to this terrible tally.  You might, for instance, remember the attention paid to the slaughter of civilians in Darfur during the 2000s.  The killings there actually never ended, only the public outcry did.  In the 1980s and 1990s, there were also massacres farther south in or around towns you’ve probably never heard of like Malakal, Bor, and Leer.

A 2005 peace deal between U.S.-supported rebels in the south of Sudan and the government in the north was supposed to put a stop to such slaughter, but it never quite did.  And in some quarters, worse was predicted for the future.  “Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing,” said U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in 2010.  “Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”

In late 2013 and 2014, Malakal, Bor, Leer, and other towns in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, were indeed littered with bodies.  And the killing in this country — the result of the third civil war since the 1950s — has only continued.

In 2014, I traveled to Malakal to learn what I could about the destruction of that town and the civilians who perished there.  In 2015, I walked among the mass graves of Bor where, a year earlier, a bulldozer had dug huge trenches for hundreds of bodies, some so badly decomposed or mutilated that it was impossible to identify whether they had been men, women, or children.  This spring, I find myself in Leer, another battered enclave, as aid groups struggled to reestablish their presence, as armed men still stalked the night, as human skulls gleamed beneath the blazing midday sun.

The nose-curling odor here told me that somewhere, something was burning.  The scent had been in my nostrils all day.  Sometimes, it was just a faint, if harsh, note carried on the hot breeze, but when the wind shifted it became an acrid, all-encompassing stench — not the comforting smell of a cooking fire, but something far more malign.  I looked to the sky, searching for a plume of smoke, but there was only the same opaque glare, blinding and ashen.  Wiping my eyes, I muttered a quick curse for this place and moved on to the next ruined shell of a home, and the next, and the next.  The devastated wattle-and-daub tukuls and wrecked animal pens stretched on as far as I could see.

This is Leer — or at least what’s left of it.

The Fire Last Time

If you want to learn more about this town, about what happened to it, Leer isn’t the best place to start.  You’d be better served by traveling down the road several miles to Thonyor, another town in southern Unity State where so much of Leer’s population fled. It was there that I found Mary Nyalony, a 31-year-old mother of five who, only days before, had given birth to a son.

Leer was her hometown and life there had never been easy.  War arrived shortly after fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in December 2013, a rupture that most here call “the crisis.”  With civil war came men with guns and, in early 2014, Nyalony was forced to run for her life.  For three months, she and her family lived in the bush, before eventually returning to Leer.  The International Committee of the Red Cross was airdropping food there, she tells me.  In her mind, those were the halcyon days.  “There was enough to eat,” she explains.  “Now, we have nothing.”

The road to nothing, like the road to Thonyor, began for her in the early morning hours of a day in May 2015.  Single gunshots and staccato bursts of gunfire began echoing across Leer, followed by screams and panic.  This has been the story of South Sudan’s civil war: few pitched battles between armies, many attacks on civilians by armed men.  Often, it’s unclear just who is attacking.  Civilians hear gunfire and they begin to run.  If they’re lucky they get away with their lives, and often little else.

The war here has regularly been portrayed as a contest between the president, Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, and Riek Machar, a member of the second largest ethnic group, the Nuer.  Kiir and Machar do indeed have a long history as both allies and enemies and as president and vice president of their new nation.  Kiir went on to sack Machar.  Months later, the country plunged into civil war.  Kiir claimed the violence stemmed from an abortive coup by Machar, but an investigation by an African Union commission found no evidence of that. It did, however, find that “Dinka soldiers, members of Presidential Guard, and other security forces conducted house-to-house searches, killing Nuer soldiers and civilians in and near their homes” and that it was carried out “in furtherance of a State policy.”  The civil war that ensued “ended” with an August 2015 peace agreement that saw Machar rejoin the government.  But the violence never actually stopped and after a fresh round of killings in the capital in July, he fled the country and has since issued a new call for rebellion.

In truth, though, the war in South Sudan is far more than a battle between two men, two tribes, two armies — Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO).  It’s a conflict of shifting alliances involving a plethora of armed actors and ad hoc militias led by a corrupt cast of characters fighting wars within wars.  The complexities are mind-boggling: longstanding bad blood, grievances, and feuds intertwined with ethnic enmities tangled, in turn, with internecine tribal and clan animosities, all aided and abetted by the power of modern weaponry and the way the ancient cultural practice of cattle-raiding has morphed into paramilitary raiding.  Add in a nation in financial free-fall; the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny, riven elite; the mass availability of weaponry; and so many actors pursuing so many aims that it’s impossible to keep them all straight.

Whatever the complexities of this war, however, the playbooks of its actors remain remarkably uniform. Men armed with AK-47s fall upon undefended communities.  They kill, pillage, loot.  Younger women and girls are singled-out for exceptional forms of violence: gang rapes and sexual slavery.  Some have been forced into so-called rape camps, where they become the “wives” of soldiers; others are sexually assaulted and killed in especially sadistic ways.  Along with women, the soldiers often take cattle — the traditional rural currency, source of wealth, and means of sustenance in the region.

In Leer and the surrounding villages of Unity State, last year’s government offensive to take back rebel territory followed exactly this pattern, but with a ferocity that was striking even for this war.  More than one expert told me that, at least for a time in 2015, Leer and its surroundings were one of the worst places in the entire world.

Armed youth from Nuer clans allied to the government offered no mercy.  Fighting alongside troops from the SPLA and forces loyal to local officials, they carried out a scorched-earth campaign against other ethnic Nuers from spring 2015 though the late fall.  Their pay was whatever they could steal and whomever they could rape.

“People in southern Unity State have suffered through some of the most harrowing violence that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen in South Sudan — or in almost any other context where we work,” says Pete Buth, Deputy Director of Operations for the aid group.  “Over the course of the last two years, and particularly from May to November of 2015, women, men and children have been indiscriminately targeted with extreme and brutal violence. We’ve received reports and testimonies of rape, killings, abductions of women and children and the wholesale destruction of villages. The levels of violence have been absolutely staggering.”

By late last year, almost 600,000 people like Nyalony had been displaced in Unity State alone.

“They came to raid the cattle.  They seemed to be allied to the government,” she tells me.  Given all she’s been through, given the newborn she’s gently palpitating, her eyes are surprisingly bright, her voice strong.  Her recollections, however, are exceptionally grim. Two younger male relatives of hers were shot but survived.  Her father-in-law wasn’t so fortunate.  He was killed in the attack, she tells me, his body consumed in the same flames that destroyed his home.

The Fire This Time

On the road from Leer to Thonyor I discovered the source of the harsh odor that had been assaulting my senses all day.  A large agricultural fire was raging along the winding dirt road between the two towns, the former now in the hands of Kiir’s SPLA, the latter still controlled by Machar’s rebels.  A plume of smoke poured skyward from orange flames that leapt maybe 15 feet high as they consumed palm trees, brush, and swampland.

I watched the same inferno on my way back to Leer, thinking about the charred corpse of Nyalony’s father-in-law, about all the others who never made it out of homes that were now nothing but ankle-high rectangles of mud and wood or piles of shattered concrete.  On another day, in Leer’s triple digit heat, I walk through some of the charred remains with a young woman from the area.  Tall, with close-cropped hair and a relaxed, easy demeanor, she guides me through the ruins.  “This one was a very good building,” she says of one of the largest piles of rubble, a home whose exterior walls were a striking and atypical mint green.  “They killed the father at this house.  He had two wives.  One wife had, maybe, six babies.”  (I find out later that when she says “babies” she means children.)  Pointing to the wrecked shell next to it, what’s left of a more traditional decorated mud wall, she says, “The other wife had five babies.”

We thread our way through the ravaged tukuls, past support beams for thatched roofs that easily went up in flames.  In her honeyed voice, my guide narrates the contents of the wreckage.  “It’s a bed,” she explains of a scorched metal frame.  “Now, it’s no bed,” she adds with a laugh.

She points out another tukul, its mud walls mostly still standing, though its roof is gone and the interior walls scorched.  “I know the man who lived here,” she tells me.  His large family is gone now.  She doesn’t know where.  “Maybe Juba.  Maybe wherever.”

“They were shooting.  They destroyed the house.  If the people were inside the house, they shoot them.  Then they burn it,” she says.  Pointing toward another heavy metal bed frame, she explains the obvious just in case I don’t understand why the ruins are awash in these orphaned pieces of furniture.  “If they’re shooting, you don’t care about beds.  You run.”  She pauses and I watch as her face slackens and her demeanor goes dark. “You might even leave a baby.  You don’t want to, but there’s shooting.  They’ll shoot you.  You’re afraid and you run away.”  Then she falls silent.

The Survivors

“What civilians experienced in Leer County was terrible.  When the population was forced to flee from their homes, they had to flee with nothing into these swamps in the middle of the night,” says Jonathan Loeb, a human rights investigator who served as a consultant with Amnesty International’s crisis response team in Leer.  “And so you had these nightmarish scenarios where parents are abandoning their children, husbands are abandoning their wives, babies are drowning in swamps in the middle of the night.  And this is happening repeatedly.”

Nataba, whom I meet in Leer, faces away from me, her legs folded beneath her on the concrete porch.  She carefully removes the straps of her dark blue dress from her left shoulder and then her right, letting it fall from the top half of her body so that she can work unimpeded.  “I came to Leer some weeks ago.  There was lots of shooting in Juong,” she says of her home village.  From there she fled with her children to Mayendit, then on to Leer, to this very compound, once evidently a church or religious center.  Nataba leans forward, using a rock to grind maize into meal.  I watch her back muscles shudder and ripple as she folds her body toward the ground like a supplicant, then pulls back, repeating the motion endlessly.  Though hard at work, her voice betrays no hint of exertion.  She just faces forward, nude to the waist, her voice clear and matter-of-fact.  Five people from her village, including her 15-year-old daughter, she tells me, were shot and killed by armed men from nearby Koch County.  “A lot of women were raped,” she adds.

Deborah sits close by with Nataba’s four surviving children draped all over her.  I mistake her for a grandmother to the brood, but she’s no relation. She was driven out of Dok village last December, also by militia from Koch who — by her count — killed eight men and two women.  She fled into the forest where she had neither food nor protection from the elements.  At least here in Leer she’s sharing what meager provisions Nataba has, hoping that aid organizations will soon begin bringing in rations.

Her face is a sun-weathered web of lines etched by adversity, hardship, and want.  Her wiry frame is all muscle and bone.  In the West, you’d have to live at the gym and be 30 years younger to have arms as defined as hers.  She hopes for peace, she tells me, and mentions that she’s a Catholic.  “There’s nothing here to eat” is, however, the line that she keeps repeating.  As I get up to leave, she grasps my hand.  “Shukran.  Thank you,” I tell her, not for the first time, and at that she melts to the ground, kneeling at my feet.  Taken aback, I freeze, then watch — and feel — as she takes her thumb and makes a sign of the cross on the toe of each of my shoes.  “God bless you,” she says.

It’s still early morning, but when I meet Theresa Nyayang Machok she already looks exhausted.  It could be that this widow is responsible for 10 children, six girls and four boys; or that she has no other family here; or that her home in the village of Loam was destroyed; or that, as she says, “there’s no work, there’s no food”; or all of it combined.  She turns away from time to time to try to persuade several of her children to stop tormenting a tiny puppy with an open wound on one ear.

The youngest child, a boy with a distended belly, won’t leave the puppy alone and breaks into a wail when it snaps at him.  To quiet the toddler, an older brother hands him a torn foil package of Plumpy’Sup, a peanut-based nutrition supplement given out by international aid agencies.  The toddler licks up the last daubs of the high-protein, high-fat paste.

Men from Koch attacked her village late last year, Machok tells me, taking all the cattle and killing six civilians.  When they came to her home, they demanded money that she didn’t have.  She gave them clothes instead, then ran with her children in tow.  Stranded here in Leer on the outskirts of the government camp, she brews up alcohol when she can get the ingredients and sells it to SPLA soldiers. If peace comes, she wants to go home.  Until then, she’ll be here.  “There’s nobody in my village.  It’s empty,” she explains.

Sarah, a withered woman, lives in Giel, a devastated little hamlet on Leer’s outskirts. To call her home a “wattle hovel” would be generous, since it looks like it might collapse on her family at any moment. “There was fighting here,” she says.  “Whenever there’s fighting we run to the river.”  For months last year, she lived with her children in a nearby waterlogged swamp, hiding in the tall grass, hoping the armed men she refers to as SPLM — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Kiir’s party — wouldn’t find them.  At least five people in Giel were killed, she says, including her sister’s adult son.

She returned home only to be confronted by more armed men who took most of what little she had left.  “They said ‘give us clothes or we’ll shoot you,’” she tells me.  Sarah’s children, mostly naked, crowd around.  A few wear scraps that are little more than rags.  Her own black dress is so threadbare that it leaves little to the imagination.  Worse yet are her stores of food.  She hid some sorghum, but that’s all gone.

I ask what they’re eating.  She gets up, walks over to a spot where a battered sheet of metal leans against an empty animal pen, and comes back with two small handfuls of dried water lily bulbs, which she places at my feet.  It’s far too little to feed this family.  I ask if food is their greatest need.  No, she says, gesturing toward her roof — more gaps than thatch.  She needs plastic tarps to provide some protection for her children.  “The rainy season,” she says, “is coming.”

Nyanet is an elderly man, though he has no idea just how old.  His eyes are cloudy and haunted, his hearing poor, so my interpreter shouts my questions at him.  “The soldiers come at night,” he responds.  ”They have guns.  They take clothes; they take food; they take cows,” he says.  All the young men of the village are gone.  “They killed them.”  The armed men, he tells me, also took girls and young women away.

Not far from Nyanet’s tiny home, I meet Nyango.  She’s also unsure of her age.  “If the SPLM comes, they take cattle.  They kill people,” she explains.  She also ran to the river and lived there for months.  Like the others in this tumbledown village, her family wears rags.  Her children fell ill living in the mud and muck and water for so long, and still haven’t recovered.

“People have been hiding in the bush and swamps, terrified for their lives with little or no access to humanitarian assistance for months at a time. That’s been the status quo for much of the last year,” explains MSF’s Pete Buth.  “Now, as people gradually leave from their hiding places, we are seeing the aftermath. Children are suffering from fungal infections on their hands and feet, their skin painful and broken as they leave the swamps and then the dirt and heat dry out the wounds.”

I look down at the nude toddler clinging to Nyango’s leg.  The child’s eyes are covered in milky white mucus and flies are lining up to dine on it.  I’ve seen plenty of children, eyes crawling with flies — the ultimate “African” cliché, the sight that launched a thousand funding appeals, but never have I seen so many tiny flies arranged in such an orderly fashion to sup at a child’s eyes.  Nyango keeps talking, my interpreter keeps translating, but I’m fixated on this tiny boy.  A pathetic mewing sound escapes his lips and Nyango reaches down, pulls him up, and settles him on her hip.

I force my attention back to her as she explains that the men who devastated this place killed six people she knows of.  Another woman in Giel suggests that 50 people died in this small village.  The truth is that no one may ever know how many men, women, and children from Giel, Leer, and surrounding areas were slaughtered in the endless rounds of fighting since this war began.

Where the Bodies Are Buried

Nobody seems to want to talk about where all the bodies went either.  It’s an awkward question to ask and all I get are noncommittal answers or sometimes blank stares.  People are much more willing to talk about killing than to comment on corpses.  But there is plenty of tangible proof of atrocities in Leer if you’re willing to look.

In the midday heat, I set out toward the edge of town following simple directions that turn out to be anything but.  I walk down a dirt path that quickly fades into an open expanse, while two new paths begin on either side.  No one said anything about this.  Up ahead, a group of boys are clustered near a broken-down structure.  I don’t want to attract attention so I take the path on the right, putting the building between them and me.

I’m in Leer with only quasi-approval from the representative of a government that openly threatens reporters with death, in a nation where the term “press freedom” is often a cruel joke, where journalists are arrested, disappeared, tortured, or even killed, and no one is held accountable.  As a white American, I’m probably immune to the treatment meted out to South Sudanese reporters, but I’m not eager to test the proposition.  At the very least, I can be detained, my reporting cut short.

I try to maintain a low profile, but as a Caucasian in foreign clothes and a ridiculous boonie hat, it’s impossible for me to blend in here.  “Khawaja! [White man!],” the boys yell.  It’s what children often say on seeing me.  I offer up an embarrassed half wave and keep moving.  If they follow, I know this expedition’s over.  But they stay put.           I’m worried now that I’ve gone too far, that I should have taken the other path.  I’m in an open expanse under the relentless midday sun.  In the distance, I see a group of women and decide to move toward a nearby stand of trees.  Suddenly, I think I see it, the area I’ve been looking for, the area that some around here have taken to calling “the killing field.”

Killing Fields: Then

The world is awash in “killing fields” and I’ve visited my fair share of them.  The term originally comes from the terrible autogenocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and was coined by Dith Pran, whose story was chronicled by his New York Times colleague Sydney Schanberg in a magazine article, a book, and finally an Academy-Award-winning film aptly titled The Killing Fields.

“I saw with my eyes that there are many, many killing fields… there’s all the skulls and the bones piled up, some in the wells,” Pran explained after traveling from town to town across Cambodia during his escape to Thailand in 1979.  Near Siem Reap, now a popular tourist haunt, Pran visited two sites littered with remains — each holding around four to five thousand bodies covered with a thin layer of dirt.  Fertilized by death, the grass grew far taller and greener where the bodies were buried.

There’s a monument to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, a site of mass graves just outside of Phnom Penh, the country’s capital.  Although the Cambodian slaughter ended with the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, when I visited decades later, there were still bones jutting up from the bottom of a pit and shards of a long bone, maybe a femur, embedded in a path I took.

Then there are the skulls.  A Buddhist stupa on the site is filled with thousands of them, piled high, attesting to the sheer scale of the slaughter.  Millions of Cambodians — two million, three million, no one knows how many — died at the hands of the murderous Khmer Rouge.  Similarly, no one knows how many South Sudanese have been slaughtered in the current round of fighting, let alone in the civil wars that preceded it.  The war between southern rebels and the Sudanese government, which raged from 1955 to 1972, reportedly cost more than 500,000 lives.  Reignited in 1983, it churned on for another 20-plus years, leaving around two million dead from violence, starvation, and disease.

A rigorous survey by the U.N.’s Office of the Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, released earlier this year, estimated that last year in just one area of Unity State — 24 communities, including Leer — 7,165 persons were killed in violence and another 829 drowned while fleeing.  Add to those nearly 8,000 deaths another 1,243 people “lost” — generally thought to have been killed but without confirmation — while fleeing and 890 persons who were abducted, and you have a toll of suffering that exceeds 10,000.

To put the figures in perspective, those 8,000 dead in and around Leer are more than double the number of civilians — men, women, children — killed in the war in Afghanistan in 2015, and more than double the number of all civilians killed in the conflict in Yemen last year.  Even a low-end estimate — 50,000 South Sudanese civilian deaths in roughly two years of civil war from December 2013 through December 2015 — exceeds the numbers of civilians estimated killed in Syria over the same span.  Some experts say the number of South Sudanese dead is closer to 300,000.

Killing Fields: Now

Leer’s “killing field” is an expanse of sun-desiccated dirt covered in a carpet of crunchy golden leaves and dried grasses.  Even the weeds have been scorched and strangled by the sun, though the area is also dotted with sturdy neem trees casting welcome shade.  From the branches above me, bird calls ring out, filling the air with chaotic, incongruous melodies.

Riek Machar was born and bred in Leer.  This very spot was his family compound.  The big trees once cast shade on tukuls and fences.  It was a garden spot.  People used to picnic here.  But that was a long, long time ago.

Today, a stripped and battered white four-wheel-drive SUV sits in the field.  Not so far away, without tires, seats, or a windshield is one of those three-wheeled vehicles known around the world as a Lambretta or a tuck-tuck.  And then there’s the clothes.  I find a desert camouflage shirt, its pattern typically called “chocolate chip.”  A short way off, there’s a rumpled pair of gray pants, beyond it a soiled blue tee-shirt sporting the words “Bird Game” and graphics resembling those of the video game “Angry Birds.”

And then there’s a spinal column.

A human one.

And a pelvis.  And a rib cage.  A femur and another piece of a spinal column.  To my left, a gleaming white skull.  I turn slightly and glimpse another one.  A few paces on and there’s another.  And then another.

Human remains are scattered across this area.

Leer is, in fact, littered with bones.  I see them everywhere.  Most of the time, they’re the sun-bleached skeletal remains of animals.  A few times I stop to scrutinize an orphaned bone lying amid the wreckage.  But I’m no expert, so I chalk up those I can’t identify to cattle or goats.  But here, in this killing field, there’s no question.  The skulls, undoubtedly picked clean by vultures and hyenas, tell the story.  Or rather, these white orbs, staring blankly in the midday glare, tell part of it.

There’s a folk tale from South Sudan’s Murle tribe about a young man, tending cattle in a pasture, who comes across a strikingly handsome skull.  “Oh my god, but why are you killing such beautiful people?” he asks.  The next day he asks again and this time the skull responds. “Oh my dear,” it says, “I died because of lies!”  Frightened, he returns to his village and later tells the chief and his soldiers about what happened.  None of them believes him.  He implores them to witness it firsthand.  If you’re lying, the chief asks, what shall we do with you?  And the young man promptly replies, “You have to kill me.”

He then leads the soldiers to the skull and poses his question.  This time, the skull stays silent.  For his lies, the soldiers insist, they must kill him and they do just that.  As they are about to return to the village, a voice calls out, “This is what I told you, young man, and now you have also died as I died.”  The soldiers agree not to tell the king about the exchange.  Returning to the village, they say only that the man had lied and so they killed him as ordered.

In South Sudan, soldiers murder and they get away with it, while skulls tell truths that the living are afraid to utter.

“There Might Be Some Mistakes”

No one knows for certain whose mortal remains litter Leer’s killing field.  The best guess: some of the more than 60 men and boys suspected of rebel sympathies who were locked in an unventilated shipping container by government forces last October and left to wither in Leer’s relentless heat.  According to a March report by Amnesty International, when the door was opened the next day, only one survivor, a 12-year-old boy, staggered out alive.  At least some of the crumpled corpses were dumped on the edge of town in two pits where animals began devouring them.  Government forces may eventually have burned some of the bodies to conceal evidence of the crime.

After visiting Leer, I took the findings of the report and my own observations to President Salva Kiir’s press secretary, Ateny Wek Ateny.  “They always copy and paste,” he said, implying that human rights organizations often just reproduced each other’s generally erroneous allegations.  It was, I respond, an exceptionally rigorous investigation, relying on more than 40 interviews, including 23 eyewitnesses, that left no doubt an atrocity had taken place.

Those witness statements, he assures me, are the fatal flaw of the Amnesty report.  South Sudanese can’t be trusted, since they will invariably lie to cast a pall over rival tribes.  In the case of Leer, the witnesses offered up a “concocted sequence of events” to disparage Kiir and his government.  “Americans and Europeans,” he protests, “don’t understand this.”

It’s impossible, he adds, that the government could be responsible for violence in Leer blamed in part on militias, because, as he put it, “We have no militia.  Militias are not part of the government.”  What about alleged involvement by uniformed SPLA?  Lots of armed men, he claims, wear SPLA uniforms without being part of the army.  “It is not a government policy to kill civilians,” he insists, then concedes: “There might be some mistakes.”

“Bullets Aren’t Enough.  We’ll Use Rape”

“They come at any time… They even take children and throw them into the burning homes,” says Sarah Nyanang.  Her house in Leer was destroyed last year and, more recently, armed men came in the night and took what little her family had left.  “We have no blanket, no mosquito net, no fishing hook, and even now they steal from us.”

Michael lives close by.  His neighbors push him forward.  His eyes seem to swim with fear.  His voice is like wet gravel.  The armed men came one night earlier this year and beat him.  He shows me a nasty looking wound fast becoming a scar on his scalp, then turns his head to reveal another extending down his jaw line.  They took almost all his possessions and something far more precious, his wife.  Sarah Nyanang interjects that women abducted here may be raped by as many as 10 men.  She saw a neighbor being raped in the midst of an attack.  The implication is that this is what happened to Michael’s wife.

She’s still alive, he says, and is living in Thonyor, but he hasn’t seen her since the night she was taken away.  He doesn’t tell me why.

When a team from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigated late last year, they found that rape and sexual slavery were one way members of youth militias who carried out attacks alongside the SPLA were paid.  Among others, they interviewed a mother of four who encountered a group of soldiers and armed civilians.  “The men,” the report recounts, “proceeded to strip her naked and five soldiers raped her at the roadside in front of her children. She was then dragged into the bush by two other soldiers who raped her and left her there.  When she eventually returned to the roadside, her children, aged between two and seven, were missing.

A woman from a nearby village in Koch County told the investigators that, in October 2015, “after killing her husband, the SPLA soldiers tied her to a tree and forced her to watch as her fifteen year old daughter was raped by at least ten soldiers. The soldiers told her, ‘You are a rebel wife so we can kill you.’”  Another mother reported “that she witnessed her 11-year old daughter and the daughter’s 9-year old friend being gang-raped by three soldiers during an attack in Koch in May 2015.”

“The magnitude of the sexual violence was pretty startling even given the extraordinarily high level throughout the conflict in South Sudan,” Jonathan Loeb of Amnesty International’s crisis response team tells me.  “Many women were raped repeatedly often by multiple men, many of them were used as sex slaves, and in some cases are still missing.”

According to Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization that promotes human rights in South Sudan, “rape has gone beyond a weapon of war.”  He tells me that it’s become part of military culture.  “Sexual violence has been used as a strategy to wipe out populations from areas where they may have given support to their opponents.  I think it’s the first time in the history of Africa that high-level directives have been put forth to use rape as a way to wipe out populations, the first time leaders said ‘bullets aren’t enough, we’ll use rape.’”

Apocalypse Then, Now, Always

In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard is sent on a mission that takes him deep into the heart of darkness, a compound in Cambodia from which a rogue American general is waging a private war.  “I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet,” says Willard who finds his own killing field there.

I thought about that line as I flew into Leer, looking down on the marshes and malarial swamps where so many hid from killers and rapists.  Multiple people told me that Leer was one of the worst places in the world — and that’s nothing new.

In 1990, during the Sudanese civil war, Leer was bombed by the northern government’s Soviet-made Antonov aircraft.  Nobody may know exactly how many died.  Eight years later, Nuer militias opposed to Riek Machar raided Leer three times, looting and burning homes, destroying crops, slaughtering and stealing tens of thousands of cattle.  “Over the past months thousands of people have fled without food or belongings. They’ve been forced to hide for days in the surrounding swamps and outlying villages, living in constant fear and surviving on just water lilies and fish. Their own villages have been burned down and their grain stores have been looted,” said a representative of the World Food Program at the time.  Leer was completely razed.

In 2003, attacks on civilians by Sudanese forces and allied militia emptied Leer again.  In January 2014, during the opening weeks of the current civil war, the SPLA and partner militias attacked Leer and surrounding towns. Civilians were killed, survivors ran for the swamps, and the attackers burned to the ground some 1,556 residential structures according to satellite imagery.  And then, of course, came last year’s raids.

Since American soldiers departed Vietnam in the 1970s, there have been no further massacres at My Lai.  Nor have there been mass killings near Oradour-sur-Glane, France, where the Nazis slaughtered 642 civilians in June 1944.  Both ruined villages have, in fact, been preserved as memorials to the dead.  And although Iraq was turned into a charnel house following the 2003 U.S. invasion and neighboring Syria has seen chemical weapons attacks in recent years, there have been no new victims of poison gas in Halabja since Saddam Hussein’s 1988 attack.

Cambodia, too, has seen none of the wholesale bloodletting of the 1970s since the Khmer Rouge was driven from power.  And while periodic fears of impending genocide have lurked in the neighborhood, and Rwanda has experienced arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings of government opponents and critics, it has had nothing like a repeat of 1994.

In Leer, however, those killed in the bombing of 1990, in the razing of the town of 1998, in the attacks of 2003, in the sack of the town in 2014, and in the waves of attacks of 2015, have been joined by still others unfortunate enough to call this town home.  Those in the area have been trapped by geography and circumstances beyond their control in what can only be called an inter-generational killing field.

The violence of 2015 never actually ended.  It’s just continued at a somewhat reduced level.  A couple of weeks before I arrived in Leer, an attack by armed men led locals to shelter at the Médecins Sans Frontières compound.  On the day I arrived in town, armed youths from the rebel-held territory surrounding Leer carried out a series of attacks on government forces, killing nine.

In July, violence again flared in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.  With it came reports of renewed attacks around Leer.  In late August, an SPLA-IO spokesman reported a raid by government forces on a town 25 kilometers from Leer that ended with two killed, 15 women raped, and 50 cows stolen.  In September, around 700 families from Leer County fled to a U.N. camp due to fighting between the SPLA and the IO.  Earlier this October, civilians were killed and families again fled to the swamps around Leer due to gun battles and artillery fire between the two forces.

No one has ever been held accountable for any of this violence, any of the atrocities, any of the deaths.  And there’s little reason to believe they ever will — or even that the violence will end.  Unlike My Lai or Oradour-sur-Glane, Leer seems destined to be a perpetually active killing field, a place where bodies pile up, massacre after massacre, generation after generation — a town trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Almost a year after fleeing Leer, Mary Nyalony is still living out in the open on water lilies and in a state of limbo.  “I’m worried because the government is still there,” she says of her ravaged hometown.  When I ask about the future, she tells me that she fears “the same thing is going to happen again.”

Peace pacts and the optimism they generate come and go, but decades of history suggest that Mary Nyalony will eventually be proved right.  Peace deals aren’t the same as peace.  Southern Sudan has seen plenty of the former, but little of the latter.  “We need peace,” she says more than once.  “If there’s no peace, all of this is just going to continue.”



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