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Young men and guns: Why South Sudan's war flamed so fast and brightly (+video)

Hostilities began on Dec. 15 with antipathy between the president and former vice-president. But a local culture of guns acted like a tinderbox.

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Gabriel Mabior left South Sudan’s army for the same reason he joined it: he wanted an education.

Mr. Mabior signed up to be a child soldier in 1987 after being assured that a pledge to fight would give him a seat in school. 

But like thousands of other boys, he was quickly yanked out of school and ended up fighting for years for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army against the government of Sudan.

Mabior, now a soft-spoken and thoughtful businessman with a proclivity for button-down shirts, feels proud of his contribution to the liberation struggle that led to South Sudan's independence in 2011. Freedom allowed him to earn a university degree, he says, which is why he chose to fight in the first place – and achieving a degree was unlikely under the old Sudan regime in Khartoum.

But Mabior, who lives in the capitol Juba, is now frustrated that South Sudanese are fighting again instead of pursuing what he describes as the fruits of liberation and peace, like study and individual growth.

“What are you fighting for?” the former child soldier asks. “This is the time for young people to live. This is the time for peace. This is the time for education.”

South Sudan is in its fourth month of conflict between Army factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and the rebel forces of his rival Riek Machar that has led to the burning and flattening of key towns and brutal fighting.

Mabior's disappointment is shared by millions of his fellow South Sudanese, and echoed by donor countries that poured in billions of dollars to help the new nation over recent years. They all want to know why, given decades of fighting and two civil wars that killed millions, anyone would pick up the gun again.

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It is clear that the antipathy between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar sparked the current fight.

But stepping back, it is also clear that one reason hostilities flamed so brightly in December and spread so quickly owes to a powerfully reinforced culture of young men and guns in this part of East Africa. Boys like Mabior, particularly in rural areas, grow up with few options besides joining armed groups and taking possession of a gun – both symbols of power that bring a sense of identity, masculinity, worth, and place.

Yes, youth see each other die on the front lines. But in this hardscrabble part of Africa, a mix of local economics, peer pressure, and the need to simply defend one's village and family draw in young men to a culture in which violence and conflict seem normal.  

That culture is reinforced in countless ways. The military and armed groups give paychecks – in a nation with few jobs. For rural boys especially, the military seems like a lucrative patronage network with clout and benefits.

But it isn’t just pay. Being masculine and being in the military has a strong allure, and young men will remain soldiers for months without receiving salaries – living with their families in village-like barracks.

“The military somehow reaches into their soul a bit more,” says Sam Rosmarin, an adviser for the humanitarian group Oxfam.

There is also the allure of joining a force (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA) that acted as the main resistance movement against the north. Being a man, or being a patriot, is often tied up with being part of the SPLA.

Reverence for the Army is so great that both sides of today’s conflict lay claim to its mantle. In ordinary conversation the rebels, for example, call themselves the “SPLA in Opposition,” or the “true SPLA.”

Nor do youth here yet see the kind of benefits from freedom and independence Mabior talks about – and they don’t see why they should part with a tool as much a part of their daily lives as a gun.

“If the government wants us to give up our guns, we will,” says Daniel Magok, an ethnic Dinka who bought an AK-47 in 2012 to protect against escalating attacks. “But [the] Murle [a rival tribe] refused to hand over their guns. So it’s better I have a gun.”

Rather, most of the argument goes the other way: Many youth see discipline and purpose in ethnic militias like the White Army, a force of Lou Nuer ethnic youth that oppose the government and that have a practical side – to protect their communities.

That kind of protection extends to their cattle. The subject is not a small one: Cattle are a life blood in South Sudan. Owning cattle is part of the pathway to marriage, as cattle are required to engage and marry a bride. Cattle, status, marriage, manhood, and guns are related. The current fighting has depleted livestock and escalated cattle raids by competing gangs among different villages. Hundreds of rural and village youth have been killed in tit-for-tat cattle raids where no one would show up without a gun.

That makes the gun part of growing up and growing older.

“In the States, most boys play video games; what we do is we play with guns,” says Bol David Chuol, a teacher in Jonglei State.  

“There’s this real emasculation of the young men who have not been able to find a place for themselves in the new South Sudan,” says Lydia Stone, senior adviser to South Sudan’s ministry of gender. “People are looking for a sense of identity wherever they can find it, and tribes just happen to be the default. In another country it might be gangs.”

Mabior says young South Sudanese men need to remember the reasons why their country took up arms in the first place.

“I completed at the university in South Sudan which is what I was fighting for,” he says.  “Out of freedom you go back to school and get a job.”

Until more men realize that and begin to seek civilian skills the wars will not end, says Mabior. 


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