Schism by Alice Su

I wrote this explainer for IRIN on how Kiir's splitting South Sudan into 28 new states, largely along tribal lines, is politicizing ethnic identity and exacerbating civil conflict.

This week I'm in Beijing, finishing up finals while thinking about Orlando, Jo Cox and too many instances of death on top of death. Tribal conflict in South Sudan seems distant and obscure, but then again it's not: so much violence and vitriol is coming from our inability to coexist with those we see as "not us." We want our tribe first. We don't want our values challenged. We dehumanize refugees or Muslims or LGBTQ people or we dehumanize those that we label bigots at the opposite end of the political spectrum. All this friction is setting us on fire. The answer can only be a) learn to live together, or b) split into groups, separated by tribe, color, religion, country, etc - I have my space, you have yours, and we don't cross each other's borders.

It's increasingly clear to me, especially after reporting this piece, that the second option isn't going to work. South Sudan's president is drawing circles and borders around tribal majorities. Some think this is good because now their tribe will have representation and power. But the borders are unclear, many tribes are mixed, and dividing land has created sides, disputes and mutual killing among people who once shared.

I can't stop thinking about two things: first, that forming exclusivist states along ethnic/tribal/racial/religious lines only worsens conflict; and second, political powers are often manipulating these identities for their own interests. As one South Sudanese activist told me, "[Politicians] used tribal identity in the same way they used sexual violence, as a weapon of war." Identity is not the problem. The problem is exploitation of identity so that you cannot see or hear the Other, so that you hate him, so that self-righteousness morphs into tribal supremacy and you forget that the Other is human as well. This is a political maneuver that is as hateful and wrong as sexual violence, and perhaps even more sinister because it's couched in self-victimization and pride. I am so sad that we're letting this happen, not only in South Sudan but across the world, East and West, Muslim and Christian, right and left wing, establishment and "not." I wish we could listen, and insist on crossing borders and sharing land, and guard each other against manipulation instead.

South Sudan by Alice Su

Sometimes people ask me why I’d rather be a journalist than anything else. “Don’t you wish you were the person making headlines instead?” This question always strikes me as peculiar and a little disturbing, because it suggests that news is about the Big Guys Up There, the rich and famous and powerful, that they are doing important things and we the common people are meant to read about, admire and emulate them. It suggests too that the most desirable place for us to be is there at the center of the story, not on the periphery - speaking, not listening; being seen, not seeing; stars, far removed from darkness.
 
To me, the most important place to be is on the side, in the margins, behind the building in the back of the abandoned yard. That’s where the dust and shadows, secrets and stories are kept. That’s also where you find the people that the big guys want you to forget, and that do not have space to speak for themselves.
 
Yesterday a local journalist’s father told me about his son's abduction. The 27-year-old had written a column that called on followers of the ruling party to stop behaving like “mindless animals” and think for themselves. National Security kidnapped and kept the journalist incommunicado for three months before his family secured the connections to get him out of the “blue room,” South Sudan’s secret detention center for enemies of the state. 
 
“Stop writing,” Abu Journalist told his son. “Go to university, get out of South Sudan, and maybe come back and write then - but it’s not safe now.” His son said yes and stayed home for four days before he was abducted again, this time by masked gunmen who spoke in Dinka colloquial language and roared at him, “What did you write about our president?” They must have been illiterate, because his column didn’t mention the president at all. A few days later, the journalist’s father received a call: his son was lying in the cemetery. When the father rushed over with two friends, they found the journalist propped against his backpack, half-conscious. He was covered in blood, fresh and red across his chest, and burned from the hips down, his trousers twisted into blackened flesh.
 
Kan fi nar, nar, it was fire everywhere,” Abu Journalist said, patting his own legs up and down and up and down. He wrung his hands before me, describing how he'd carried his son to the hospital, feeding him mango juice while a doctor scooped melted skin and trouser from his legs. “I cannot see my son like this. I would die before seeing my son die. There is nothing wrong with writing, ya3ni, nothing wrong with any job my children want to do. But not when they are walking through fire. I cannot." 
 
Hours later, I sat in a shack of a home, 3 x 3 meters of mud and straw under a tin roof, housing my displaced 27-year-old friend Valentino and his family of 9. I perched on one of two beds, squeezed between three women each scolding 2-3 children, flies crawling on our foreheads. The fabric covering their makeshift windows hung heavy and damp in the heat. A plasticky white Jesus stretched his mouth into a thin smile at us from a poster on one wall, ‘SAVIOR’ in block letters above him and John 3:16 printed below. Valentino is from the Upper Nile region of South Sudan and teaches at a nearby school, making 900 SSP ($30 USD) a month, supplemented with manual labor in his time off. He wears jeans and a black t-shirt with white graffiti letters. He’s tall and inky dark, a typical Dinka but without the customary scars that their tribe carves into men's foreheads. 
 
Valentino didn't get that coming-of-age ritual because at age 13, his cattle herder father got everyone in their village to sell a bull so he and 9 other boys could journey to Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, and seek education. The 10 boys spent two months walking across then-Sudan, smuggling onto an Ethiopian trader’s truck (stuffed full of biscuits, but their 17-year-old leader wouldn’t let them touch a single one), talking their way across the Kenyan border and finally entering school. He grew up with those boys in the camp until a few of them were taken to Nairobi by a Sudanese-American who wanted to “help” them - but abandoned them after 9 months because he'd decided to pursue a graduate degree in Texas. Valentino went back to Kakuma, but by now his refugee ID had expired, which meant no access to aid. 
 
So Valentino went home to his village. He’d only finished primary school, but that was enough to become a headmaster there. For two years, he taught at the village, giving his 700 SSP ($24) of income to his mother every month. One day, she called him and his father together and announced: "Valentino must go back to school." Without anyone knowing, she’d only spent 200 SSP each month, stashing the remaining 500 SSP until now she had a few thousand in savings, all to send her son back to Kenya. moved by his wife’s determination, Valentino’s father sold ten cattle, enough for their son to complete high school education and become a full-time, fully-qualified teacher.
 
In 2013, war broke out first between the Dinka and Nuer in Juba, and then in Upper Nile, especially in Valentino's village of Duk, which sat on a border between the two tribes. That’s when his mother died. "How did she die?" I asked Valentino. He flinched. 
“Now I feel like crying,” he said, looking at the ground with a forced grin. We were quiet for a moment, the women and children around us still chattering and shushing one another in Dinka language, oblivious to our English conversation. 
“Ask me again,” Valentino said.
“How did your mother die?” I asked.
“I was at the school teaching when it happened. My father, he loved me too much. He wanted to tell me there was fighting in our area, so he came to the school. She was left behind with the children at home. The men came to our village. They were burning everything and killing, and we couldn’t get in, we couldn’t get home. By the time we got back she was dead."
“No, my siblings didn’t die. They ran away but she didn’t run with them. She stayed with two. They were 5 and 3."
“Yeah, they survived. I know because the older one told us. You know we live on a border so we understand the Nuer tongue. So he said he heard the soldiers when they came, they told her, ‘You have two things to choose: give us yourself and we kill you, or else we kill your children.’"
“I guess they kept their word. My brother and sister lived."
“She loved us too much."
 
I cried with Valentino for his mother, and because I was in his hut of searing heat and empty stomachs. I saw their corner of makeshift kitchenware, damaged pots and pans that they fill with water and leaves snatched from the neighbors’ trees outside. I knew how hard he'd fought for so many years just to live, to learn, to stand up and have a place in this world, and I knew all he wanted now was to go to university. It costs some 5000 SSP a year, less than $200 USD, but that was a galaxy away for him. It’d be $800 for all four years. I’ll make more than that writing one article. Valentino eats leaves and reaches into the dark.
 
Here I am in my Father’s world, astounding beauty and crushing pain all swirled together, snatching your breath away. Another day this week, we drove to Terekeka, 3 hours of bumpy road outside of Juba. The entire way was laced with white and golden butterflies, flocking and fluttering from the clumps of deep red mud. Baby goats grazed in idyllic green fields. We passed occasional pools, dark silhouettes dipping themselves into them to bathe. Little girls sold us peanuts and acacia seeds. We ran into an entire cattle camp crossing the road, and I photographed a herder boy carrying a lamb, his forehead scrunched in concentration, gait steady as he and the flock marched forward. A Mundari girl carried a bucket of water high on her head, chin tilted up as her skirt swayed, her steps a metronome keeping the beat for a sea of cattle’s horns surging behind her.
 
I'm on a fellowship with the International Women's Media Foundation, and I am thankful for companions on this trip who know how to see and how to listen. As a freelancer I’m accustomed to slipping about on my own, going without fixer, translator or security guy most of the time, let alone my own private drivers and all-expenses-paid hotels. I’m more likely crashing on someone’s couch, squeezing onto public buses and absorbing days or weeks-full of sadness to be digested alone at night in the dark.
 
The difference, especially with a group of all women reporters, is palpable: you are allowed to be a little sad. You can carry the stories together. We are seeing layered tales, scribbling down and photographing the corners and edges of sorrows that overlap and ricochet off one another. When my photographer friend Sara talks about being stuck at the hospital door, watching a family wail and cry, an old man crumbled in age, for their daughter who has died in childbirth, 
I know the weight of her witness.
And when she tells me, a few days later, that she dug into the story and found that girl could have been saved if only she’d had a blood transfusion, that she’d been waiting for days but no one in her family came until she’d passed away, that she was just one of more than 30 women teetering between life-and-new-life or death-unto-life after having given birth at the maternity ward, and that all the doctors are on strike because they haven’t been paid for months, so the women are alone,
I feel the weight of that too.
 
Sometimes I think we-the-comfortable are more in need, soul-wise, to remember how little we are, how evil is the lie that good and evil do not exist, and how desperate and urgent it is to fight against oppression, injustice and hatred with an insistence on seeing and speaking the truth. How badly we need mercy. How thirsty we are for grace. How vacuous and silly it is to grow obsessed with my achievements and career and need for glory and admiration.
 
I am ready to leave South Sudan but pray not to forget. One woman sits in my heart like a queen: 42-year-old Abuk, who was sold at 13 as a slave to work on a millet plantation for rich Arabs who'd bought her from traders that burned her village down, killed her father, then abducted her and her mother while they were fleeing as refugees. After escaping slavery, her mother died of disease, leaving Abuk and her husband to survive in Khartoum doing laundry and building houses. They fled again, raising their children in an Eritrean refugee camp. South Sudan's independence was supposed to bring peace at last, but last year Abuk lost two of her children in bombing on Malakal. Three of her other kids were so traumatized they couldn't recognize their mother, but that didn't stop them from asking her where their missing brothers were. 
 
I met habibti Abuk, mother and survivor, in the same cramped hut with Valentino. I still see her expressions as she told her story, face moist with sweat but clear as ice before me. "What would you do if you were president of South Sudan?" I asked her. She answered clear and straight: bring education for all women and girls, bring water taps to all the villages, and declare equal split of resources and power between all tribes and all people. No discrimination. Knowledge and water. Truth and life. Walls and tribes and hatred torn down. Life abundant, life to the full.
I pray for her vision to spread.
I pray for her voice to rise.
I put my pen to paper.
I am happy to keep my name far from the headlines, shrugged into a corner, small print, a recorder, an eye, an ear.
There is space here, and truth that pierces, but so does light, so does birth, and it is the piercing that keeps us alive. 

Dignity is not Western 尊严不单属西方 by Alice Su

"In short, when citizens in non-Western countries clamor for democracy, there is no reason to suspect elitism or Western manipulation or false consciousness. Not everything familiar is a sign of cultural imperialism. This is not to deny that power differentials continue to structure the relationship between the West and the East, but rather to suggest that overcoming the discourse of “us” and “them” will open up more promising avenues for responding to domination."

- Loubna El Amine, "Are 'democracy' and 'human rights' Western colonial exports? No. Here's Why,Washington Post

I'm sharing this from Taipei, where it was so refreshing yesterday to hear a 65 yr-old taxi driver tell me about the last 8 times he’s gone to the street to protest government corruption or corporate actions that overlook local wellbeing (buying votes, building unwelcome plants in harmful places, etc). “Democracy isn’t just a word,” 司机阿伯 said, “It’s something the people have to fight for. We pay the taxes - the country is ours."

The most compelling thing about liberal democratic society, to me, is this sense of responsible citizenship and reciprocal respect. You have a stake in your country. You pay taxes. The country is yours. If the authorities are doing wrong, you can speak. Pull them back. Demand accountability. You should care. You are worth something. This place is for you and your flourishing. Go for it. You may not achieve change, but there are laws and institutions in place to protect you from being hurt and forcibly silenced.

The impact is not what Chinese media and mainlanders think, that giving social space will lead to chaos and civil war. It’s that people feel like they have a stake in their country. I see it in the strength of Taiwanese civil society, people mobilizing voluntarily to ask questions about their system and the world’s systems, feeling responsible and taking personal action to create equality, inclusion and opportunity for the least and the marginalized.

I see the opposite in China, an overwhelming sentiment of numbness, disempowerment, and lethargy toward politics, enhanced by 12+ years of forced participation in “Marxist-Leninist theory” classes and contrived public events that reek of authoritarian doublespeak. The smartest kids in the nation’s top university all know that they are reciting maxims about 为人民服务 and empowering the worker while thousands of strikes and labor protests and silenced and suppressed. “We know it’s hypocritical, and no one believes in the positive propaganda either,” my classmates tell me. “But who am I to do anything about it?"

It’s manipulative and reductive when authorities and state media label and dismiss dissenters as “Western,” as if any demand for limited state power means alignment with Western imperialism, colonialism, and secret CIA plans to overthrow the government. When I meet the activists and protestors in Tunisia and other "Arab Spring" countries, most are vehemently against imperialism, the remnants of unjust colonial structures and hypocritical U.S.-led interventionism, including economic forms of neoliberal policy that exacerbate inequality and leave the شعب and 老百姓 disempowered. Saying these people are provoked and funded by Western plotters is disingenuous and illogical. It paints over a legitimate cry for human dignity with a false equation of public dissent (or in the case of China, even the prior step of having civil society) with outside interference. Usually this is coupled with nationalistic posturing so the state is portrayed as saving the country from the unwanted evil of Western-fomented "color revolution."

Western imperialism, colonialism, interventionism, hypocrisy and history of promoting regime change are real and must be held to account. But states that exploit the anti-imperialism narrative to silence their people are practicing their own form of oppression. Chinese people tend to say, "自己管自己家的事。Each family minds their own family's business." What happens, though, when the family's children are silenced, beaten, and not even treated as human, let alone valued members who carry the family's future?

What bothers me beyond the suppression of speech, assembly and protest is the effect on youth, who are at the height of potential but tell me they feel no power or worth on their own. My aged 阿伯 taxi driver spoke with more verve and optimism - despite and because of his rants about Taiwan's problems and how he feels able to protest them - than any of the millennials I've met over 7 months in Beijing. I am worried and sad to hear what my young Chinese friends tell me instead:  "I'm nothing without my country. What can you do as an individual? You belong to the country. The country doesn't belong to you."

wherever you are, be all there by Alice Su

Good afternoon from Beijing, China, where I've just updated my website to better feature photography along with my writing and reporting. I've got a busy few months ahead with a full schedule - Taiwan next week, Yunnan, Kunming and Xinjiang in the following months for a project on Islam in China, an IWMF reporting fellowship in South Sudan and inshallah some good work in Beijing in between. Please stay connected!

Here's my schedule for the next few months:

April - Taipei, Beijing, Yunnan (Kunming, Shadian), Hebei

May - Nairobi, Kenya and Juba, South Sudan with IWMF, Beijing, Ningxia and Gansu

June - Beijing, Xinjiang