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Advocate for South Sudanese Rebels Makes Case in Maine

Tom Porter

Several thousand Maine residents are watching the international news with increasing concern at the moment, as tragic events unfold in the world's newest country 6,500 miles away. Most of Portland's Sudanese immigrants come from South Sudan, which achieved independence from Sudan nearly three years ago, following decades of civil war. Many traveled down to Boston to vote for secession, optimistic of a peaceful and prosperous future for this oil-rich nation. But it wasn't to be.  A power struggle within the government led to a civil war in which thousands have died over the last few months and almost a million made homeless. The leader of a group supporting rebel forces is visiting Maine this week, and spoke with Maine Things Considered host Tom Porter.

Reports out of South Sudan just this week describe the slaughter of hundreds of civilians, put to death by rebel forces because of their ethnic origins. So what went wrong?

"What has gone wrong actually has been foreseeable for a very long time," says Wani Tombe, who is visiting Maine this week. Tombe is chairman of the Greater Equatoria Council of Rights - or GRECOR - a regional political organization that sides with rebel leader Doctor Riek Machar.  

Last month GRECOR issued a statement encouraging people to take up arms against the government to protect their freedoms and rights in the face of government oppression and genocide.  Tombe's group blames President Kiir - a member of the region's Dinka tribe - for the crisis. Opposition leader Riek Machar, by the way, belongs to the rival Nuer tribe.

Wani Tombe: "President Kiir himself is not an effective human resource to lead a country like South Sudan, which is made up of 64 different tribes and ethnic groups, which, if you are to admit to lead this group of people, you need to be imbued with certain culture of leadership, which includes accountability, fairness, transparency and equality, which is not there."

Tom Porter: He identifies himself as a Dinka, a member of the Dinka tribe, above all?"

Wani Tombe: "Precisely. President Kiir thinks South Sudan is Dinka and Dinka is South Sudan. And this is the tragedy."

Tom Porter: "We've been reading a lot, particularly recently, some terrible headlines about what's been going on there. There were reports of rebels forces targeting civilians in Bentiu, in South Sudan, men, women and children being murdered for not cheering on the opposition, not cheering on the rebels, reports of hundreds of civilians being killed just because of their ethinic origins. And according to the U.N., all this action is being spurred on by hate speech on a local radio station. As someone that's allied with the rebels, are you concerned that by calling them to arms and spurring them on to action, you could be making the situation worse and inflaming it?"

Wani Tombe: "I don't think the South Sudanese now resisting the kind of criminal government attitude in Juba (the capital of South Sudan) were called to arms. These people responded spontaneously in self-defense. If you remember what happened in Juba and elsewhere, any human being would have reacted for self defense. Therefore, there was not any planned rebellion in South Sudan. What happened is the reaction to genocidal intention and conduct."

Tom Porter: "It seems like the response is more genocide - this isn't self-defense is it, what we're reading about in Bentiu?"

Wani Tombe: "What you're hearing what has happened in Bentiu actually has not been verified."

Tom Porter: "The U.N. put out a statement on it."

Wani Tombe: "Well, the U.N. is managed by human persons, by human beings, so the U.N. is actually not the yardstick for accuracy. U.N. personnel on the ground might not know who is a Dinka, who is a Nuer, for example, in South Sudan."

Tom Porter: "You've described South Sudan as a "tumultuous mixture of raw human hatreds." I think those are your words. Given that that's how you see it, do you foresee a peaceful solution, where people can live side-by-side and enjoy the (country's) natural resources that they have."

Wani Tombe: "After what happened on December 15th up to now, South Sudan is not going to be the same again."

For the country to find peace again, Tombe says there needs to be a total overhaul of the government, and political leaders need to be held accountable - both of which seem unlikely to happen, he says, while president Kiir remains in power.

As for the international response, Tombe urges foreign leaders to support president Obama's recent decision to impose targeted sanctions against individuals and groups in South Sudan.

Wani Tombe is giving a presentation on the situation at the University of Southern Maine in Portland at this hour.