Meet an American citizen fighting with South Sudan’s rebels

HARI SREENIVASAN: With assistance from the
United States, the country of South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Civil war took over the new nation in just
two years. It has led to famine, accusations of ethnic
cleansing, and a massive refugee crisis. In tonight’s signature segment, a rarely
seen side of the story — an American citizen who is leading a rebel group fighting to change
South Sudan’s government. This report was produced with support from
the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center to Prevent Genocide. NewsHour weekend special correspondent Simona
Foltyn and journalist Jason Patinkin made the treacherous journey into to South Sudan. SIMONA FOLTYN: In the hills of northeastern
Uganda, a concealed forest path leads across the border into South Sudan. The young nation, mired in a four-year civil
war, is increasingly difficult for journalists to access, so we use this hidden route to
enter into rebel-held parts of the country. We are traveling with Martin Abucha, a commander
with a rebel group called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army In Opposition. What separates Abucha from other combatants
in this war is he’s a dual South Sudanese and American citizen with family in the United
States. MARTIN ABUCHA: I would like to enjoy eating
hamburgers, I’d like to enjoy going to Burger King and McDonald’s with my daughters, and
things like that. But I feel it’s an obligation that I must
carry. I don’t want my kids to go through this. SIMONA FOLTYN: As we pass the peak of this
hill, we cross into South Sudan and meet the rebels. For the next four days, we’ll travel with
Abucha to a base to see how these soldiers live and why they fight. Abucha is 45 and his life now is a far cry
from his comfortable life in the United States. MARTIN ABUCHA: I have a tent, but it’s necessary
to have a sleeping mat. This is my military fatigue. SIMONA FOLTYN: Abucha is determined to fight
to overthrow a government that stands accused of widespread human rights abuses and ethnic
cleansing. MARTIN ABUCHA: You know, to us, we are not
rebels. We’re people fighting for their rights. SIMONA FOLTYN: Abucha’s life now is a far
cry from his comfortable life in the United States. Abucha’s journey to the U.S. began in 1995,
when at age 22, he obtained a visa to enter the U.S. as a refugee from Sudan. He followed an uncle to Phoenix, and ended
up living there, on and off, for 15 years. MARTIN ABUCHA: My whole goal of going there
was just to getting an education. SIMONA FOLTYN: After earning a bachelor of
science, engineering, and masters of business degrees, Abucha worked for companies like
Honeywell and Hewlett Packard. He started a family, became a citizen, and
a leading figure of Arizona’s growing community of South Sudanese refugees. MARTIN ABUCHA: Phoenix is still my home, that’s
where I have my buddies. SIMONA FOLTYN: Do you sometimes miss the comforts
of the United States? MARTIN ABUCHA: Sometimes yes, sometimes, but
if I look into the suffering of our people, I think I should spend more time here. This is primitive, yes it is, but we are good
with it as long as nobody sits on us. We don’t want to be imposed on. We want to govern ourselves. SIMONA FOLTYN: When South Sudan won its independence
from Sudan in 2011, Abucha went back and took an IT job in the Census Bureau in this new
nation of 12 million people. Abucha says there was rampant corruption in
the fledgling government. MARTIN ABUCHA: To be honest, over 20 to 30
percent of the money went to where, we don’t know. We knew there was money in there, but we don’t
know what the money was used for. SIMONA FOLTYN: Disillusioned, Abucha left
and went back to Phoenix. In 2013, just two years after the country
won its independence, the civil war began as a power struggle over the country’s top
post between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, who mobilized
their rival tribes the Dinka and the Nuer. The war has since spread through the country’s
southern Equatoria region, drawing in other ethnic groups, including Abucha’s called
the Madi. Abucha, who underwent compulsory military
training as a young man in Sudan, went back in 2014. He initially joined the rebels as a member
of Machar’s negotiating team. In 2015, the U.S. brokered a peace deal, but
it fell apart last year. Now, with peace talks on hold, he’s living
the life of a soldier. Much of South Sudan is covered with dense
forest, which is why this area is so conducive to guerrilla warfare. The bush provides cover and prevents the government
from bringing in tanks and other heavy machinery. This allows the rebels to sustain their insurgency,
even though they’re outgunned. SIMONA FOLTYN: Government troops control the
main towns and roads in the area while the rebels have the upper hand in the bush. Many young men join the Sudan People’s Liberation
Army In Opposition, because of atrocities committed against their communities. Lokuku Charles says the South Sudanese army
went after his family in Equatoria. LOKUKU CHARLES: They went to my home. They came and arrested all the family members. My three sisters were arrested. And my mother arrested. And my wife and my children, which means all
of my future. SIMONA FOLTYN: What do you think happened
to them? LOKUKU CHARLES: What I think happened to them
is they are dead. That’s why I have four years in the bush. I have nowhere to go SIMONA FOLTYN: To show us the devastation
of the war, Abucha wanted to take us to his hometown, called Loa. But to get there required traveling deep into
rebel territory. First we crossed the Nile River, which flows
north through South Sudan, in small dugout canoes. Then we hiked for two days through the dense
bush escorted by the rebel soldiers. Every so often, we stopped to wait for the
green light of a reconnaissance unit ahead of us to make sure it was safe. Approaching the village, we saw dozens of
burned houses. MARTIN ABUCHA: When we came here last year
in September, the houses were all intact. Now they are gone. All had property inside now you can see. SIMONA FOLTYN: Christian missionaries built
this cathedral in the early 20th century. MARTIN ABUCHA: This was a very beautiful church. We used to do the Way of the Cross during
Easter, we go around, we go back this way to the altar. I was an altar boy here in this church as
well. SIMONA FOLTYN: Last year, rebels say government
soldiers looted and ransacked the church, its health center, and school, turning this
once vibrant community into a ghost town. Independent observers, including the United
Nations and Human Rights Watch, blame President Kiir’s army for most of the atrocities in
this war, including civilian massacres and mass rape. But the rebels are accused of atrocities too. For instance, in Equatoria, they’ve carried
out attacks on army convoys that sometimes escort civilians. Abucha accuses the army of using civilians
as human shields and denies targeting them. MARTIN ABUCHA: We have no intent of killing
any civilian. Even if a civilian gets hurt in an operation
where our forces are engaged, it’s very unfortunate. And lately, the government starts moving with
civilian vehicles and soldiers in these vehicles shooting, and this is very dangerous for these
civilians. SIMONA FOLTYN: But you still attack convoys
with civilians? MARTIN ABUCHA: We don’t attack a convoy
of civilians. We have never done that. It’s only that when we begin to take fire
from these vehicles. They may be civilian vehicles, but they are
shooting at us, that’s when personnel will defend themselves. MARTIN ABUCHA ADDRESSING TROOPS: “You, my
army, you are here to do your job.” SIMONA FOLTYN: Martin Abucha is frustrated
the international community hasn’t done more to end the war. As a rebel negotiator, he had a front row
seat to the diplomacy behind the failed 2015 peace deal. He blames John Kerry, President Obama’s
last Secretary of State, and the former Special U.S. Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald
Booth, for forcing through a peace deal that backfired. MARTIN ABUCHA: Many times just delivering
an ultimatum. The parties were not allowed to negotiate,
but things were imposed on them. And it was very unfair, and unfortunately,
the agreement collapsed. SIMONA FOLTYN: Abucha says the U.S. imposed
a power-sharing agreement that divided government posts between President Kiir’s loyalists
and Machar’s camp, but failed to ensure it was implemented. The demilitarization of South Sudan’s capital,
Juba, never happened, and the ceasefire never took hold. MARTIN ABUCHA: When the United States signed
off that document as the guarantor, when things went wrong, they were not there to support
it. When it was being violated, they did nothing
about it. SIMONA FOLTYN: Abucha says U.S. diplomats
failed to stop President Salva Kiir from reneging on the deal. Three months after Riek Machar returned to
Juba last year to serve again as Vice President. Kiir’s army chased him out of the country,
and Kiir appointed another politician as his number two. In the past 15 months, as the fighting escalated
again, South Sudanese civilians fled their homes, mostly across the border to Uganda. MARTIN ABUCHA: Today, if you have over one
million people displaced and have taken refuge in Uganda in particular, it was because of
that crisis. SIMONA FOLTYN: Food shortages resulting from
the civil war have left 6 million South Sudanese, half the population, dependent on international
aid. As Martin Abucha sees it, political negotiations
needed to end this war require stronger engagement by global and regional powers. He says the U.S. offers humanitarian aid but
stands on the sidelines as the violence continues. MARTIN ABUCHA: The United States’ government
is saying they’ll spend over two billion dollars since 2013. But I’m sure they should have spent less
and stopped this war. You’re talking about just the cost of human
justice. I don’t know how many people have died. You can never put value to that number of
lives lost.

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