On the 9th of July, the world’s youngest country South Sudan, celebrated its first birthday. We spoke to photographer Pete Muller about the time he spent in the country during the establishment of independence for our weekly delve Beyond the Headlines.
An award winning American photographer whose searing images have graced TIME Magazine, The New York Times and The Washington post, (to name but a few) Pete Muller spent three years observing South Sudan’s transition at close proximity. A man intrigued by nation states and national identity, experienced first hand the symbolic importance of independence for the South Sudanese, along with the more complicated reality of the situation. With the country celebrating its first birthday this week, we caught up with Muller to discuss his time there and the lengthy process of building a constitution.
It must have been remarkable to witness the birth of a new country, what did it mean for the citizens that you met?
The achievement of independence in 2011 was of tremendous symbolic importance for southern Sudanese. They had, as most people know, endured a terribly flawed state configuration whereby the southern population, which is racially African and largely non-Muslim, was under the authoritarian and often brutal rule of successive Islamic governments in the north. Citizens of Sudan who aren’t ethnically Arab and religiously Muslim were, and continue to be, treated as second class. Independence represented an end to decades of hostile rule by the north and the birth of southern self-determination.
In the cities of the South, particularly Juba, where the political and financial elite reside and where there are higher levels of literacy and understanding of state institutions, there was excitement over independence. That said, I believe that enthusiasm was moderated, to a degree, by the looming challenges that lay ahead. Beyond an overwhelming list of serious development hurdles, the ‘New South’ is deeply divided along tribal lines and lacks any cohesive sense of national identity. Many recognize that the South’s road to stability and prosperity will be long, difficult and potentially violent.
For those living outside major towns, I believe that independence was almost purely symbolic. Many people live in areas so remote that they have never known state institutions, be they those controlled from Khartoum or Juba. People have been living in land without roads, water, electricity or governance structures for centuries and for those communities, I am reticent to say that independence generated much more than a positive symbolic feeling.
Photograph by Pete Muller ©
Has this new country had the opportunity to form its own identity and if so how does it express this?
No, the country has not achieved a national identity and I believe that this is one of the most concerning aspects of the new state. For many years, leadership from the South’s numerous tribes were bound together, at times and to varying degrees, by the common denominator of northern oppression and the guerilla movement that sought to repel it. Even when the war with the north was active, there were massive and bloody conflicts between southern factions that were often fought along tribal lines.
With the issue of northern oppression now removed from the equation and with it the degree of cohesion that it provided, the tribal divisions between southerners appear starker. A major cause of the lack of national identity is the extreme underdevelopment of the education system in the south. What few schools exist often lack teachers, books and other basic essentials. National identities rarely occur naturally- they are manufactured concepts propagated through a state’s education system. They are built on common language, a sense of shared history and the inculcation of shared ethos and value system. This is created, at least in part, through education- a key pursuit that has been lacking in the south for generations.
A year on from its independence, have things progressed in South Sudan or do you feel that its porous borders threaten to undermine the attempts to establish a peaceful state?
The process of stabilizing South Sudan will be a generational. I believe that the expectations of the international community and foreign observers are too high and consequently create negative impressions of the process under way. It is important to remember that the territory that is now South Sudan is one of the most underdeveloped, impoverished and conflicted on earth. Its people have been subjected to tremendous violence and oppression that, over time, lead to a collective mentality of survival. It will take time for this mentality to subside.
Successful institutions that are properly managed are not created overnight. It is a process that takes generations. One need only survey neighbouring countries in the region, all of which were made independent decades before South Sudan, to get a sense of the slow pace of institutional growth, the challenges of tribalism and the persistence of corruption. This is not to excuse the egregious corruption and selfish manoeuvring that unfortunately defines the government of South Sudan at this point. International partners should absolutely push for more transparency, accountability and overall good governance. It seems, however, somewhat senseless and unfair to expect the world of a country that is only just finding its footing.
It took the United States 11 years just to adopt a constitution after declaring independence from the United Kingdom. The American Civil War, one that was fundamentally caused by disagreements over government structures, did not commence until 85 years after independence. I raise these parallels only to illustrate that the process of building stability, peace and prosperity is long and arduous in all corners of the world.
Photograph by Pete Muller ©
Do events like ‘Miss New Sudan’ offer genuine hope of I guess what we would consider ‘normality’ for the South Sudanese?
As I mentioned before, I consider events like “Miss New Sudan,” (aka Miss Malika) to be part of the process of forming a national identity. It is a highly anticipated national event that takes place each year and has since the 2005 signing of a peace agreement between north and South. Girls from all over the country, and, perhaps more importantly, from an array of tribes, all compete to be representatives of South Sudan. Events like these are more important than they might appear. In an environment like South Sudan, with so much internal tension based on tribe, Miss New Sudan is not just a beauty pageant; it is an exercise in the construction of national identity.
All that said, it is important to know that Miss New Sudan is an event for the country’s elite. The participants and the observers are from the highest income bracket, are often government connected and are not at all representative of the average southern Sudanese person.
As an ‘outsider’ how did you find your time in the nation?
I was absolutely fascinated by South Sudan, hence my remaining there for three years. The dynamics at play are among the most complex, challenging and interesting I’ve encountered. I have long been fascinated by the challenges of nation states and identity and Sudan’s history and ultimate partition are profound case studies of those challenges. There are so many layers of identity and, in turn, layers of politics built upon them. It is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever lived.
It is also one of the most challenging places to work. The temperature is almost always over 100 degrees (f), the roads are almost non-existent, security forces are cagey, military intelligence agents are everywhere and basic Western comforts are rare. I spent much of my time there pining for cheese, a commodity that seemed more rare, expensive and coveted than drugs.
Photograph by Pete Muller ©
Many of the reports of the country’s anniversary describe a nation who remain positive that things are slowly but surely getting better, was there a real feeling of optimism apparent amongst the people you met?
Sentiments vary widely depending on who is talking. I think western media outlets and the audiences they serve have little interest in nuanced discussions of South Sudan so I am somewhat guarded as to their tone.
I think that there are some optimistic people in South Sudan who greet the challenges with excitement and energy. They are not always easy to find, though. As I mentioned, it is a very tough place and the challenges are innumerable. People tend to get ground down pretty quickly.
Your ‘Cattle Raiders’ series presents a stunningly intimate set of nocturnal portraits, what can you tell us about that experience?
Those images were made in the most remote place I have ever been. They were part of a project I was doing about violence in the South’s pastoral communities. I hired a car and translator and drove about 8 hours, most of it off road, to an isolated riverbank where a subgroup of the Dinka tribe was keeping their cattle. I chose the area because it has long been the epic centre of violent cattle raiding, a major source of insecurity in South Sudan. I wanted to understand more about what life was like for these isolated populations.
I made the pictures under a moonless sky. After taking each photo, I’d show it to the subject, all of whom were thrilled to see his or her own image. I worked for as long as my light’s battery held out.
When I finished the night session, many of the young men headed to the riverside where they shouted provocative slogans at the neighbouring subtribe, whose cattle camps were a few miles away. In the morning, around 7 am, a raiding party from the neighbouring tribe launched an attack on the camp where I was staying. Gun fire erupted as the Rek fighters sought to repel the raid and protect their herds from theft. I chased the group as far as I could before they disappeared across the river. Five young men were killed and several more were wounded.
It was an extraordinary experience that I reflect on regularly. Never before had I been so removed from everything I knew.
Photograph by Pete Muller ©
To see more of Pete Muller’s stunning work on South Sudan and also on neighbouring state The Democratic Republic of Congo head to his site here.
By Alec Dudson