Australians playing military roles in South Sudan conflict

Australians playing military roles in South Sudan conflict

It's been revealed Australians are playing military roles in the conflict in South Sudan.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

It's been revealed Australians are playing military roles in the conflict in South Sudan.

SBS has learnt up to 30 South Sudanese-Australians, all former refugees, are believed to be involved.

South Sudanese-Australians are speaking out about their compatriots' involvement.

They say what they are doing is not only potentially illegal, it is also deepening divisions in a rapidly fracturing community.

Sacha Payne has this exclusive report.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

South Sudan is the world's newest nation, gaining independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.

But a split between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar in December 2013 once again plunged the region into a civil war.

The fighting soon evolved along ethnic lines, with the Dinka tribe supporting Salva Kiir, the Nuer supporting Riek Machar.

Those lines have since blurred.

Now, it's been revealed Australian citizens are among those involved in the conflict.

They are with both government and opposition forces and are both Dinka and Nuer.

Nuer Brigadier General Gabriel Gatwech Puoch is a former Melbourne resident who recently defected to the opposition after serving with government forces.

In April, he spoke shortly after his defection at a press conference in Nairobi.

"The regime must go, whether through war or politics."

Dinka man Agel Ring Machar also recently defected to the Opposition from the Government.

He is a former resident of Adelaide.

He told SBS he picked up a gun when fighting broke out in December 2013.

"I took up arms in the first one month. Everybody had to take up arms because you could be targeted, because of the group you are in. But I'm not a soldier as such, I'm a political activist. But it doesn't matter whether you are a soldier or not, if you belong to a certain ethnic group, people from the rival ethnic group will come for your life. So it made a lot of sense to arm yourself and defend yourself."

Agel Ring Machar says, while he is still involved in the armed struggle, he no longer carries a gun.

He says he is ready to face any repercussions for his actions.

"I am ready to shoulder the consequences of fighting for freedom in my country, for joining a movement. Before, I had already moved back to the country, and I was already a senior activist in my country, and, if my country is in a mess, I feel it is my duty to fix it. And I feel Australia, as my second home, should be able to support me in fixing my country."

Makuer Mabor, a Dinka man from Sydney, is also fighting to overturn the government.

He announced on Facebook in November that he had "finally made a decision to join the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army."

The post stated he had rationally decided to use the language of guns and was prepared to take up arms as a means to let the South Sudanese government hear (his) people's concerns.

And Melbourne man Kuot Garang Kuot, a Dinka and former Australian soldier, is involved with government forces.

International law professor Ben Saul says it's potentially lawful for a dual Australian-Sudanese citizen to fight for national armed forces.

But he says any Australian citizens involved in fighting a non-state armed group could face heavy penalties under Australia's Foreign Incursion and Recruitment offences.

"Engaging in fighting in a foreign country carries a life-imprisonment penalty, depending upon how serious the offence in question is. There are also other offences for people here in Australia. It is an offence to take any preparatory action to enter another country to fight. That includes things like providing money or goods or engaging in training. All of those things carry penalties, sometimes, depending on the offence, 10 years imprisonment, up to life imprisonment."

The South Sudan conflict is contributing to a humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands dead and more than two million people displaced.

The World Food Program has warned the instability is contributing to massive food insecurity.

It says 4.6 million people, around 40 per cent of South Sudan's estimated population, face acute hunger in the next three months.

Australia is home to one of the largest South Sudanese diasporas in the world, with around 30,000 South Sudanese.

None has been left untouched by the violence in their homeland, and most have lost people close to them.

But other community members say taking up arms is not the answer.

Nyadol Nyuon is a Nuer member of Melbourne's South Sudanese community.

She says she has seen increasing hostility between supporters of the government and the rebellion.

"What has resulted, I guess, the consequences of atrocities that have been committed by both sides, is that it's really created this divergence between the two groups. So a lot of hostilities, particularly online, things that could easily pass for hate speech, directed sometimes on a tribal basis. And, unfortunately, those problems and those debates and those hostilities have been replicated here in Australia as well."

Nyok Gor is a Dinka man who co-founded the South Sudan Australia Peace Initiative.

He condemns any violence.

"I, yes, do have people that I have seen from Dinka and from Nuer travelling to South Sudan and getting involved and pick up arms. I can clearly understand why. People are caught up in a situation that they don't know what to do, how to help their families that are facing that suffering, and they feel (there's) no other way, whether it be leaders, or even their friends or the international community, is not getting this complex situation easily resolved, and, therefore, people would choose quickly to take up arms and be able to fight."

Professor Greg Barton, from Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre, says it's not surprising South Sudanese Australians are being drawn into the conflict.

But he says, while the community is right to be concerned, he doubts the violence will spread beyond the borders of South Sudan.

"Because it's not, at this point, an ideological conflict, it's unlikely to involve radicalisation in the conventional sense. But, of course, if someone has been traumatised, they come back with post-traumatic stress syndrome, they come back with combat skills. It's always possible that these conflicts that begin as non-ideological end up being festering breeding grounds of something much worse. So we should be concerned, but I don't think we should see it as being just the same as other things in the Horn of Africa or the Middle East."

Greg Barton says the community is to be commended for speaking out.

"I think it's good that the community is expressing its own concerns and, as it were, reaching out for help. And I think that's the best place to start to acknowledge that we could have a problem, that they are concerned, that they value the harmony they have achieved in Australian society, and that that's what they look forward to for their family and children and they want to work with state and federal authorities in trying to cut short any problems before they develop very far. So I think that's a really encouraging sign. Let's just hope it's just an excess and an abundance of caution and there are no serious problems, but, if we don't start by recognising the potential for problems, ethno-nationalist conflicts can start with something small and then smoulder and spiral into something that becomes quite enduring, particularly if you have young people who have been traumatised."

Nyok Gor says the Australian-South Sudanese community should be setting an example in living harmoniously.

"I'm lucky to be in Australia, and I have enjoyed the peace here. The same way that even many of my South Sudanese (who) sleep in their house peacefully do. We live in a multicultural country, and we have learned the advantages of living with different cultures and different identities and values and beliefs and continue to live peacefully."




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