South Sudan the new frontier for Australian foreign fighters

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EXCLUSIVE: Up to 30 Australians are thought to have travelled to South Sudan to join the civil war, triggering fears their actions are potentially illegal and risk further dividing the community.

South Sudanese Australians have travelled back to their homeland to join the civil war ravaging the country, with up to 30 thought to have been involved in the current conflict.

The men, who all came to Australia as refugees, have taken up with both of the warring parties, with some loyal to the government forces controlled by President Salva Kiir and others siding with opposition leader Riek Machar.
Some of the Australians hold high ranks in the military organisations of these groups, with one identifying as a Brigadier General with the opposition forces and another holding the rank of Colonel in the opposition's military command.

Australia's South Sudanese community has spoken out about the men's involvement, worried that joining the war is potentially illegal and risks further dividing the community in Australia.

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war and in late 2013 plunged back into conflict when the government split.

Fighting along ethnic lines

The fighting is loosely based along ethnic lines, with ethnic Dinkas supporting President Kiir and ethnic Nuers supporting Riek Machar, but the lines have blurred. The Australians involved are from both the Dinka and Nuer tribes.

Dinka man Agel Ring Machar is a former resident of Adelaide and told SBS he picked up a gun when fighting broke out in December 2013.

"I took up arms in the first one month," Mr Agel said from Nairobi.

"Everybody had to take up arms because you could be targeted, because of the group you are in."

He has since joined the Opposition and said while he was still involved in the armed struggle, he no longer carried a gun.

"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."

He said he was prepared for any legal repercussions of joining the fight.

"I am ready to shoulder the consequences of fighting for freedom in my country," he said.

"If my country is in a mess, I feel it is my duty to fix it," he said. "And I feel Australia as my second home should be able to support me."

Nuer, Brigadier General Gabriel Gatwech Puoch, recently defected to the opposition after serving with government forces.

He is a former Melbourne resident.

He appeared in a press conference in Nairobi last month where he announced his defection to the rebellion.

"I am not any longer interested, to be part [of] the killing regime of the SPLMA Ruling Party [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army]," he said.

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

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

"I have finally made a decision to join the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army," he said in a statement posted on Facebook in November last year.

"I am prepared to take up arms as a means to let [President Kiir's government] hear our people's concerns."

He said he held degrees in Political Science and Counter Terrorism from Macquarie University in Sydney.

And former Australian soldier Kuot Garang Kuot, a Dinka, is pictured on Facebook with some of the country's top Generals.

On his Facebook profile he called himself "General Garang."

Fighting for a non-state armed group 'not lawful'

SBS also obtained video and photos of him training with the Australian military, however the Australian Defence Force would not confirm the identity of serving or former soldiers.

International law Professor, Ben Saul, said it was potentially lawful for a dual Australian-South Sudanese citizen to fight for national armed forces.

But he said any Australian citizens involved in fighting for a non-state armed group, such as the opposition, could face heavy penalties under Australia's Foreign Incursion and Recruitment offences.

"It's potentially lawful for an Australian if they are a citizen of South Sudan to fight for national armed forces," he said. "But not lawful for a non-state armed group."

"Engaging in fighting in a foreign country [for a non-state armed group] carries a life imprisonment penalty, depending upon how serious the offence in question is," Professor Saul said.

"Engaging in fighting in a foreign country [for a non-state armed group] carries a life imprisonment penalty, depending upon how serious the offence in question is."

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

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

Australian communities 'divided'

But community members said taking up arms wasn't the answer.

Prominent Nuer community figure Nyadol Nyuon, who lives in Melbourne, has seen increasing hostility between supporters of the government and the rebellion.

"A lot of hostilities, particularly online, things that could easily pass for hate speech directed, sometimes on a tribal basis," Ms Nyadol said.

"Unfortunately those problems and those debates and those hostilities have been replicated here in Australia as well."

"My community has a lot to lose," she said.

Dinka man Nyok Gor co-founded the South Sudan Australia Peace Initiative in Melbourne and knew of Dinkas and Nuer travelling to South Sudan and taking up arms.

He said he understood why South Sudanese Australians wanted to get involved in the conflict.

"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," Mr Nyok said.

But he condemned anyone involved in violence.

"It destroys peace itself," he said.

"It kills people, regardless of what side."

Conflict 'not likely' to spawn radicalisation

Professor Greg Barton from Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre, said it wasn't surprising that South Sudanese Australians had been drawn into the conflict.

But he doubted the violence would 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," he said.

"We live in a multicultural country and we have learned the advantages of living with different cultures and different identities and values."

Prof Barton said it was encouraging that community members were expressing concern.

"Let's just hope it's just an excess and an abundance of caution and there are no serious problems," he said.

"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."

Nyok Gor said 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," he said.

"We live in a multicultural country and we have learned the advantages of living with different cultures and different identities and values and beliefs continue to live peacefully."

Related: Statement by Kot Monoah, Chairman of the South Sudanese Community Association

 

Source SBS

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