The Logic of Conflicting Victimhood Narratives

The Bush: A place of sanctuary and a source of danger
The Bush: A place of sanctuary and a source of danger

Despite the corrupting influences of war, some actions must remain unacceptable and beyond the pale, if we are to lift ourselves up as a people.

My father once told me a story from his time in the bush. Such a thing is a rarity. He hardly speaks of his experiences during the long years of the civil war. I’ve grown accustomed to his silence and learned to treasure and analyse the few wartime memories that he felt he needed to share with me.

In 1971, an airplane carrying civilian northern Sudanese passengers and a handful of foreigners crashed near Mundri, in an area controlled by the Anya-nya. The local commander promptly contacted him asking for instruction on what should be done with the northern survivors. Many of my father’s staff urged him to do away with them. “Our enemies don’t take prisoners,” they argued, “they would kill our people had the roles been reversed.”

My father agonised over the decision. The desire for retribution was not insignificant, given the brutality of the war. As it happened, shortly before the crash, a church congregation in Yei River had been massacred by government forces. This served to inflame passions among the Anya-nya fighters, my father’s included. And yet the immorality of such an act greatly concerned him. As with all difficult decisions, he spent time alone to consider and turned to his faith for guidance. He decided to unconditionally release the prisoners. His staff needed more than a little persuading, but they eventually agreed with his decision.

I asked him why he let the survivors go. “Someday, I’ll meet my maker, and I refused to face God with a massacre on my conscience,” he answered.

If there’s one thing I have learned, it is that war is a dirty business. It inevitably degrades us all. It diminishes our humanity as steadily as we dehumanise our adversaries. I remember now something else he once told me. At the time, the significance of it hadn’t really registered. “There are no bad soldiers, there are only bad commanders.” I realise, that his personal convictions had been an essential example, which helped moderate the excesses of war. Some actions would remain unacceptable and beyond the pale for the Anya-nya soldier, despite the corrupting influences of war.

Our own civil war has been extremely brutal. Civilians have borne the brunt of atrocities committed by all sides. No-one can lay claim to the moral high ground. No-one is unsullied because all have perpetrated acts of violence against the innocent. I lay the blame squarely on the commanders. They’ve not had the moral fortitude to truly lead their troops, whether by sanction or by example.

Consequently, we are all locked in conflicting victimhood narratives. Each side believes wholeheartedly that they are the victims of injustice. Each side believes that their adversary is the unrepentant aggressor. What makes this state of affairs particularly pernicious is tribalism. It causes us to associate a person with their community. It has sharpened the distinction between “them” and “us”. It has led us to the tragic calamity of collective punishment.

21 Dinka men, women and children are reported to have been gunned down on the road from Yei to Juba. Their only crime was their ethnicity. Some Equatorians either refuse to condemn the killings or are openly unrepentant in their approval of it. “The Dinka must be paid back in full for the massacres of Equatorian civilians, perpetrated by Dinka soldiers and militiamen, in Wonduruba, in Pageri, in Loa, in Lainya and a dozen more places,” they reason. “We are only doing what they do to us every day. We must let them feel our pain.” Some Equatorians are so caught up in their victimhood narrative that they can’t see the forest through the trees.

Am I concerned by the accusations of terrorism or the blanket condemnation of all Equatorians by simple association? No, I am not. I am conscious that some among the Dinka community are trapped in their own victimhood narrative and this only adds fuel to that narrative. I’m also conscious that some opportunists will seize upon this tragedy for sectarian advantage. Am I moved by the threats of retribution against Equatorian civilians coming from sections of the Dinka community? No I am not. Given the savagery of this war, I, like many others, have come to always expect and prepare for the worst. The constant stream of credible reports I receive of beatings, torture, murder, forced disappearances and a host of other horrendous crimes committed against Equatorian villagers and townsfolk by the army and its allied ethnic militias in the conduct of their counter-insurgency operations is relentless. So much so, that I have grown inured to the tragedy.

No. It is the immorality of the act itself that bothers me. It is also the dehumanisation of a group of people, such that one can be easily substituted for another, irrespective of their age, gender, occupation or political orientation. This is certainly not the Equatoria that I recognise. These are not the actions of patriots, because true patriots hate injustice in their own homeland more than anywhere else. To my fellow Equatorians in the bush, I will pass a message from a European sage who a long time ago warned: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

South Sudan is long overdue reform. From independence, the trajectory of the country has been destructive instead of constructive. Our society has become divisive instead of unifying. Our politics is regressive instead of progressive. In times of crisis I’ve learned to turn to my faith for guidance. One particular verse from scripture, John 10:10, informs my approach to reformation: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” Reformists must put their efforts into building something that is aspirational and visionary, instead of simply pushing back against what they understand to be bad.

Despite the corrupting influences of war, some actions must remain unacceptable and beyond the pale, if we are to lift ourselves up as a people.



  1. This is a strong message and I commend you for your truthfulness. However, coming from a different school of political thought, I would suggest that isolating an incident, no matter how moving as the images from Ganzi, from the source and drivers of the conflict will do little to resolve that conflict. South Sudanese have internalized violence consequent to almost two centuries of struggle. This did not produce a political culture of resolving contradictions through democratic discourses. It instead submerged our consciousness.
    Gen. Lagu was a good soldier; he would not execute survivors of plane crash even if they were soldiers. You missed the morality of Gen. Lagu’s decision led to negotiations and the Addis Ababa Agreement.
    It is different to tell who carried out the ambush on a military truck loaded with civilians. It would be wrong to insinuate the Equatorians or anybody. We are in a war situation which has acquired a national character.
    The resolution lies in a radical shift in our political thought systems. Thank you Yanga

  2. Dear Jacob
    This is a wonderfully inspired and inspiring piece of writing. Thank you for it.

    Can we quote you and this piece in the FIGS Newsletter coming out later this week ?

  3. A wise and sane piece of advice in a land where wisdom and sanity are very rare. I can only hope that your voice is heard.

    [From one who visited Equitoria a long time ago between the wars]

  4. Thank you citizen Lagu for speaking my mind! May God bless you abundantly!!
    It is indeed time to rise above it all, how difficult it might be! People like you are indeed inspiration in this tough time. However, God is in control. The devil is a liar. May God bless and have mercy on South Sudan!

  5. This is just to congratulate you for writing this fine piece. Once we can no longer see a person as an individual like us, but only as a member of a group we despise, we are ourselves diminished as humans. This is where we should start if we are to salvage our nation from the abyss.

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