There are 200 bodies rotting in the streets of
Bentiu, a horrible little frontier town in South
Sudan, put there by rebels who claim to be
saving the place.

At stake is oil, and power,
and the egos of Big Men who sacrifice others
in pursuit of their own petty ambitions.

In many ways, the town is a gruesome metaphor
of all that is wrong with the world’s newest

Last week, South Sudanese rebels seized control of
Bentiu, a dusty, ramshackle town near the Sudanese
border, from the government.

In the process, more
than 200 civilians were butchered – some in a
mosque, others in a church, still others by the side of
the road.

The extremely graphic pictures emerging
from Bentiu bring to mind images of the Rwandan
genocide: dozens of bodies casually strewn on the
ground, forming a carpet of corpses so thick that the
bulldozers had to be called in to clear them.

The rebels, led by long-time militia leader and former
Vice-President Riek Machar, deny responsibility.

They know nothing about the deaths, Machar told Al Jazeera.

“I contacted the field military commander in
Bentiu who told me that such accusation is false.
First of all we respect our people, and the majority of
the forces are from the region and we can’t kill our

Yeah, right.

The United Nations puts the blame squarely on the

A report by UN investigators said that the
rebel militants “searched a number of places where
hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians
had taken refuge and killed hundreds of the civilians
after determining their ethnicity or nationality”.

This was, the UN concluded, an ethnically motivated
atrocity, complete with radio exhortations to kill the
men and rape the women from other ethnic

The identity of the dead lends credence to the idea of
rebel culpability.

Ethnic targeting has been a feature
of the current bout of internecine violence in South
Sudan, with Dinkas perceived to be aligned with
President Salva Kiir (himself a Dinka) and the Nuers
with Riek Machar (a Nuer).

Initial reports from Bentiu
suggest that many of the dead were Dinka, killed
only because of their tribal identification; others
targeted included Nuers who refused to cheer the
rebel entry into the city, and some of Bentiu’s large
Darfuri population (rebels from Darfur, in Sudan
proper, are allegedly supporting Kiir).

In some ways, although killing on such scale is
always shocking, it’s no surprise that such an atrocity
happened in Bentiu – a town that sits astride so
many of South Sudan’s major faultlines.

The first of these is oil, of course. Unity State, of
which Bentiu is the capital, is one of just two oil-
producing states in South Sudan.

Oil provides 98% of
the new country’s revenue – its importance is
impossible to overstate.

Unity State, in good times,
produces nearly 100,000 barrels of the stuff every

It’s been a while since the good times, however;
production has been on hold since the fighting began
in December.

Since then, Bentiu has changed hands
between the government and the rebels several
times, both aware of the town’s incalculable strategic

Another faultline is the Bentiu’s proximity to Sudan

The border is just 40 kilometres away, and it
means that there is plenty of movement between the
two countries that, not so long ago, were just one.

Bentiu is full of Sudanese, even though they enjoy
few rights in South Sudan (some, such as many of
the Darfuris, enjoy even fewer rights in Sudan).

It also means that the town is permanently on edge,
nervously watching for any sign of Sudanese Armed
Forces activity that might indicate the end of the
fragile stalemate.

Indeed, unconfirmed reports
suggest that a Sudanese aircraft had bombed the
town in advance of the rebel attack, killing five
civilians, allegedly in coordination with the rebels.

Yet another is Bentiu’s near-complete lack of
government services, a state of affairs it shares with
the rest of the country.

Power comes from
generators, sewage flows onto the streets, roads are
just muddy tracks, largely impassable in the rainy

Oil aside, it’s not much of a prize.

The same
might be said of South Sudan.

The Daily Maverick’s Richard Poplak visited Bentiu in
November 2012.

He was not impressed.

“Bentiu is a grim, electricity-less, water-less,
undeveloped flat, marshy, hellhole of a town. Shortly
before our arrival, it had been dumb-bombed by the
Sudanese when the dispute over oil revenues had
turned nasty. In fact, we toured the disputed
pipeline, walking along its length for a few hundred
metres — it looked like a nicely graded mountain
bike trail. But make no mistake, the town is as
strategically important as any in the country,
perched on the borderlands with the north, rich in oil,
with the massive Chinese-built oil plant nearby.
“We sat up nights in a hotel with members of civil
society institutions, mostly Lost Boys returned from
America trying to make a difference. Their education
and experience counted for nothing, because they
had no connections and could not get work nor
access to leaders. When we were there, the governor
of Unity State, of which Bentiu is the capital, had
buzzed in for a quicker visit, but was too afraid to
spend in time in town, and was thus spirited off to
his bush hideaway. When we asked a Lost Boy if the
governor — an ex-warlord — was corrupt, he laughed
and said, “he is the most corrupt man in Africa.”

“I’m sure there are worse places on earth than
Bentiu. It’s just that right now I can’t think of one,”

Poplak concluded.

Since Poplak visited, little has changed.

Add a few
dozen rotting corpses to his impressions and you’ve
got a pretty decent picture of what the town is like
today: violent, rudderless and hopelessly poor, a
helpless victim of the petty power games of the Big
Men who would rule it.

Pretty much the same can be
said for South Sudan on the whole. DM

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