PORTLAND, Maine — In South Sudan, Peter Machar is a marked man.
Although many people in his adopted home in Maine might mistake the six thin scars running across his forehead for wrinkles, in the land where Machar once fought as a child soldier and then fled as a refugee they designate him as a member of the minority Nuer people.
Last summer, when he was caught in the country’s rekindled civil war, they marked him as a target for violence.
Machar, 65, spent most of the past year trapped in a refugee camp in the capital city of Juba, as the country around him was ravaged by starvation, burning villages, ethnic cleansing and gang rape “so prevalent that it’s become ‘normal,’” according to the United Nations.
Despite being a naturalized American citizen, Machar said that if he left the U.N. camp the scars might have meant his death in South Sudan’s complex tribal conflict.
As fighting and food shortages in the country grew more severe over the winter, Machar and his family back in Maine had been on the brink of despair, until he recently was rescued from the camp by U.S. government forces, who helped him travel back to Maine. It was an act that Machar said gives him new hope for American involvement in South Sudan, which he feels the administration of former President Barack Obama abandoned after supporting the country’s independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011.
“Many, many people die from disease — malaria, cholera, dysentery — from lack of food, from lack of help,” Machar said, recalling his time in the camp.
Machar traveled back to South Sudan last June to bury his mother and, as a Nuer elder, help support the fragile peace between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, who is also Nuer but not related to Peter Machar.
There is a long history of brutal violence between the Nuer and President Kiir’s ethnic group, the Dinka, which again broke into outright war while Peter Machar and his nephew James Shol, the owner of a Portland grocery, were in Juba for the funeral.
When the fighting broke out, Peter Machar sought refuge in the camp. But Shol, 38, who also bears the scars along his forehead from the ceremonial cutting that marks the beginning of manhood among the Nuer, said he fled Juba on foot, walking for days to the Democratic Republic of Congo along with the former vice president and hundreds of other Nuer.
Shol eventually made it Sudan and from there back to Maine.
Since last summer, the conflict in South Sudan has only gotten worse. Millions have fled their homes, the country’s oil-exporting economy has buckled and the U.N. has warned of impending genocide.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently accused President Kiir of weaponizing famine in an “apparent campaign against the civilian population.” And Machar said that while he was in the refugee camp, government forces would routinely turn away shipments of food and aid.
Machar and Shol believe that the U.S. could end the conflict by encouraging neighboring countries to place pressure on Kiir. But they acknowledge that doing so might require unilateral action, like the threat of economic sanctions, which there is no sign of the government taking.
Indeed, with its America-first rhetoric, the Trump administration has appeared reticent in its approach to foreign aid. Earlier in the year, even as the U.N. warned that $4.4 billion in aid is needed to “avert a catastrophe” in South Sudan and other African countries, Trump promised deep cuts in funding for the U.N.
Last week, Shol traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby Maine’s congressional delegation and Andrew Burnett, U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, to encourage action in the country. Shol said the experience was frustrating, but he remains convinced that Trump could be persuaded to act if he understood that the foreign conflict hurts Americans, like the South Sudanese community to Maine.
“Every single day we see the phone ring — children and women dead,” said Shol. “Every day we see someone cry and say ‘I lost my relative.’ That’s why we’re fighting for the peace.”