"Whether they like it or not, we will enforce Sharia in this land."
In the final part of The Islamic State, we journey from Raqqa, Syria to the border with Iraq where fighters are bulldozing the boundary.
Syria Is Obama’s Rwanda
Twenty-seven-year-old Qusai Zakarya woke up at about 4:30 AM on August 21, 2013. He rolled out his prayer rug inside his family’s two-bedroom apartment in the small town of Moadamiya, Syria, and started his morning prayers.
Alarms coming from nearby Damascus interrupted his daily ritual. After two years of revolution, Qusai had gotten used to the near constant shelling and bombings, but something was different this summer morning. The alarms were the kind “you usually hear in movies about World War II when there is a big air raid,” he told me.
“Within seconds, I started hearing rockets flying into the ground,” Qusai recounted. They hit the rebel-held town about 500 feet away from him.
“Before I realized what was going on, I lost my ability to breathe. I felt like my chest was set on fire. My eyes were burning like hell, and I wasn’t even able to scream to alert my friends,” he said. “So I started beating my chest over and over until I managed to get my first breath.”
As Qusai recovered inside his home, he heard people screaming on the streets. A neighbor pounded on his door and asked for help. Her two kids were suffocating and vomiting “weird white stuff,” Qusai said.
They rushed onto the street to seek help and found a “terrifying” scene. Men, women, children, elderly people were “running and falling on the ground, suffocating, without seeing a single drop of blood or knowing what was really going on,” Qusai told me.
Qusai spotted a 13-year-old boy left all alone, suffocating and vomiting. Qusai ran to him and gave him CPR. “He had big wide blue eyes and was almost staring into another dimension. He was suffocating, and he seemed to me very innocent to die this way or any other way,” Qusai said.
Saving South Sudan – Full Length
Late last year, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup d’état amid accusations of rampant corruption within the government. Infighting immediately broke out within the presidential guard, sparking what has now become a brutal tribal and civil war that has pitted Machar’s ethnic Nuer loyalists against the majority Dinka, who have sided with Kiir. Machar narrowly escaped assassination, fleeing to the deep bush as Kiir’s troops razed his home and killed his bodyguards. And now the world’s newest sovereign nation is in imminent danger of becoming a failed state.
In February, journalists and filmmakers Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia set out on a grueling mission to locate Machar in his secret hideout in Akobo and get his side of the story. Accompanying was Machot Lat Thiep, a former child soldier and Lost Boy who had advised on South Sudan’s constitution and now works as a manager of a Costco in Seattle. Machot acted as a guide of sorts, arranging Pelton and Freccia’s rendezvous with Machar through a series of endless satellite-phone calls to old contacts and rebel platoons, who would eventually guide the group to the deposed vice president.
After spending a couple days with Machar, he granted Pelton and Freccia unprecedented access to the front lines of a battle in Malakal, where for the first time in history the pair documented the heretofore mythical White Army as they looted, murdered, and pillaged their way to some twisted interpretation of “victory.”
How South Sudan Got Lost
Sudan was once home to a great civilization that was the most advanced in all of Africa—but centuries of colonialism and conflict, and a post-independence period ravaged by coups, dictatorships, and incompetent rule, mired Sudan in a series of never-ending wars. This timeline details how by 2013, the oil-rich, fertile nation was falling apart.
We devoted an entire issue of the magazine to Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia’s sprawling 35,000-plus word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. It’s a companion piece of sorts; watch the documentary and read the issue or vice versa. But you won’t get a full scope of the situation without doing both.
An Exploration of the Horrors of the Country’s Ongoing Civil War
The “Saving South Sudan” Issue of VICE is unlike anything done before in the 21-year history of the magazine. It tells a single story over the course of 130 pages, following the writer Robert Young Pelton, the photographer and filmmaker Tim Freccia, and a former South Sudanese refugee named Machot as they travel to Machot’s homeland, one of the most war-ravaged countries on Earth. For Machot, the trip was an attempt to help South Sudan out of the seemingly never-ending cycle of war, corruption, and power-hungry strongmen that has ruled the country for generations. For Pelton and Freccia, it was the chance to explore and document the conflict that is rapidly turning the three-year-old country into the world’s newest failed state—and to find out what, if anything, could stop South Sudan’s slide into hell.
Understandably, they ran into some problems on their journey. To begin with, they almost couldn’t find a pilot foolhardy enough to fly them into the middle of an ongoing war between the government in Juba and the rebels led by Riek Machar, the country’s former vice president. Then they had to haggle and negotiate their way into an interview with Machar before following his fearsome but undisciplined White Army to a battle in the town of Malakal that turned into wholesale slaughter.
Partly a history of colonialism and misguided Western interference in Africa, partly a profile of Machar as he plots and coordinates his rebellion in the bush, partly a look into one of the most dangerous, dysfunctional countries in the world, “Saving South Sudan” is a terrific, sobering work, and no one but Pelton and Freccia could have produced it. Pelton, the author of the bestselling, one-of-a-kind travel guide The World’s Most Dangerous Places (now in its fifth edition), has profiled “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, been kidnapped by right wing death squads in Colombia, and lived with an elusive retired Special Forces colonel training Karin rebels deep inside the jungles of Burma. Freccia—who like many journalists, was inspired by Pelton’s work—has made it his life’s work to document conflicts and crisis in Africa and elsewhere. His photos provide a stark, sometimes horrific look into the realities of life in South Sudan, and his video footage is currently a documentary now playing on the site.
Last time we checked in on British Jihadists, they were posting snaps of themselves messing about in swimming pools, hoarding Cadbury’s chocolates from home, and generally having a good time. Everything has changed.
"Behead first, ask questions later"