[Note for TomDispatch Readers: As you read Nick Turse's stunning report on his recent visit to the killing fields of South Sudan today, remember that if you support this site with a donation of $100 or more ($125 if you live outside the U.S.), you can get a signed, personalized copy of Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. It's Turse's dramatic, up-close-and-personal account of the tragedy of the American-"midwifed" newest nation on the planet. Check our donation page for the details. Tom]
Slaughter is all too human. Killing fields or mass burial grounds are in the archeological record from the Neolithic period (6,000 to 7,000 years ago) on. Nonetheless, with the advent of modern weaponry and industrial processes, the killing fields of the world have grown to levels that can stagger the imagination. During World War II, when significant parts of the planet, including many of the globe's great cities, were effectively reduced to ash, an estimated 60 million people, combatants and civilians alike, died (including six million Jews in the killing fields and ovens of Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, and elsewhere).
America's wars in our own time have been devastating: perhaps three to four million Koreans, half of them civilians (and 37,000 Americans), as well as possibly a million Chinese troops, died between 1950 and 1953 on a peninsula largely left in rubble. In the Indochina wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the toll was similarly mind-bending. In Vietnam, 3.8 million civilians and combatants are estimated to have perished (along with 58,000 Americans); in Laos, perhaps one million people died; and in Cambodia, the U.S.-led part of that war resulted in an estimated 600,000-800,000 dead, while the rebel Khmer Rouge murdered another two to three million of their fellow countrymen in the autogenocide that followed. In all, we're talking about perhaps, by the roughest of estimates, 12 million dead in Indochina in those years.
And that's just to begin to explore some of the numbers from World War II to the present. Nick Turse, who spent years retracing the slaughter that was the Vietnam War for his monumental, award-winning book on war crimes there, Kill Anything That Moves, has more recently turned to a set of killing fields that are anything but history. In the last three years, he's paid three visits to South Sudan, the newest "country" on the planet, the one the U.S. midwifed into existence, producing a dramatic account of the ongoing internecine struggles there in his recent book Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. It's a land that has experienced Syrian-level death counts with almost no attention whatsoever from the rest of the world. Recently, he returned to its killing fields and offers a chilling account of a largely forgotten land in which slaughter is the essence of everyday life. Tom
The Worst Place on Earth
Death and Life in the Lost Town of Leer
By Nick Turse
LEER, South Sudan -- There it is again. That sickening smell. I'm standing on the threshold of a ghost of a home. Its footprint is all that's left. In the ruins sits a bulbous little silver teakettle -- metal, softly rounded, charred but otherwise perfect, save for two punctures. Something tore through it and ruined it, just as something tore through this home and ruined it, just as something tore through this town and left it a dusty, wasted ruin.- Advertisement -
This, truth be told, is no longer a town, not even a razed one. It's a killing field, a place where human remains lie unburied, whose residents have long since fled, while its few remaining inhabitants are mostly refugees from similarly ravaged villages.
The world is awash in killing fields, sites of slaughter where armed men have laid waste to the innocent, the defenseless, the unlucky; locales where women and children, old and young men have been suffocated, had their skulls shattered, been left gut-shot and gasping. Or sometimes they're just the unhallowed grounds where the battered and broken bodies of such unfortunates are dumped without ceremony or prayer or even a moment of solemn reflection. Over the last century, these blood-soaked sites have sprouted across the globe: Cambodia, the Philippines, the Koreas, South Africa, Mexico, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria -- on and on, year after year, country after country.
Chances are, you once heard something about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw up to one million men, women, and children murdered in just 100 days. You may remember the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai. And maybe you recall the images of Saddam Hussein's 1988 chemical weapons attack on Kurds in Halabja. For years, Sudan contributed to this terrible tally. You might, for instance, remember the attention paid to the slaughter of civilians in Darfur during the 2000s. The killings there actually never ended, only the public outcry did. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were also massacres farther south in or around towns you've probably never heard of like Malakal, Bor, and Leer.
A 2005 peace deal between U.S.-supported rebels in the south of Sudan and the government in the north was supposed to put a stop to such slaughter, but it never quite did. And in some quarters, worse was predicted for the future. "Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing," said U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in 2010. "Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan."
In late 2013 and 2014, Malakal, Bor, Leer, and other towns in the world's newest nation, South Sudan, were indeed littered with bodies. And the killing in this country -- the result of the third civil war since the 1950s -- has only continued.
In 2014, I traveled to Malakal to learn what I could about the destruction of that town and the civilians who perished there. In 2015, I walked among the mass graves of Bor where, a year earlier, a bulldozer had dug huge trenches for hundreds of bodies, some so badly decomposed or mutilated that it was impossible to identify whether they had been men, women, or children. This spring, I find myself in Leer, another battered enclave, as aid groups struggled to reestablish their presence, as armed men still stalked the night, as human skulls gleamed beneath the blazing midday sun.- Advertisement -
The nose-curling odor here told me that somewhere, something was burning. The scent had been in my nostrils all day. Sometimes, it was just a faint, if harsh, note carried on the hot breeze, but when the wind shifted it became an acrid, all-encompassing stench -- not the comforting smell of a cooking fire, but something far more malign. I looked to the sky, searching for a plume of smoke, but there was only the same opaque glare, blinding and ashen. Wiping my eyes, I muttered a quick curse for this place and moved on to the next ruined shell of a home, and the next, and the next. The devastated wattle-and-daub tukuls and wrecked animal pens stretched on as far as I could see.
This is Leer -- or at least what's left of it.