Professor Clémence Pinaud, a faculty member in the Hamilton Lugar School’s Department of International Studies, spent ten years researching her most recent book, War and Genocide in South Sudan. Using interviews with over 550 people, mostly women and civilians, Pinaud gives readers an unprecedented look at how regular people experience the violence of South Sudan, a landlocked country in East-Central Africa.
Pinaud became interested in South Sudan when doing research for the Center for African Studies at UC-Berkeley. There she learned about the Sudanese government’s tactics during their Civil War of 1983-2005.
The tactics were “extremely sophisticated, and that stuck with me,” she says. At the time, there was widespread condemnation of the violence in the Darfur region, but the south of the country wasn’t as deeply researched.
After stints at NGOs and aid organizations, Pinaud realized she wanted to pursue an academic path and study the region. Though many researchers analyze civil wars and conflicts by focusing on economic and political elites, Pinaud chose a different methodology. While pursuing her PhD, she decided to interview regular civilians on the ground, particularly women, who experienced the heaviest amount of violence.
Since fieldwork would have been logistically difficult and dangerous to do on her own, Pinaud worked for an aid organization as their lead investigator into gender-based violence in the region. Her two years conducting research in South Sudan gave her an understanding of the conflict and also taught her how aid organizations in conflict regions operate. The mood at the time was positive, since South Sudan was a new state.
“I was in South Sudan when there was still some hope that it would transition into a peaceful country,” she says.
Her PhD focused on the history of women in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, and once it was completed, she wanted to expand it. But the situation in the country had changed by that time, and new violence was erupting. In 2014, she decided to go back to understand what was happening as part of her post-doc position.
She tried to understand how violence in the new conflict that had started in 2013 differed from the past civil war.
She returned again for another six months in 2015-2016, during which she carried out research in an oil-rich region that was experiencing heavy conflict. By the end of this period, she had collected hundreds of interviews.
She made one final trip to the region, in Uganda, after receiving a grant in 2017. It was a time of widespread and metastasizing violence in South Sudan. The patterns of violence she found while interviewing refugees in Uganda greatly disturbed her.
“Genocide is such a loaded word, so you don’t want to throw it around without evidence and consideration… unfortunately, what I found there convinced me that this was genocidal.”
The book grew out of the question: how did this happen?
As Pinaud says, “How do you have one group that ends up monopolizing wealth, dominating the marriage market, accumulating more wealth, making demographic advances, and then coming to dominate the state and seeking to expand its control to other places that are typically inhabited by members of other ethnic groups?”
After South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the book considers the civil war that began in 2013, in which the recently established state unleashed violence on non-Dinka ethnic groups. The process of power and wealth accumulation for those Dinka followers associated with the state included land grabs, conquest, and targeting non-Dinka people and culture.
Pinaud has worked with her publisher to make the book freely available as a PDF so that, she says, “there is this historical record.”
About the 550 people she interviewed, Pinaud says, “This book is really for them… It’s saying to the victims of this war, ‘We see you. We’ve heard you. There’s a record, and this is not going to be forgotten.’”
“I suspect that this book will disturb a lot of people, and that’s OK. Genocide is not supposed to make you comfortable, so that’s perfectly alright. It’s about opening a dialogue,” Pinaud says.
While the book describes ethnic violence perpetrated by the Dinka, Pinaud’s research shows that there are nuances within this group. Dinka dissenters, too, have been victims.
“Even though this genocide was engineered by a particular faction of the Dinka majority group, a lot of Dinka people have been the victims of repressive violence because you cannot carry out your genocide without silencing people from your own group,” she says.
While reactions to Pinaud’s research have ranged from uncomfortable to—in the case of South Sudan’s government—hostility toward Pinaud, she hopes that the book opens up space for a reset of policy toward South Sudan, since past policy has not worked. The US’s support for establishing South Sudan as an independent nation-state, she says—in addition to its support of South Sudan’s government—means that the US can play a role in lessening the violence there.
Pinaud’s research methodology could also change the way academics and journalists investigate conflict regions. Focusing on regular people rather than elites, as Pinaud did, “gives you completely different visions of this conflict in this country, and that ultimately influences policy, so this has concrete implications,” she says.
After ten years of research, Pinaud’s book serves as a tribute to those who experienced violence, and it could serve to alter policy in the region. War and Genocide in South Sudan can be accessed here, and her recent piece on US-South Sudan relations is published in Le Monde.