By the time Immigration and Customs Enforcement had amassed enough passengers to fill up a deportation flight to East Africa, Duol Tut Jock was ready to leave. He “wanted the waiting to end,” he said, and to “get the shackles off.” They remained on for the long flight that had taken Jock from Louisiana to Juba, the capital of South Sudan—a country that hadn’t even existed when he left Africa in 1994, merely three years old, and entered the United States. “Those shackles are cursed,” he said. It was September 2021, and we were sitting in one of Juba’s riverside bars. After ICE removes someone’s fetters, Jock told me, staring into the White Nile, “they wipe them down, and use them on the next deportee.”
Prior to his deportation in 2019, Jock had spent two years in the limbo of ICE custody, constantly moved between jails as his case shuffled through the courts. “I’ve been all over America,” Jock told me, as he recounted his prison tour: Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, and Texas. I had assumed that all prisons would be the same—a monotony of sad cells and bad food—but Jock insisted on the particularity of his memories. ICE had picked him up in Cook County, Illinois. That was where the prisoners were beaten, he said. In El Paso, he could get a nice iced tea from the canteen. That’s not nothing, not when life is lived suspended between countries, the calendar shows only the next court appearance, and the threat of deportation hangs over every morning in the yard. Jock hoped he might be able to stay in America. That hope ended with removal, the legal term for the moment at which America decides it wants nothing more to do with you.
Jock had no sense of what awaited him. Before his arrival in Juba, he had understood little about South Sudan, a country close to the bottom of many global indexes, except for corruption (in 2019, Transparency International ranked it the second-most corrupt country in the world); where life expectancy was just under fifty-six years, two million people were internally displaced due to conflict and flooding, and more than half the population was severely food insecure. In South Sudan, even those with extensive family networks struggled to survive. Jock knew no one. On the deportation flight, as the plane banked down toward Juba, he gripped the twenty-dollar bill in his pocket. Getting hold of it hadn’t been easy. Jock “knew it was going to be hot as hell here,” so in Cook County jail, he had taken some sandals, which ICE subsequently lost. Jock demanded reimbursement. They wanted to write him a check, he told me, “but what am I going to do with a check here?” When the plane stopped to refuel in Kenya, an ICE officer slipped Jock twenty bucks for the sandals. People had come to America with less, he thought.
As the plane prepared to land in South Sudan, Jock thought he was finally going to see the war up close. “I was ready to run,” he said.
What Jock did know about South Sudan made him nervous. The world’s youngest country had joyfully declared its independence from Sudan in 2011, after more than two decades of a brutal civil war (1983–2005) between the Sudanese government and a guerrilla force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), largely based in southern Sudan. During the war, the Sudanese government had run a counterinsurgency operation on the cheap by setting southern Sudan’s many ethnic groups against each other, in an attempt to fracture the rebels. That was supposed to be the past. The future was going to be bright. South Sudan, its president declared, was a blank slate. International donors poured money into the country, and oil revenue flowed into government coffers. The jubilation didn’t last. Old enmities were soon rekindled, and in 2013 the SPLM split, plunging South Sudan into a new civil war that left nearly four hundred thousand people dead. Jock’s father would tell him stories about the conflict in South Sudan; they felt distant to a young man struggling to make ends meet. As the plane prepared to land in Juba, though, Jock thought he was finally going to see the war up close. From the air, he could see smoke clouds issuing from fires burning across the city. “I was ready to run,” he told me. “We were on Con Air, and we were descending into a warzone.” When the plane finally touched down, it was eerily quiet. “We don’t hear shit . . . not a single gunshot,” Jock said.
When Sudan’s earlier civil war came to an end in 2005, Juba was an embattled stockade town, surrounded by rebel forces. A decade of rapid urban growth then brought an almost endless supply of Toyota Land Cruisers to satiate the desires of corrupt politicians and overpaid humanitarians. But basic services were lacking, and there was little in the way of waste disposal. What Jock saw from the plane was burning trash: as dusk draws in, Juba’s residents burn batteries, leaves, and plastic bags in smoldering fires that produce little cumulus clouds above the city. The war in Juba was not the Hollywood action movie he had envisioned but a day-to-day struggle to survive in a country whose economy had almost entirely ground to a halt amid rampant inflation and government corruption.
The garbage fires were only the first of many surprises Jock was to encounter in Juba. Despite what he had heard about South Sudan, he arrived hopeful about his future. Jock would be a new man in a new country, making a fresh start after twenty-eight years in the American Midwest eking out a hardscrabble life. Following decades of racism, Jock was finally going home. “Back to Africa,” he said. Once the deportees had disembarked, they were taken into detention. No one seemed pleased to see them. “‘What are you niggers doing in our country?’ That’s what they asked me! I thought, not this again.” Despite his frustration, Jock tried to remain calm. He knew no one in Juba and didn’t want to start life in South Sudan by antagonizing its all-powerful security service. At 245 pounds, it was hard for Jock not to call attention to himself. His dreadlocks didn’t help. In South Sudan, dreadlocks are often taken as a sign of criminality, worn by rebel fighters and young men in refugee camps. Fluent in a global argot of American rap, these men often dream of going to the States; they are treated with suspicion by the South Sudanese security services, which refer to them using the familiar American slur. Jock had hoped he would receive a homecoming welcome in Juba, but for the officers at the airport, he was a dangerous element, like the young men of the camps, without a place in South Sudan’s complicated ethnic calculus, in which family connections determine what you are and who you can be.
As he left detention, one of the security officers gave Jock a cigarette. “I’d been in prison since 2016, more or less,” Jock said. Finally free, “I smoked that cigarette,” he told me, “I smoked the shit out of that.” Without family in Juba, Jock turned to Gunnar, one of the young men who had been deported with him, and who had an uncle with whom he could stay. At least he had a bed. Creating a new life, as Jock was soon to discover, would be a challenge of a rather different order.
I started coming to southern Sudan in 2006 and intermittently worked as a researcher and writer in the country as it prepared for independence. Almost a decade later, in 2015, shortly after I finished a PhD in anthropology focused on South Sudan, I began writing what are known as “country of origin expert reports” for South Sudanese immigration cases in America. If a South Sudanese immigrant, applying for asylum or threatened with deportation, is lucky enough to get a lawyer, itself no easy task, and that lawyer is not totally overworked, then they can reach out to a small group of subject-matter experts, such as myself, who can write reports on the likely consequences of their clients being deported.
As my caseload surged, I noticed all my clients had a similar story. They were the children of refugees who had fled the Sudanese civil war and found their way to America.
When I agree to write a report for an immigrant, I am often given their A-file, or Alien-File. It’s the life of a human being, seen from the perspective of the state—not what they did but the decisions made about them. Psychiatric evaluations vie for space with court proceedings. Errors compound. In one of my client’s files, it was sometimes stated that he was born in Khartoum—Sudan’s capital—and sometimes in Juba. Transcription errors, made by a bored clerk in Iowa, render Khartoum as Cartum, and sometimes as Cartom. These are the sorts of administrative mistakes that can determine a life. In one case I worked on, bureaucrats rendered my client’s name differently on different documents, which led the government to claim that he was trying to fraudulently take on multiple identities.
My job was to put a client’s case in the context of what was actually happening in South Sudan. By 2015, the new civil war was in full swing. Around much of the country, the conflict had taken on markedly ethnic dimensions, as politicians mobilized hatred to build constituencies. At the beginning of the war, the government had used a militia force recruited exclusively from among the Dinka—South Sudan’s largest ethnic group—to go door to door killing Nuer civilians in Juba. The Nuer—the second largest ethnic group in the country—constituted the majority of the rebel forces, and the government retaliated by brutally attacking Nuer communities, razing villages and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. The battle lines were complicated: some of the rebels were Dinka, and some of the most loyal government commanders were Nuer. Nuance like this was not useful in the courtroom. Most of the cases I did were for clients who had been found guilty of an offense that meant they were not eligible for asylum. Instead, their lawyers tried to obtain a deferral of removal under the Convention Against Torture. My reports had to show that it was more than likely that the client, if deported to South Sudan, would face torture or death. Sadly, it wasn’t a difficult task. The government was targeting civilians on the basis of their ethnic identity. Human Rights Watch had documented it, as had Amnesty International, and so had I, in my other life as a conflict researcher.
The long lists of atrocities I recited didn’t appease officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). On occasion, I would be asked to testify about the reports I wrote, and on cross-examination, government lawyers would nonchalantly ask if, given that the Nuer were indeed being exterminated in their areas of origin, they might not be able to live elsewhere in the country. It was as if they were discussing my clients moving to a better school district. Unfortunately, I would reply, government-backed ethnic cleansing was occurring throughout the country. I was on the winning side in almost all the cases in which I was involved, but I resented having to prove that people would almost certainly die if they were deported, only for my clients to gain but a temporary reprieve. For if it could be later claimed that conditions in South Sudan had improved, then deportation orders could be renewed, and my clients would once again face exile from the country they called home. Often the clients in the dock were like Jock and didn’t know much about South Sudan. When I testified in court, I was frequently the bearer of distinctly bad news: if you are deported, it is unlikely you will live.
Initially, I only dealt with a few cases a year. Things changed when Donald Trump came to power. His administration enacted a whole series of measures against asylum seekers and migrants and reopened hundreds of immigration cases. As my caseload surged, I noticed all my clients had a similar story. They were the children of refugees who had fled the horrors of the Sudanese civil war to Egypt, Ethiopia, or Kenya, and then found their way to America. Having left Sudan at an early age, they remembered little of their past lives. None of them were South Sudanese in any substantive sense, though all were victims of legal shifts that had occurred after South Sudan’s secession. In retaliation, the Sudanese government had stripped citizenship from anyone with family ties to the south, even those who had spent their entire lives in northern Sudan. South Sudan offers citizenship to people whose parents are considered South Sudanese, and so the Trump administration argued that these young men, who had known only America since they were children, could be returned to a country they had never even visited.
Nebraska and the Nuer
If Trump’s persecution of my clients was part of a revanchist white nativism taking hold in America, these immigrants’ original presence in the country was partly due to a white-savior complex on Capitol Hill. In the 1980s, America started closing its doors to migrants. The end of the Cold War made the situation even more difficult. While asylum seekers had once been useful tools in a propaganda war—victims of communism to be accepted into the free world with open arms—by the 1990s, the talk was of terrorists, drug dealers, and hordes at the gates. Politicians came to power promising to stem the flow of migrants into America. It was Bill Clinton who built the first contemporary sections of Trump’s border wall, authorizing the construction of a security fence in El Paso and San Diego.
Nebraska might seem like an odd choice for immigrants used to the intense sun. Nevertheless, it’s home to the largest Nuer community in the world outside South Sudan.
Still, some populations found themselves blessed by geopolitical favor. During the 1990s, an influential group of U.S. senators close to the Christian evangelical lobby made Sudan their hobbyhorse. For these senators—some of whom had fallen under the spell of the SPLM’s charismatic leader, John Garang, who had a PhD in economics from Iowa State—the Sudanese regime was composed of Muslim terrorists hell-bent on enslaving the Christian south of the country. America, as the foremost Christian nation on earth, had a duty to come to the south’s aid. America settled tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in the 1990s. Jock’s family are Nuer and lived in Greater Upper Nile, one of the areas of southern Sudan most affected by the civil war. In the early 1990s, they fled across the border into Gambella, Ethiopia, and settled into a refugee camp, which is where they were processed for resettlement in America.
They touched down in Louisiana in 1994. Their plan, as for so many migrants, was to work, to learn English, and to leave the horrors of war behind. For four peripatetic years, they moved back and forth between Memphis, where Jock’s father worked at a shellfish joint, and Fort Worth, where they had family, before finally settling in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1998. For Nuer immigrants used to the intense sun of the South Sudanese dry season, Nebraska, with its snow-covered flat plains of suburban housing, might seem like an odd choice. Nevertheless, it’s home to the largest Nuer community in the world outside South Sudan. In the 1990s, resettlement agencies had sent Nuer refugees out across the country, but they quickly converged on Nebraska, attracted by cheap housing and low unemployment.
Both Nebraskans and Nuer also have a particular relationship with cows. In South Sudan, the Nuer are largely pastoralists, whose lives are focused on their livestock. It’s hard to overstate the centrality of cattle to the Nuer. Human names are derived from cow names. Children walk for hours tending to their relatives’ herds. For a young man, adult life traditionally begins with a series of initiation rites—including vaulting over a cow—after which he can, with the assistance of his father and other male relatives, start accumulating the livestock that will allow him to pay the bridewealth required to get married. In the Greater Upper Nile region whence Jock’s family hails, I’ve spent days listening to people describe their herds with an intimacy that almost made me envious. The vast herds still accumulated by South Sudan’s political class testify to cattle’s ongoing centrality to Nuer life.
Nebraska has an abundance of livestock (almost four times more cows than people) but a considerably less tender relationship to cattle. As was the case for earlier Eastern European immigrants to Nebraska, most of the available jobs for Nuer arrivals are in the meatpacking industry, which is where Jock’s entire family ended up. Both his parents were employed at Omaha Beef, as was his brother, who worked the killing floor before being promoted to cutter. His specialty was ribs, and he would cleave them apart with a buzz saw, rack after rack, hour after hour, day after day. In South Sudan, each cow has a name and a history that binds it to the community. In Nebraska, Jock told me, cows are nothing but meat.
Jock saw how laboring in the meatpacking factory exhausted his family, but it was an income. Life in Nebraska was hard. The African American population tended to look down on the Nuer community. “At school,” Jock told me, “they would say I was from National Geographic. We were all Black, but they treated us like enemies.” Before middle school, Jock said, he became an accessory to what he called “my first crime.” He was in fourth grade, and with friends, he jumped in a car for a joy ride around the city. Soon the offenses started piling up, and fights with African American students led to Jock frequently being suspended, and then expelled, as one school led to another, and then another. By seventeen years old, Jock was spinning from group homes to alternative schools to house arrests. “I was angry at my parents,” Jock said, “and I was angry at the whole world. No one could control me.”
When Jock told me about his youth, I was struck by how quintessentially American his story sounded. It was a tale of casual police violence and incomprehensible state bureaucracy, of being pulled over in Iowa and arrested in Omaha, of being alienated at school and frustrated at work. Jock had always dreamed big—of music and film and business—and those hopes only framed more bleakly the dullness of the employment he could find. If Jock’s story was as American as apple pie, then it was the American state, I thought, that should bear some responsibility for it. The state was of no help. Had Jock understood immigration law, he would have known that having entered the country as a refugee in 1994, he could have applied to become an American citizen in his teens.
Later, there were other things Jock would come to wish he had known. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Nuer gangs formed in Nebraska, both to defend the Nuer community living in the tough housing projects of Omaha’s northside and to rescue some sense of identity from the blood-drenched dreariness of the meatpacking factories. Jock joined a gang known as Trip Set, and his charge sheet started to mount up, principally with minor drug charges. In 2010, he was also convicted for shoplifting and aggravated burglary. He accepted a plea deal for the latter, not knowing that while such a deal would shorten his sentence, accepting culpability would mean he had violated the terms of his refugee status in America, rendering him vulnerable to deportation proceedings.
After his release from jail, Jock started a roaming existence, moving between relatives in Omaha and Iowa, where his parents had moved. In 2011, just a month after South Sudan declared its independence, Jock was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia while driving from Omaha to Des Moines. The aggravated burglary charge he had earlier accepted meant that Jock was removable from the United States, and deportation proceedings began. Neither Sudan nor South Sudan were willing to provide travel documents for Jock, however, and in May 2012, ICE released him into the loving custody of his new girlfriend, for whom he moved to Minnesota. As Jock began a new life, a civil war started in South Sudan. Among the first Nuer to die was a Nebraskan. At the conflict’s outset, in December 2013, Lam Chuol Thichuong, a Marine Corps veteran of the war in Iraq and the private secretary to the leading Nuer politician in South Sudan, was shot dead in the street. Nebraska became a distant frontline of the war. Rebel leaders visited the state to raise funds; Nuer travelling to Juba from Nebraska were marked out as rebel sympathizers. On the streets of Omaha, gang violence echoed the ethnic divisions of the war.
The conflict in South Sudan still felt far away to Jock, who struggled to find employment due to his uncertain legal status in America. Like many Americans, his life was strung out between too many jobs that paid too little, in a system that considered him superfluous. Not only was Jock Black and poor, but he also lived with the threat of deportation hanging over his head. Nothing could be permanent. By the end of 2014, his relationship had run aground, and he had moved back to Omaha. Jock started running the streets again, moving marijuana between Iowa and Nebraska. In March 2016, he was arrested for possession of a firearm. This proved the impetus for America, as so often in our country’s political life, to attempt to solve a domestic problem by moving it abroad. By 2017, ICE was sunnily advising the immigration court that the American relationship with South Sudan had improved, and Juba would shortly issue the travel document that would enable Jock’s deportation.
Jock had picked the wrong moment to pick up a gun. Critics are correct to point out that deportation didn’t begin with Trump. As Adam Goodman has argued in The Deportation Machine, since the nineteenth century, deportation has been a tool used by the American government to terrorize immigrant populations and create a pliable labor force. Many of the measures that have recently shaped immigration policy have had widespread bipartisan appeal. It was under Clinton, for instance, with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, that formal deportations became a standard feature of American life—one massively ramped up by the Obama administration. Still, it takes a particular flavor of contrarian leftist to deny the radical transformations that occurred under Trump’s regime. The number of ICE agents tripled, and removal proceedings in immigration courts were fast-tracked. While Trump’s rhetoric focused on his frontier wall with Mexico, bureaucratically, he turned the whole country into a border. ICE arrests went up by 30 percent in 2017, following an executive order on immigration, issued just after Trump’s inauguration, which gave sweeping powers of detention to the agency. In December 2017, ICE took custody of Jock, and finally obtained a travel document for him from South Sudan’s embassy. Jock successfully fought his deportation for two years, but by 2019, he had run out of chances.
When it finally came, the deportation was sudden. Jock was offered no chance to let his relatives know what was happening. After he arrived in Juba, he struggled to find a way to contact his family. He had no phone and no phone numbers. Even when he finally got established, he still couldn’t get through to his wife, Taylor. They had married in 2017, while Jock was in prison, and the stress of that weighed on her. Taylor, a Haitian some six years older than Jock, was diabetic and in urgent need of a kidney transplant. Only in April 2021 did Jock receive a call from his sister-in-law. Taylor had died in December 2020, a year after Jock’s removal.
Returning to Nowhere
What happens when people are deported to a country in which they have never set foot? In 2019, Jock arrived in South Sudan standing six feet and three inches tall, his bulk burnished by months of working out in prison. Eighteen months later, when I first met him in September 2021, his clothes hung loosely from his gaunt frame. He had lost eighty pounds. Jock had arrived in South Sudan with diabetes and glaucoma. Juba added its own maledictions: chronic malaria and night sweats, worms and malnutrition.
“On every deportation document,” Jock told me, “there is a number. That’s the number of years before you are allowed back to the States.”
In addition to the weight loss, Jock’s dreadlocks were gone. Too much trouble with the police, he told me on our first meeting. I was in Juba en route to Upper Nile to do research for a Swiss organization on conflict in South Sudan. Though a peace agreement between the South Sudanese government and the rebels had been signed in 2018, violence throughout the country had increased. A tenuous peace held only in Juba. This was the story I told in the country-of-origin expert reports I continued to write back in America: in South Sudan, there was a war called peace. In six years of doing deportation cases, I had only once been on the losing side, but I knew that the immigrants I worked with represented but a tiny proportion of the men who had been threatened with deportation during Trump’s presidency, and many had been sent to South Sudan.
I was eager to discover what had happened to these men. It turned out to be none too difficult to find the deportees. Through discreet inquiries amongst Nuer friends, I learned of a group living in Juba, some of whom had known each other in Nebraska, while others had banded together after arriving in South Sudan. Hot Chip, a rapper, introduced me to one deportee, who in turn connected me to Jock.
On our first meeting, I had arranged to pick Jock up at Gunnar’s uncle’s residence and take him out for lunch. When I arrived at the appointed hour, Jock was nowhere to be seen, and it took a few minutes to find him, still sleeping, in a corrugated iron lean-to next to the wall of the compound. A small table in front of the bed bore all the detritus of a night spent intent on oblivion: scrunched up packets of cigarettes and empty plastic gin bottles. Despite his eighteen months in South Sudan, Jock was instantly recognizable as an American. He hadn’t adopted the bright neon colors and skintight blue jeans worn by Juba’s young men. In his red track pants and loose black T-shirt, Jock could have walked back onto the streets of the Midwest without anyone noticing—except, of course, the state.
I took Jock and Gunnar, who was staying at the same compound, to eat at an Ethiopian-run restaurant. Slathering his biryani in hot sauce, Jock explained that insomnia had stalked him since he had first arrived in South Sudan. Nights in Juba are hot and noisy, and the mosquitos are in search of company, but it was the memories that kept him up at night: a wedding in Omaha, the taste of iced tea, family faces. Gunnar wore sunglasses throughout our lunch and spoke so softly I had to strain to hear him. Insomnia is a problem, he said, but so is sleeping. Sometimes, he told me, he sleeps all day. There was nothing to do, nothing to fill the hours, no way to write onto the blank slate—in that respect, life in Juba was not dissimilar to prison.
As we ate biryani, Jock and Gunnar reminisced about America. South Sudanese food was not to Jock’s liking. He hated kisra, the fermented sorghum pancake that is Juba’s staple. He missed Heineken and Reese’s Pieces. What he would do, he said, to a bag of Skittles. Jock had clearly had a long night, and we talked about the joy of early-morning fried chicken after the club and Jock fantasized about opening a twenty-four-hour gas station in Juba—a little bit of Americana in the middle of South Sudan.
Jock seemed optimistic about his chances in Juba. He told me he didn’t like to tell people he was deported. Understandably, he didn’t want to live with the stain of the label and its connotations of criminality. Instead, he told people he had chosen a new home. America was a delusion. “We watched that shit in Minneapolis,” he said, “and it confirmed something for me. I don’t ever want to go back.”
“We are the true South Sudanese,” Jock told me at the restaurant. “Everyone else is obsessed with tribalism. They think as Dinka or Nuer. We aren’t like that.” It was true that in my trips around the country as a conflict researcher, I saw that the vision of a unified South Sudan promised by independence had shattered, and people referred to their ethnic group, or even their village, as their primary marker of identity. The war in South Sudan had become a zero-sum set of conflicts, including between different sections of the Nuer. While Nuer conflict in America often reprised the divisions of South Sudan, once the deportees arrived in Juba, according to Jock, these divides vanished. The deportees, Jock said, had no ethnicity. They were held together only by the fact they were no longer Americans, and insofar as they had no identity, they could actually be a model of what South Sudan should be: Nuer, Dinka, and other groups, bound together in common cause. The deportees, he told me, looked after each other.
Other deportees were less sanguine about life in Juba, Jock admitted. “On every deportation document,” Jock told me, “there is a number. That’s the number of years before you are allowed back to the States. My number is ten. I have eight to go. Not that I think about it too much. My life is here now.” Others can’t accept that they have been deported, Jock claimed, and hold onto the impossible hope that their cases might be reopened. Over the phone, or on WhatsApp, they view family marriages and the triumphs of their friends. These events, conveyed via snatches of video, are more concrete than anything that happens in Juba. Every day, Jock told me, they look at the numbers printed on their deportation cards.
An American in Juba
For most deportees, just as for most South Sudanese, life means waiting. In South Sudan, power and possibility flow downwards. While doing research in Juba, I often go and talk to ministers and state governors, passing through antechambers full of young men slouched on aged couches. They hope to get some time with a politician, to ask after a job or some money. Mostly, however, they are just waiting. Their passivity is structural. Without the intercession of a higher power—a politician or a military commander—there is no way to be saved, and nothing to do but wait.
The entire country was in flames, and the peace agreement was barely holding.
Jock, too, was waiting. Gunnar’s uncle presided over what was effectively a flophouse, in which a group of young men lived, drank, smoked, and quarreled. Jock wanted to find a way out, but for that he needed money. Getting work proved difficult for the deportees. Jock talked darkly about men lost in alcohol or meth. Some took dangerous jobs. One worked in gold mining in the south of the country and came back from long weeks in the jungle, close to rebel-held areas, to drink away his earnings in silence. Others went with Qatari traffickers who came to Juba in the run-up to the World Cup looking for workers willing to pay $1,500 and hand over their passports in order to sweat in stadiums, die on building sites, or smile for visiting dignitaries. Jock steered clear of the traffickers. “I’ve spent too long in DHS cages,” he told me, “to give anybody my passport ever again.”
That didn’t leave him many options when it came to employment. While Jock grew up understanding Nuer, he arrived speaking no Arabic, Juba’s lingua franca, and his American-accented English marked him out. “Everywhere I asked for work,” he told me, “the moment they heard my voice, they knew I was a deportee. They called me a criminal.” Too American to be South Sudanese, he was too South Sudanese to qualify for work with humanitarian organizations, which maintain a strict dividing line between local staff and internationals. As a South Sudanese national, he formally couldn’t apply for work as an international, while substantively, he was excluded from the local family networks that determined who got much-desired South Sudanese positions within the humanitarian system.
Being Nuer also posed a problem for Jock. While he could avail himself of none of the support structures that might aid Nuer born in South Sudan, his inability to speak Arabic or Dinka marked him out as a target. Dinka soldiers aligned with the government could beat him without fear of retaliation. Once, Jock told me, he had been robbed by the South Sudanese security services. He had been on the back of a motorbike and was pulled over at one of the many military checkpoints that punctuate Juba. At the checkpoints, soldiers drink alcohol to enliven dull hours, and the later the night gets, the higher the price extracted from passing motorists. When Jock was stopped, they listened to nothing he said, hearing only his inability to speak Arabic or Dinka. Once they understood Jock was Nuer, they took everything, and he knew there was nothing he could do.
His father advised Jock to go to Gambella, a Nuer-majority area in Ethiopia, on the border with South Sudan, where he had family. It was in a refugee camp in Gambella that Jock and his family had stayed so many years ago while waiting to be resettled in America. Jock’s brother, who had been deported earlier, had already returned to a village full of relatives, married, and started a business. “Back to the village?” Jock asked. “The future is in Juba. This country has crazy potential. What would I do in the village?” Jock shook his head. He had Juba dreams. He could open a record label. South Sudanese rappers need better representation. He could open a youth center. The children have nothing to do. All Jock needed was some start-up capital. “I just need something to get me on my feet,” he said.
I’ve only heard of two deportees who have ever left Juba. It’s understandable. In Juba, dreams can have an American tint. Ambitions to start up record labels and create burgeoning companies are not unlike the hopes Jock had in Nebraska. The rest of the country is another world. South Sudan is overwhelmingly composed of small farmers and cattle herders. Much of the country is hungry, and most of it mired in conflict. It isn’t easy to know how Jock and his friends, still neophytes to the country’s complicated ethnic politics, would navigate life outside the capital.
Unemployed, Jock was materially reliant on cash transfers from his relatives in the States. Those transfers enabled him to survive but made life in Juba difficult. “Women think I am an ATM,” he said. “They think I am getting all this money from America. Everyone thinks I’m rich.” He shook his head. Sometimes, he walked all morning, under a hot sun, looking for work. He would go without food for days. By the end of 2021, Jock had pinned all his hopes on Gunnar’s uncle. “He told me,” Jock said, “that I have a choice: either the military or the police.” Gunnar had chosen the former. After the signing of the peace agreement in 2018, grand plans were announced for a unified national army, combining rebels and government soldiers. Many commanders went on recruitment drives, designed to inflate the number of troops under their command. Nuer recruits like Gunnar, presumed to be rebels, were sent to cantonment sites to await wages that would never come; the government was only too happy to have Nuer soldiers waste away in remote areas without food or medical care.
Jock had chosen the police. He relished the thought. “After all I have been through,” he told me, “to work as a police in South Sudan.” After years of harassment by American cops, the idea of appearing on the other side appealed to Jock. Even better, he was to work in Gudele, a customs post for goods arriving in Juba from Uganda. It would be Jock’s turn to decide about the passage of things and people into the country he had come to call his own. Besides, he suggested, if Gunnar’s uncle, a high-ranking police officer, ever had business in the States, Jock could go with him, as a bodyguard. “Just to see family, you understand,” he said.
Back to the Land
I left Juba in December 2021 and kept in contact with Jock over the phone. Every time we spoke, he had a new scheme and fresh optimism about life in South Sudan. Each plan, though, fell through, killed by a lack of capital and the difficulty of doing anything in Juba. Meanwhile, news from the United States weighed on him. His mother got ill and then lost her apartment. His cousin was shot in intra-Nuer gangland fighting. A month later, two of his close friends were also killed in the same violent cycle. Jock used an app to get a proxy American phone number and chose a Nebraska area code. “I called my friends about the deaths and they were like, ‘you back?’” Jock remained suspended between worlds.
I couldn’t follow the whole story, and perhaps Jock didn’t understand either, but it ended up with Jock in a police station once again, this time on the South Sudanese border.
Eight months later, in September 2022, I was back in Juba, on my way to a contested territory on the Sudan-South Sudan border, to do research for a different Swiss organization. The entire country was in flames, and the peace agreement was barely holding. I had lunch with Jock in the same Ethiopian restaurant in which we had first talked. He looked even more emaciated than before, despite having started work at the National Revenue Association as a customs officer. It was midafternoon when we met, and I asked whether he needed to be at the office. Jock explained that the whole thing was a scam. The uncle had used Jock to add another name to payroll, but his wages went straight into the uncle’s pocket, and there wasn’t even the redemption of work that needed doing. Jock was just a name in the system.
The morning before my lunch with Jock, I had been touring the foreign embassies of Juba, dutifully briefing diplomats on the situation in South Sudan. The Americans wanted to wash their hands of the country. Independence seemed like a lifetime ago. Back in 2011, America congratulated itself on the country’s secession in paternalistic terms: it was America, the State Department told itself, that had pushed Khartoum into a peace agreement with the SPLM, and America that had backed self-determination for the South Sudanese. By 2022, having spent a decade supporting a kleptocratic South Sudanese government bent on violently displacing much of the country’s population, America had pronounced itself dissatisfied and drawn down its commitments. That summer, the United States had withdrawn funding even from the ceasefire monitors that were supposed to report on the government’s many violations of the peace agreement.
At lunch, Jock seemed disenchanted with the possibility of making a life in Juba. For the first time, he talked seriously about going back to the village. “Finding myself a wife, maybe getting some cows.” I warned Jock that in Upper Nile, on the border with Gambella, serious clashes had broken out, and most of the population was already displaced. He didn’t seem dissuaded.
After I left South Sudan in October, we spoke intermittently over WhatsApp. Jock had started to try and clean up his act, attending a Nigerian evangelical church in Juba, and he spoke again about heading to Gambella, where, his father suggested, a wife was waiting for him. In March of the following year, Jock took a plane to Pagak on the South Sudan-Ethiopia border and slipped across. He had no idea, Jock told me, that he had so many relatives. There was a party when he arrived. Aunts and uncles who had held him as a baby, three long decades ago, surrounded him, welcoming him back to the place of his birth. “There is nothing to do here, though,” Jock conceded. “Some of the other deportees here, they just drink all day.”
Nevertheless, Jock sounded bright. He talked enthusiastically about his prospective bride, who is from a different Nuer section, which no one in his family had married into. Characteristically, Jock was testing boundaries, right from the outset. When we last spoke, he told me about the problems he had getting the bridewealth for the marriage together. It was late at night, and he held his phone up in the air so I could hear the machine gun fire. The war was not far away. He mentioned that he had already run afoul of some of the complicated systems of economic reciprocity that govern life among the Nuer pastoralists of Gambella and Upper Nile. I couldn’t follow the whole story, and perhaps Jock didn’t understand either, but it ended up with Jock in a police station once again, this time on the South Sudanese border. Apparently, his family had managed to get him out, and as Jock spoke to me, I heard them all around him, chatting in low tones in Nuer. We spoke about life in America, about the sight of snow, and when he spoke to his family in Nuer, I could hear his American accent.