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.
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 US 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 US-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 US 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.”