Why I Became a Rebel Soldier in South Sudan

Why I Became a Rebel Soldier in South Sudan

By Matthew Stein


Because being surprised is an unseemly luxury sometimes. 

By Matthew Stein

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?” 

South Sudan

My days are full of mental preparation. I wake up, read — mostly about Che Guevara these days. Sometimes I read funny things to help maintain my composure. I’m on the phone a lot, getting reports from the field. I also like to go out and watch people enjoying their lives. But I always have to be careful. Other South Sudanese refugees opposed to the Dinka-led government in Juba have been kidnapped and taken back across the border. There are periods when I need to stay indoors the whole week. I’ve also been forced to move three times since I arrived in Kampala last July. It’s not an easy life; it’s not something anyone would choose.

During independence in 2011, I didn’t expect these problems. We had fought side by side with the Dinkas for the same cause, against the Arabs. I thought we were brothers and sisters. But the government didn’t want federalism; they wanted the central government to control everything. They made the head of the Anglican church a Dinka, the head of police in every county a Dinka, the head of jails a Dinka. People were appointed based on their tribe and not because of qualifications. How do you move forward when one tribe is controlling every sector of society?

I think a genocide is coming. What happened in Rwanda was just a sample.

In Juba I used to drink and eat at a place frequented by government soldiers. They’d come in talking about “successful missions” and I’d think, “Shit, they’re talking about killing my brothers and sisters.” I’d tell them that one day they were going to get what they deserved. I knew saying this openly could cause problems, but I’m not a chicken. Why would I keep quiet? In the restaurant they’d shoot past my head to scare me. Then one day they came to my house and beat me across the face with a gun.

They saw me as a challenge because I’m from the Equatoria region. Even though Equatoria is inhabited by many tribes, they treat us all as one. When fighting broke out between the Dinka and the Nuer in 2013, the Dinkas were upset we didn’t support them. There was also a period of our history when the Dinka were chased out of our region. Now they have the weapons and they see this as payback.

When I found out that my life was in danger, I called my mom in Uganda and told her to send money for a visa or that I might end up dead. I was born in the U.K., so I have a British passport and I used that to get out. I left with just one pair of pants and two shirts and I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving — even my friends in my compound — until I was across the border.


I knew I wanted to join the rebels since I left Juba. I can’t stay here in Uganda. I can’t go on and sleep comfortably while my brothers and sisters are dying of hunger and being raped and killed. I’d be a coward. My father died when I was 23 days old; I want to be around for my two children. But if I don’t go fight, what will they have? Our fathers are refugees. We are refugees. Our children are refugees. When does this stop?

We don’t want to take anybody’s land; we’re just trying to defend what’s ours. Equatorians are peaceful people. If there’s a problem, we solve it amicably through our chiefs. Our people just want to live simple lives — I want to farm poultry — but the Dinkas want to take everything by force. And at a certain moment, you have to put an end to it. If I lose my life fighting, at least my children will know their father fought for a cause and died for a reason. But it’s still hard to tell them I’m leaving. When my mother found out, she started crying and praying and begging me not to go.

South Sudan Rebels

Rebel fighters from the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) smoke rationed cigarettes at their base in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2004.

Source Scott Nelson/Getty

People are not wishing it, but I think a genocide is coming. What happened in Rwanda was just a sample. That country has only two tribes. We have 64 and every one of them is uniting and turning against the Dinka. Right now it’s about defense and getting the children and women into safe zones. But before the end of this year or next, it won’t be defense anymore. It will be attack and I don’t know where the Dinka will run.