Ragged Edges

The U.S. slammed shut a border crossing to Mexico after 9/11, isolating and starving a village on the other side. The passage reopened in 2013, but stark divisions remain.

BOQUILLAS DEL CARMEN, Mexico-On the southern bank of the Rio Grande, beneath the scarps of the Sierra del Carmen, a handful of mule jockeys in soiled baseball hats shelter from the sun under a straw canopy. On a plastic chair beside them, the boatman Víctor Valdez croons a cappella rancheras. The river at their feet is not T.S. Eliot's "strong brown god -- sullen, untamed and intractable." It is a shallow, emasculated stream, turbid with sediment and livestock dung. Its power is metaphysical: For more than 1,200 miles, the Rio Grande's thalweg marks the international border between Mexico and the United States. 

Eleven years ago, in a fit of post-9/11 isolationism, the United States outlawed the riparian passage that Valdez had traveled for decades, between Big Bend National Park in Texas and Boquillas del Carmen, the Mexican village on the other side of the river. The closing cost the park an estimated $270,000 per year in lost revenue from would-be purchases made by visitors en route to Mexico and by shoppers coming over from Boquillas. And it paralyzed the tiny tourist trap of a village, which had depended almost entirely on the congenially open door to the United States. The nearest gas station or grocery on the Mexican side is 150 miles away; Boquillas is so remote that even drug cartels haven't bothered to contest it. 

After Washington slammed shut the crossing, the village lost most of its income. Its population shrank from 300 people to 100. Those who could fled to the interior; their adobes crumbled, evoking a war zone. Those who couldn't leave grew maize and legumes by the river and raised goats. 

Eleven years of hardship followed. The local diet of beans and tortillas was supplemented by the occasional offerings that benevolent gringos sneaked across the border. Treadle sewing machines for local artisans went in, quilts and gimcracks went out; money went in, but not enough, never enough. The drought of 2011 killed many goats and much of the harvest. Some Boquillans would wade across the water to deposit copper-wire tarantulas and beaded peacocks on Big Bend's trails, next to honesty jars and bits of cardboard scrawled with suggested prices of a few dollars. Valdez, who had his own jar, would slog halfway across the river and serenade hikers. 

Then, in April 2013, the U.S. government reopened the crossing: A stunning anomaly on a militarized frontier dense with history, narco-violence, symbolism, and grief. A new $2.1 million customs building for the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry now squats behind a small garden of desert flowers and ocotillo, tucked into a cottonwood grove in the southeastern reaches of Big Bend. From the back of the building, a neat boardwalk sashays beneath steamy salt cedars and observation cameras down to the Rio Grande, to a sandy boat landing across from Valdez and his friends. A portal suddenly toed ajar.

But only just. At the port of entry, passport control is managed remotely: U.S. government agents in El Paso check documents via an automated kiosk that looks like a hybrid of a phone booth and an ATM. Most Boquillans, who do not have documents that can be read digitally, must stay on their side of the river.


I always have hewn to borders -- ragged outer edges, stripped of what Gretel Ehrlich has called "the stiff veneer of civilization," the gritty, awkward membranes that resonate and amplify our most intimate aspirations and frustrations. Borderlands carry the promise, true or false, of happiness, healing, enrichment, or simply escape -- and they also embody the impossibility of an exit, the dashed dreams, the boundary between what is and what is desired. Erecting or identifying borders is a primal need; so is testing them. We tiptoe across minefields to buy bread, we bring down the Berlin Wall, we puncture the rim of the visible sky and piece apart microbial life in the Hadal deep. With each crossing we create new metanarratives. "Most often," writes Barry Lopez, "changes come from a society's outlying districts."

Life is acutest at such fault lines. Borders are where hope and fear, virtue and disgrace reach their utmost density, where our most rigid Manichaean impulse -- to bisect the world into Self and Other -- finds a perfect outlet. Points of tangency that bind real or perceived economic hellholes to imagined lands of plenty ooze with chance and desire on one side, vigilance and pity on the other. Superstitions swell to magnitudes of statehood. Droughts and floods warp brittle boundaries of water rights. Masked militiamen guard theological divides. Frontlines delineate perimeters of life and death. 

What some call the periphery is the epicenter of life-giving friction between violence and beauty, between the ancient and the modern, the precarious balancing that shapes the intricacies of our humanness. We often talk about borders keeping us apart, and they do -- but pan out to the sky and look down. We have sutured the Earth with walls, concertina wires, I-beam fences, Hesco barriers, tribal allegiances, religious fealties, and we are always meddling with the seams. To understand us better, travel where the stitching shows. 

There is another reason borders seduce me: They are mirrors of the boundaries we carry within, of our inner compasses and intrusions. Even a beloved can be a frontier. I once had a lover who lived by a border, and he was forever redrawing the boundaries of our love. I never knew for certain if he would wave me through or turn me away. He was a landscape of desire, and I was always trespassing, always pondering the range and limitations of our hearts.

If finding and revising our personal boundaries is a lifetime task, then exploring the borders and boundaries of others allows for an introspection, a questioning: Where do I draw my own? And why?

So I pilgrimed to America's most schismatic river, which draws its waters just east of the Continental Divide and ploughs its course through a landscape sundered over 100 million years of geologic tumult. The 2,000-mile-long boundary between the United States and Mexico is the site of world's most massive cross-border migration: According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2012, 159 million people crossed in cars, in buses, and on foot. Boquillas, which peers at the United States across the hazel flow of the Rio Grande, seemed a good vantage point from which to take stock of the meaning of borders. To stretch my own boundaries, I brought along Fyodor, my teenage son, who never had accompanied me on reporting trips before. In August, he and I drove to Big Bend, hired a dingy across the river, and trudged up to Boquillas in forenoon summer heat.


From under his thatch canopy, Valdez dispatches a small crowd of oarsmen and muleteers to escort tourists to Boquillas. Some of the oarsmen wear shiny nametags and t-shirts embellished with the words BOQUILLAS INTERNATIONAL FERRY and the dubious promise: YOUR RIDE TO THE OTHER SIDE. The young man who takes us across is "Iván Sánchez, Boat Operator." 

The week the border reopened, the Big Bend Gazette ran a cartoon of an emaciated calavera with a pair of scissors slumped by an I-beam fence marked "Boquillas Crossing," too weak to cut the ceremonial ribbon. And the day we drop in, there are not a lot of visitors to the village. The crossing, once open constantly, now allows traffic only Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Boquillas used to wine, dine, and sell souvenirs to some 300 visitors a day, six months of the year; last summer, on a good day, ten day-trippers crossed the river to the village where 40 families still hunger. 

"A border holds meaning proportionate to the disparity between the two entities on either side of it," said David Keller, an archaeologist and historian at the Center for Big Bend Studies in Alpine, Texas, two hours north of Boquillas. "We have a Third World country on the other side. That's why it's much more meaningful than, say, the border with Canada."

In Boquillas, the Rio Grande is a fickle god that giveth and taketh away. Ask Bernardo Rojel and his wife Lilia Falcón. Falcón's father, José, opened a restaurant in Boquillas in 1973. He died two years before the border slammed shut, before Falcón and Rojel had to close the restaurant. "It was a good thing to me, that he didn't see the closing," Falcón told me. "He would have been devastated." The couple reopened Falcón Restaurant -- the only surviving eatery in the village -- in April. The menu is an honest sampler of Boquillas's diet: beans, tortillas, Nescafé, soda, beer. There are hopeful repairs in the kitchen, and music screeches from the open windows of a roofer's rusty pickup.

But there is a quiet dolefulness about the place. The couple's five children live in Woodstock, Georgia, with Falcón's mother. Falcón has a U.S. passport; Rojel does not. A few times a week, Falcón crosses the river to Big Bend's Rio Grande Village campground store to chat with the kids on Facebook and by e-mail. There is no cell-phone coverage in Boquillas, no Internet. Rojel has not spoken to his children since he left the United States in 2011. 

From across the border, Falcón brings her husband a bottle of blue Powerade. Blue is the favorite color of their youngest daughter, Josie, who turned 12 this fall. Rojel drinks. The bottle top rattles on the wooden bar, wobbles, wobbles, stops. At a plastic restaurant table, a mule driver stares across the river, nursing a glass bottle of warm Coke: a prized token of First-World junk in a village with no electricity. 

The crossing at Boquillas is not the saddest passage across the line that separates Mexico from the United States. One hundred and thirty miles upstream, Mexican children from San Antonio del Bravo wade illegally across the Rio Grande to catch a bus to an American school in Presidio, Texas. Upstream further still, the three long spans that link El Paso to its macabre southern twin, Ciudad Juárez, carry subdued queues of pilgrims seeking exit from one of the world's most lethal cities. Farther west gleams the desiccated ossuary of aspirant immigrants along Arizona's Devil's Highway. 

The Boquillas crossing packs a different kind of heartbreak, a hushed dolor of understatements. Valdez's voice transforms "La Distancia Entre los Dos" from a song of two lovers into a serenade for the atomized longing that coagulates over the riverside carrizo cane, a longing for an impossible union. The ballads of Boquillas are the elegiac keening of the thousands for whom la frontera spells the ultimate divide.

Outside the restaurant, along the steep flint road from the river to the village, women and sometimes entire families stand by foldout tables set with wire peacocks, beaded scorpions, and painted walking sticks for sale. They say nothing. Some follow us with their eyes. Our ride to the other side has taken us to the land of the dead. 

Then a mariachi band on the roofer's truck radio starts a polka, and the muleteer with the Coke bottle does a little two-step shuffle in his sneakers. For a moment, the spell is broken.


I grew up in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union, knowing that I never in my life would cross a state border. The communist government guarded the frontiers lest cross-border travel puncture the anti-utopian time bubble within. The refuseniks were only the most internationally renowned example. The Russian language of the Cold War aptly divided the world into "here" and zagranitsa -- "beyond the borders" or "out of bounds." 

"I wonder what one experiences when one crosses the border," Ryszard Kapuscinski, the globe-trotting Polish journalist who also grew up behind the Iron Curtain, recalls thinking before his first international journey in Travels with Herodotus. "What does one feel? What does one think? It must be a moment of great emotion, agitation, tension. What is it like, on the other side?" 

My friends and I pieced together zagranitsa from censored foreign films, from brightly dressed Western tourists whom KGB minders herded from Intourist buses to the Hermitage, from the scent of Donald Duck bubble gum wrappers we collected and traded with one another. I had never tasted, or seen, the gum itself. When I was about 12, I traveled with my grandmother to East Germany. My Leningrad classmates said it wasn't quite zagranitsa, but still. There were border guards: first Soviet, with dogs, then Polish, without. What followed was culture shock: The supermarket in Frankfurt am Oder had sausage. In the Berlin zoo there are no cages, just deep trenches filled with water. Animals without borders. 

In Leningrad, we knew that even if we managed to procure permission to exit, few countries outside the Soviet Bloc would issue us visas: Soviet citizens were threats to never return to our pauperized homeland. In 1990, Russia supplied the single largest group of international migrants, more than 12 million. (Today, the most migrants come from Mexico.) We were the muleteers of Boquillas. Except I had never had a Coke.

Then the wall came down, the bubble burst, the borders opened and changed shape. In the summer of 1990, my mother and I arrived in the United States for a month-long visit. I was 14. We landed at JFK and stepped outside. It didn't smell like bubble gum. It smelled like piss. 

I grew up and became a foreign correspondent who crosses borders for a living. I carry a U.S. passport now, but I have lived and worked on the world's margins most of my life. And in my heart forever lies a kernel of Third-World fear. My first impulse at a border remains to hold my breath. I have no right to be here, I will be found out. Each crossing still comes with an element of disbelief. 

Some border memories: The frontier with Uzbekistan a few miles northwest of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, a 3,000-year-old city on the Great Silk Road. Uzbek border guards flag down my hired ramshackle Zhiguli, order me and two colleagues to walk across a strip of cow dung. They say it is to stop hoof-and-mouth disease from crossing the border on the soles of our boots. It's a dewy morning in September 2002; the manure is gloppy. We pull up our pants and plod across. 

Highway 30 in Jordan, just west of Karameh Border Crossing out of Iraq. It is May 2003, near sunset. We are five in the car, crabby, grieving, humiliated, worn out after watching gunshot victims bleed to death in the understaffed and plundered hospitals of Baghdad; after reporting for weeks from a city raked by artillery fire and street bombings; after seeing mothers rebury the skeletal remains of their sons exhumed from dusty mass graves into which Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat had spooned its victims; after enduring an abusive customs check at the border. Suddenly, the driver pulls over, cranks up his car radio, and my companions pile out of the car into the empty road and begin to dance. They shake their shoulders and clap their hands to bad Egyptian pop. They jiggle their chests and drop to their knees and laugh. Soon, we are all dancing, dancing, dancing against death on the desert highway.

This year, I've been herding cattle with a family of Fulani cowboys in Mali. The Fulani are nomads, the world's most brazen trespassers. They do not believe in borders. They believe God created the land, all of it, for their cows. They cross boundaries incessantly and with abandon: state borders, farm partitions, unseen ancient limits that surround precious watering holes. They pay for their insolence, too. Last year, 30 people died in a skirmish between Fulani herders and Dogon farmers on the border with Burkina Faso, near my host family's wet-season pasture. 

When we go to sleep at night, we spread sheets of plastic and woven straw mats on the ground near the cattle, with nothing to shield us from one another, from passing herders, from somnambulist cows, from the sequined sky above. But no one ever intrudes on the silence of others. 


My other traveling companion to Boquillas was a 75-year-old Scot named Jim Glendinning. He is a professional border-hopper. By the time we took our trip, he had visited 136 countries; a week later, he headed to Transdnistria and Ukraine, via Oxford, England. Glendinning crossed his first border, from Britain to Switzerland, a few years after World War II, when he was 12. In 1995, he wound up in Alpine, Texas -- close enough to the border with Mexico, not too far from an international airport. "The word itself, ‘border,' conjures up mystery about the other side. To me, a border prompts excitement, difference, I'm eager to see what's on the other side," Glendinning mused in the passenger seat as I steered through the serrated landscape. Cretaceous marches cleaved this geography 50 million years before man thought to draw up his own boundaries -- before man was.

In recent decades the long, parched quietude of West Texas ranchlands has attracted a blend of artists, millionaire eccentrics, cultural hangers-on, nature lovers looking for existential redemption. Many were drawn by the frontier myth of the American Southwest, or by the proximity to the border itself -- by its potential for some half-articulated miracles. 

"This is the border, the edge, of our culture, right here. That culture over there is so different. There is so much mystery in that," said Jean Hardy-Pittman, who moved to the area from Houston in 1992 and now runs an independent bookstore in Alpine. At one point, she and her husband were planning to buy a house on a bluff in Terlingua, Texas, a scrapyard of a former mining town on the western edge of Big Bend, cobbled of clay, rusty dirt, and slabs of limestone. "We would've been able to see Mexico from our house. It was exciting. There was a sense of adventure. I was wondering whether I should buy a gun, just in case." 

Glendinning introduced me to Cynta de Narvaez, a New Yorker who came to the region in 1996. (She uses the verb "escaped.") De Narvaez believes she is a descendant of Pánfilo de Narváez, the fifteenth-century Spanish conquistador who presided over the bloody takeover of Cuba and, in 1527, led an ill-fated expedition to Florida that killed him and most of his men. One of the four survivors, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, wandered for eight years through modern-day Texas and northeastern Mexico -- most of the time barefoot and almost naked, some of the time as a healer, some as a slave. In 1535, he walked past, or maybe through, what would become Boquillas del Carmen and Big Bend National Park. That year, he erected a cross at an Indian pueblo on the north side of the Rio Grande and named the village La Junta de las Cruces. Today, that village is Presidio, Texas, the place where Mexican children -- descendants of the Native Americans with whom Cabeza de Vaca lived on his journey -- go to school after fording the river upstream.

De Narvaez lives in Terlingua. Until a battle with Lyme disease disintegrated her arm muscles, she was a river guide on the Rio Grande: She would take you canoeing down the river gorges, skimming along the international line. After the border closed, de Narvaez raised money for Boquillas -- for second-hand sewing machines, a solar-powered water pump. She revels in the proximity of the border, her own faraway nearby. "Even now, even if I'm feeling sick, if you take me across the bridge to Ojinaga, I'm happy," she told me. "I love living where two different sets of communities interact.  It's like a social version of genetic vigor."

We stood outside her adobe house and looked toward Mexico. A valiant August rain had cooled off the Chihuahuan Desert. The storm had blown in from Sierra del Carmen, and the land was ocher and lavender on both sides of the Rio Grande. We can choose to be here, I thought, and to devise our own borders. Bernardo Rojel cannot. Borders counteract balance by design. 

A few days later, Glendinning e-mailed me a handful of photos from Boquillas. Absorbed in my reporting, I hadn't paid attention to the fact that Glendinning, too, had been documenting our journey. One photo struck me. My son and I are standing against the peeling mural of Park Bar, the village's sole cantina. We are a foot apart. We are not touching. Fyodor looks smug in that vulnerable 16-year-old-boy way. He is holding a can of Diet Coke we had bought at Falcón's Restaurant and a water bottle. I am holding my notebook. 

No: I am holding onto my notebook, bewildered by the boundary that bisects my life and defines it -- the line between reporter and mother.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram / McClatchy-Tribune / Getty Images


How the U.S. Triumph in South Sudan Came Undone

The White House bet on guerrilla fighters changing their warring ways. Turns out it was a bad bet.

In August, 2009, the South Sudanese politician and former guerrilla fighter Riek Machar invited President Barack Obama's envoy, Scott Gration, over for a few bottles of White Bull Lager on his patio overlooking the Upper Nile River.

Seated under the shade of a Mango tree, Machar confessed to struggling with the challenges of governing under a power sharing arrangement with the Sudanese leadership in Khartoum, an erstwhile enemy. "He told me that war was easier than politics because in war you knew who was shooting at you," recalled Cameron Hudson, who served as an advisor to Gration and many other U.S. envoys to Sudan.

Earlier this month, Machar, South Sudan's first vice president, returned to what he knows best, leading an armed insurgency being fought by members of his Nuer tribe. In recent days, the fighting has escalated sharply, engulfing several of the country's 10 provinces, and bringing the young nation to the brink of civil war.

The stakes are high for the United States, as fighting threatens to upend one of the most important foreign policy initiatives of the last two decades in sub-Saharan Africa -- one that unified Republicans, Democrats, African Americans, human rights advocates, and Christians. On Saturday, four U.S. troops were wounded when their V-22 Osprey came under fire during an aborted operation to evacuate U.S. nationals from the town of Bor. An additional 150 Marines have been sent to the region to prep for possible future evacuations.

It's an extraordinary and painful development, given America's major role in securing independence for South Sudan. But the toughest part for Americans to swallow may be that it's the U.S.-backed leaders of South Sudan -- the supposed good guys -- that are responsible for plunging the country into chaos and threatening to wreck America's signature achievement in the region.

"A whole generation of U.S. leaders that are invested in the success of South Sudan are heartbroken; I'm heartbroken about what going on there, especially because you don't see the hand of Khartoum in this," said Hudson. "I think it's going to be very [difficult] to get the genie back in to the bottle. These guys are good at fighting and they are comfortable doing it."

Forces loyal to the U.S.-backed Machar seized the strategic town of Bor in Jonglei State and the town of Bentiu, capital of the oil-rich Unity State. That prompted a massive government military build-up aimed at retaking the territory. In the past 10 days, as South Sudan's hopes of a peaceful transition came undone, more than 100,000 civilians fled their homes from the violence, 40,000 of them congregated around a series of U.N. peacekeeping camps to seek protection from marauding soldiers and militias. Desperate to halt the march to war, the U.N. Security Council is poised to adopt an American-drafted Security Council resolution condemning both sides for alleged human rights violations and authorizing the deployment of nearly 6,000 additional international peacekeepers and police to reinforce the existing force of more than 7,000 blue helmets in South Sudan.

"There is a palpable fear among civilians of both Dinka and Nuer backgrounds that they will be killed on the basis of their ethnicity," Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Tuesday, noting that mass graves have been found in Bentiu and in the South Sudanese capital of Juba.

It is not the first time that Machar has rebelled against his southern allies, having challenged South Sudan's late, legendary leader John Garang in 1991. Six years later, Machar signed a peace pact with the Sudanese government in Khartoum that elevated him to vice president, before switching sides again and rejoining his old comrades in arms in the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in 2002. This time, Machar is taking up arms against his own president, Salva Kiir, a fellow southerner from the Dinka tribe, who fired Machar along with his entire cabinet in July for insubordination.

The country's quick descent into the inter-ethnic violence has stunned American observers, who had long viewed the Sudanese government in Khartoum as posing the greatest threat to South Sudan's future. But it's South Sudan's own unresolved internal political and ethnic differences that appear to be endangering the country's hopes. Sudan was the site of one of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil wars, with as many as 2 million dying from combat, hunger, and disease in a conflict that lasted 22 years. The war formally ended in 2005 with a U.S.-brokered peace agreement paving the way for the separation of South Sudan, which achieved its independence in July 2011. Last week, President Barack Obama warned that South Sudan's "future is at risk," and that the ethnic violence "threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past."

In Washington, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who has championed South Sudan's cause in the United States and at the United Nations for more than two decades, warned this weekend that the United States' longstanding support was in jeopardy.

"For all those who choose the path of peace and democracy, know that the United States will continue to stand with you, as we have at every step of your journey," said Rice, who has spoken to both Kiir and Machar in recent days, according to a source close to her. "But, I must also be clear: If a different choice is made, if individuals or groups seek to take or hold power through force, mass violence, or intimidation, the United States will have no choice but to withdraw our traditional, robust support. Killing will only lead to deprivation and isolation for the people of South Sudan."

The latest conflict has brought renewed focus to the leadership of Salva Kiir, a former guerrilla fighter, who was thrust into the leadership role after South Sudan's liberation leader, John Garang, was killed in a plane crash. A revered figure in Democratic and Republican circles, Kiir is routinely granted presidential and high-level cabinet meetings. When then-Senator John F. Kerry visited Juba, South Sudan, in 2011, he brought two gifts for Kiir, a white Stetson cowboy hat and a matching black Stetson. As the offerings were presented one of Kerry's aides quipped, "the white one is for when you are doing good, the black one is for when you're doing bad."

There have been few sightings of Kiir in his good hat in recent days. Critics say he has wielded power with an increasingly authoritarian hand, evicting U.N. human rights monitors, blocking the creation of political parties, jailing journalists, and dissolving his entire political cabinet. Some of his most influential lieutenants have been imprisoned.

In November, a group of 15 Sudanese and international human rights organizations voiced concern in a joint letter to Kiir about the intimidation, arrest, and harassment of journalists and human rights advocates in South Sudan. "Human rights defenders reporting on government and army human rights violations have been subject to intimidation, threats and institutional barriers to their work. A number have since fled into exile," the letter read. "There has been no progress by authorities in identifying the killers of a prominent commentator and journalist, Isaiah Abraham, who was shot by gunmen on December 5, 2012."

While the renewed fighting has been blamed on tribal tensions, the feud between Kiir and Machar was driven more by a quest for power than ethnicity.

Machar has long harbored presidential ambitions, and had hoped to succeed Kiir when his first mandate expired in 2015. Late last year, Machar declared his plan to run for the chairmanship of the Sudanese People Liberation Movement, a position that would put him in line to become president.

But there was intense resistance within Kiir's inner circle, many drawn from the Dinka tribe, to the political ascension of Machar, a man who has been linked by human rights groups to the November 1991 Bor Massacre of at least 2,000 Dinka.

Kiir allegedly cancelled a meeting of South Sudan's governing body that was supposed to determine the rules for participation in the country's new election. Machar responded by issuing a series of critical statements about the government and president Kiir. In response, Kiir stripped Machar in April of additional powers he had been granted, including the role of the government liaison with the United Nations. In July, Kiir fired Machar and his other cabinet members.

"General Kiir is driving our beloved Republic of South Sudan into chaos and disorder," Machar, Sudanese People Liberation Movement secretary general Pagan Amum, and other party leaders said at a Dec. 6 press conference.

It remains unclear who was responsible for triggering the latest round of violence, which began after a Dec. 14 meeting of the National Liberation Council that Kiir held with Machar and several other rivals. Machar was one of many who declined to the attend the second day's meeting, at which Kiir reportedly decided to disarm the presidential guard, which included security forces drawn from a number of South Sudanese tribes, primarily Dinka and Nuer.

Accounts vary as to what happened next.

Kiir claims that he was the target of a coup d'etat, and ordered the arrest of at least 11 opposition leaders, including Pagan Amum. But others sources said that Nuer members of the presidential guard opened fire on their Dinka comrades after they discovered they were attempting to reclaim their weapons.

Some have come to Kiir's defense.

"President Salva Kiir was elected democratically and he did his best to keep the country united and democratic, despite some setbacks," said Ted Dagne, a former advisor to Kiir. "Machar by his own admission is now attempting to overthrow a democratically elected government."

The United States and other outside powers, meanwhile, are pressing the two sides to begin peace talks. So far, Machar has demanded that the 11 opposition leaders be released from jail before he participates in talks. "President Kiir has said that he will sit down for negotiations with no preconditions," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters late Monday. "Riek Machar has now laid out his preconditions.... And we're going to have to work that through, because for as long as these two individuals are at loggerheads, refusing to sit down with one another, innocent people are being killed."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.