At peak afternoon on 14 July 2016, a dark grey C-17 aircraft, a bullseye in the Indian tricolour emblazoned on its fuselage, sat on the tarmac of the international airport in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Standing outside the hatch were some of the most prominent businessmen of the city—hoteliers, commodity traders and landlords, among others—chatting with the members of the flight crew. A few minutes later, an order came from the tower, clearing the flight for takeoff. The businessmen stepped back from the door. As the engines whirred, they turned and walked back towards Juba.
The flight was one of two aircrafts sent to Juba as part of Operation Sankat Mochan, a rescue operation launched by India’s ministry of external affairs to evacuate Indian citizens trapped in South Sudan. But of the 550 Indians reportedly living in Juba, only 156 chose to take a seat. The second plane was almost entirely empty, save for 11 people. The rest refused to leave.
The evacuation was prompted by events of the week preceding it: in Juba, hundreds were killed during clashes between government troops and rebel forces, loyal to the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, and the vice president, Riek Machar, respectively. This was the second outbreak of violence in three years. The clashes stemmed from a bitter and intermittent rivalry between Kiir and Machar that had been ongoing since long before South Sudan became independent, in 2011. This time, assassinations of rebel officials set off a series of retaliatory attacks, culminating in a firefight at the president’s palace on 8 July. Though a ceasefire was declared on 11 July, much of the city remains displaced in churches and bush camps, including Riik, whose whereabouts are unknown.
“What can you do? This is South Sudan,” Champak Tank told me. Tank is an Indian and the head of Dynamic Construction, a company he founded when he moved to Juba in 2006. He was earlier in Kenya, heading a garment factory, and is one of a number of Indian businessmen that moved to South Sudan in the mid 2000s. In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, ended a 50-year civil war between Sudan and an insurgent south, paving the way for the creation of an independent South Sudan. Tank, and many others like him, moved from other parts of East Africa to Juba, a to-be capital with hardly any infrastructure, and brimming with business opportunities. The companies they eventually set up—construction, drilling, hotels and the like—played an essential role in the growth of the country, even after it achieved independent nationhood in 2011. And now, though the nation seems to be on the brink of a civil war, they are reluctant to leave.
Before they moved to Juba, many Indian businessmen cut their teeth in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. In the 1990s, for Indian businessmen, the draw of East Africa was strong: the countries in the region had established Indian communities, flexible economies, workable infrastructures, and—following India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s—less competition.