First Raise A Flag

How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace

September 2018 9781849049597 320pp


When South Sudan’s war began, the Beatles were playing their first hits and reaching the moon was an astronaut’s dream. Half a century later, with millions massacred in Africa’s longest war, the continent’s biggest country split in two.

It was an extraordinary, unprecedented experiment. Many have fought, but South Sudan did the impossible, and won. This is the story of an epic fight for freedom. It is also the story of a nightmare. First Raise a Flag details one of the most dramatic failures in the history of international state-building. Three years after independence, South Sudan was lowest ranked in the list of failed states. War returned, worse than ever.

Peter Martell has spent over a decade reporting from palaces and battlefields, meeting those who made a country like no other: warlords and spies, missionaries and mercenaries, guerrillas and gunrunners, freedom fighters and war crime fugitives, Hollywood stars and ex-slaves. Under his seasoned foreign correspondent’s gaze, he weaves with passion and colour the lively history of the world’s newest country.

First Raise a Flag is a moving reflection on the meaning of nationalism, the power of hope and the endurance of the human spirit.


‘[A] readable, rigorous and important account of the tragedy of the world’s youngest nation . . Martell’s experience, gained over years of living in and reporting on the country, is invaluable . . . his writing is powerful and moving.’ — The Observer

‘I relished Peter Martell’s First Raise a Flag , which examines how Africa’s newest nation state plunged back into civil war so soon after its hopeful, excited birth. Martell spent more than a decade reporting the story and it’s an account full of vivid, telling detail.’ — The Spectator Books of the Year 2018, selected by Michela Wrong

‘I was utterly gripped by Peter Martell’s superbly written First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace. It’s expertly organised and holds the reader from start to finish.’ — Middle East Eye Books of the Year 2019, selected by Peter Oborne

‘[Martell conducts] remarkable interviews with ageing mercenaries and retired spies … [his] account elegantly reinforces again and again how almost none of [the] foreign interventions were about South Sudan itself.’ — Rory Stewart in The New York Review of Books

‘[A] striking and moving evocation of the terrible last sixty years [South Sudan] has undergone … this book is a labour of love for the people of South Sudan and an expression of hope for their future.’ — The New Statesman

‘It’s [Martell’s] first-person account that drives this compelling, harrowing story. … This is an important and deeply moving book.’ — Geographical 

‘Contains fascinating tales from his reporting as South Sudan prepared for, celebrated and then dealt with the realities of independence. … detailed, wonderfully accessible work for those interested in South Sudan and the dilemmas of new statehood.’ — Washington Post, The Monkey Cage blog

‘[A] gut-wrenching chronicle of human depravity that shows how ordinary people can become barbarians.’ — Foreign Affairs

‘One of those who has covered South Sudan the longest, Martell combines eyewitness reporting with extensive research to produce a solid account of this tragedy.’ — Atlantic Council

‘Peter Martell arrived earlier and stayed longer than any of us who covered South Sudan’s independence and the bloody catastrophe that followed. Here he reveals the foundation of his insightful, precise reports: a deep, first-hand knowledge of the centuries of history of how the world’s newest nation came to be, stuffed with insightful research, delightful details and searing lessons for those bright-eyed foreigners of yesterday and today so in love with their own idea of freedom that they feel they must impose it on others. Lyrical, revelatory, quietly outraged and deeply moving.’ — Alex Perry, author of The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free

‘This is a remarkable piece of work. It manages to pull off the rare feat of being both meticulously-researched and extremely accessible. Putting any journalistic ego to one side, Martell gives us the benefits of over a decade of reportage. He wades through yellowing colonial archives, tracks down Mossad operatives and quizzes white mercenaries, but it’s the experiences and reflections of the South Sudanese men and women who shaped and lived this turbulent history that dominate the narrative.’ — Michela Wrong, author of Borderlines and It’s Our Turn to Eat

‘Peter Martell’s combination of eye-witness reporting and historical research makes for a compelling account of the bloody birth of South Sudan. A highly readable book about the world’s newest country, and a study of what it means to be a nation.’ — Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4 News, and author of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution

First Raise a Flag is an engrossing read that combines years of journalistic insight with compassionate storytelling and deciphers the complex recent history of the world’s youngest country.’ — Levison Wood, author of Walking the Nile and other works of non-fiction

First Raise a Flag is an eloquently written and admirably lucid account of the dramatic birth, and ongoing death, of South Sudan. It is a remarkable story. As the world’s newest nation plunged into civil war and became a failed state, Peter Martell has been a stubborn, compassionate eyewitness, and he deserves high praise for this unflinching elegy for an ill-starred place that he has — despite everything — come to love.’ — Jon Lee Anderson, New Yorker staff writer, and author of Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World


Peter Martell reports on the Middle East and North Africa for AFP. Hailing from a Northumberland sheep farm, he started as a foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe. First Raise A Flag, his book on South Sudanese independence (also published by Hurst), was an Economist and a Spectator 'Book of the Year'.

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