Wounded civilians from both sides of an escalating conflict between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities in South Sudan’s Jonglei state lie side by side in the steaming heat of a hospital ward in the new country’s capital, Juba.
At least 120,000 people have been affected by the violence, according to the UN’s latest assessment, which could easily rise.
“The violence in Jonglei hasn’t stopped… our contingency plan for Jonglei could reach about 180,000 people,” while half that number already need food aid, South Sudan’s UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande said on 20 January.
Local officials have suggested ‘thousands’ of people have been killed in the last few weeks, but this could not be independently confirmed and the UN said it was not possible to provide a count of casualties sustained over such a vast area in so short a time.
In the hospital, Amon Lull Chop fans her four-year-old daughter Nyaduk, who was unable to keep up as the family fled an attack on the town of Duk Padiet in Duk County last week, which the government says killed more than 80 people. Another 70 or so died in similar attacks by members of the Murle community over the past two weeks.
“She slept alone until I came back the following morning and I found the child, and her intestines were outside where they shot and stabbed her,” she says, pointing to a bandage stretching from Nyaduk’s navel up to her chest.
These attacks came after about 8,000 Lou Nuer youths, reportedly joined by some of the country’s dominant Dinka group, marched in late 2011 on Pibor County, razing villages and killing and abducting woman and children.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) tracked the deadly column as it snaked its way towards Pibor town. But even with the support of 800 government soldiers, its 400 peacekeeping troops in Pibor town were greatly outnumbered so UNMISS could only advise civilians to flee into the bush or get behind protective lines in the town.
Thousands of people like Lilkeng Gada took the advice and ran, but were hunted down in their hiding places.
“We were going to hide from the Lou Nuer, and they came and found us,” she said. “We were just sitting down, and they came all of a sudden, and they shot us down. I fell on the floor and they left me, and one child ran, but two of my children and my husband were shot dead right there.
“Now, I’m alone. I don’t know what to do now, how to bring up the children. We had cows and they were taken… I don’t know how we will survive.”
Targeting the vulnerable
Peter Nanou, on another hospital bed in Juba, with a cast on his leg from where he was shot, says he could not save his grandmother from the attack on his village near Pibor.
“I was the one looking after her. When the Lou Nuer attacked I ran with my mother and my grandmother was left behind and shot dead,” he said.
Aid agencies and the authorities have expressed shock at the number of women, children and elderly who have been killed or wounded in the attacks.
Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said half the patients it airlifted from an 11 January attack on Wek village, Uror County, were under the age of five.
Most had gunshot wounds and had been beaten. According to the government, 57 people were killed and 53 wounded in Wek.
South Sudan Red Cross volunteers are counselling about 150 unaccompanied minors in Pibor, while the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has tracked down parents of 109 children registered there.
“I’ve seen at least 50 children that have been kidnapped by my people,” said a Lou Nuer aid worker who fled to the town of Akobo in early January.
In a country awash with small arms, decades of tit-for-tat livestock raids – some 80,000 cattle were taken over recent weeks – are often cited as the explanation for the clashes. But other conflict drivers are also in play.
“The causes of the violence go beyond the retaliatory nature of cattle raiding in Jonglei state and touch upon broader issues of accountability, reconciliation, political inclusion, an absence of state authority, and development,” said Jennifer Christian, Sudan policy analyst for the Enough Project, in a 9 January statement.
“The political and security-related isolation of the two communities has contributed to the rise of parallel authorities, and renders violence as one of the few mechanisms for addressing community grievances,” the statement added.
According to the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC), social changes have also contributed to the violence.
“There is a clear disconnect between the youth and both the traditional and political leaders. The tradition of youth respecting and listening to their elders has been lost. Without the youth’s involvement, and their sense of ownership of the peace process, any attempt at peace will fail,” the council said in a 18 January statement.
“Extremely young children are being ‘initiated’ into the hatred and killing, ensuring that it will continue into the next generation,” the statement warned.
Stopping the cycle of violence
On 19 January, UNMISS chief Hilde Johnson said that without a large government deployment to enforce a buffer zone, the UN’s 1,100 combat-ready troops in Jonglei – half of all those deployed in South Sudan – would have to work “miracles” to stop the backlash of smaller attacks on remote villages.
“The challenge with protection of civilians with the current [new kind of] counter-attacks means that the unpredictability of the attackers, the speed, the small groups they are moving in, makes it very, very difficult,” she said.
Johnson also expressed alarm about the increasing use of messages threatening to “wipe out an entire ethnic group from the face of the earth,” warning they could further provoke “systematic ethnic violence”.
Church-led mediation efforts were aborted without resolution in mid-December, when a scheduled peace conference was postponed indefinitely.
“The church failed because it did not have government support,” said Joseph Giro Ading, visiting a Murle friend whose abdomen was torn to pieces when he was shot near his hometown Pibor.
“If we keep on revenging, there will not be any solution to the problem; unless we come down [to Juba] and settle the problem in our area, Jonglei will be finished,” he said.
On 19 January, the government announced it would disarm warring sides in Jonglei, using force if necessary. In the past, similar initiatives have met with limited, or temporary, success and were criticized by human rights groups for their excessive zeal.
Earlier in January, a Nuer group – the White Army – warned that any new attempt to disarm it “”will lead to catastrophe”.
For the Enough Project, a broader strategy is necessary.
“The delivery of basic services, provision of security, and establishment of rule of law by the government in Lou Nuer and Murle areas are critical toward ending inter-communal violence in the long term,” its statement urged.
A view echoed by the SCC: “It is clear that under-development is a key driver of conflict in the area, and this is exacerbated by a perception that some communities are neglected. Development of the more isolated parts of Jonglei State must become a priority for government (eg roads), the business community (eg mobile phone networks) and the aid community.”
Jonglei resident Ading drew a similar connection: “All those areas where there are attacks, there are no schools, there are no hospitals, there is nothing… they are just villages where cattle are kept,” he told IRIN.
“The government should open roads and schools to particular people who don’t even know their ABC. If they educate people who are illiterate, they will also know bad and good,” he said.
Also see: SOUTH SUDAN: Nyaluak Deng Awuol, “This child, who will look after him now?”
Theme (s): Conflict, Governance, Human Rights, Refugees/IDPs,
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]