Sitting on the edge of the bed beside his nine-year-old daughter recovering from a gunshot wounds, Mangiro recounted how he lost the rest of his family in recent tribal clashes in South Sudan’s troubled state of Jonglei.
“This child was carried by her mother, and her mother was killed”, the next day we carried the child out from under her mother,” said Mangiro, who did not give a second name.
“They were gunned down as a family. Her mother and sisters, all four of them are dead there”, he added, glancing at his surviving daughter Ngathim.
An unknown number of people — at least dozens, some fear hundreds — were killed in tribal clashes this month in Jonglei, declared a “disaster zone” by the Juba government, with the UN warning some 60,000 people had been affected by the violence and are in need of emergency aid.
In Pibor’s clinic run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres-MSF), Ngathim was in one of the few functioning rooms after attackers looted and ransacked the town’s only concrete structure and medical facility.
The euphoria of South Sudan’s independence six months ago after decades of civil war with the north was shared by all, but violent cracks in the new state now threaten to split it wide open.
In a dramatic escalation of bitter tit-for-tat attacks, a militia army of around 8,000 Lou Nuer youths recently marched on Pibor county, attacking villages and taking children and cows away with them, to exact revenge on the Murle whom they blame for abductions and cattle raiding.
From the air, black spots pockmarking the earth show where homes and fields were razed as attackers left villages smouldering in their wake. Large herds of stolen cattle were also seen being driven towards Nuer villages.
In Gumruk, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Pibor, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) registered more than 2,000 people this week who fled attacks on surrounding villages.
“We were just sitting at home, and then we were attacked — these Nuer guys came in with their machetes and started cutting people and so we ran”, said Ismiah Shan, a mother of eight who saw villagers shot and slashed with knives, spears or machetes in Thaugnyang, two hours’ walk away.
The government has confirmed around 80 people killed in revenge attacks in Lou Nuer areas this week, but the UN and government cannot confirm the number of Murle killed in the first assault.
Some estimates by local government officials in the thousands are not yet verified, as teams asses a vast area lacking roads.
Access difficulties and a state the size of Bangladesh have been cited as the reason why UN peacekeepers and government troops failed to stop the deadly column advancing.
Others say troops were dispatched late and clearly outnumbered, or were hesitant to intervene in a tribal conflict that last year killed around 1,100 people in a series of cattle raids.
When the violence started, Philip Mama Alan fled his village of Lawol, three hours’ walk from Gumruk, but ran into more attackers.
“These people came and took some of my colleagues. One of them came and held my hand and said ‘sit down’. Before I sat down, I saw them kill my colleagues and so I ran,” he said.
Running for his life, Alan described the scene as a “slaughter”, saying the men were gunned down and women knifed.
He does not want revenge, just for the government to build roads to bring trade into the neglected state, that was one of the worst hit during the decades of civil war with the north.
In the meantime, the huddled masses sitting in glaring sun outside food distribution centres in Pibor and Gumruk were not thinking about home.
Many had been living off wild berries and said there is nothing to go back to after they saw villages destroyed. Others seemed to be taking matters into their own hands in an effort to regain their livelihood.
WFP head of security Wame Duguvesi said that in Pibor this week the body of a Nuer army officer was discovered, while the death toll from other suspected revenge attacks continues to climb in increasingly remote areas far from the security forces.
“Peaceful dialogue is the only way forward to reach a final and durable settlement to their differences”, said Kouider Zerrouk, spokesman for the UN Mission in South Sudan, who urged communities to end the extremely worrying cycle of violence.
“The reconciliatory peace process must restart immediately”, he said, after peace talks between the two tribes fell apart in early December.
Just A Few Months Old, South Sudan Already In Turmoil
By MICHELE KELEMEN
Credit: Alyson Hurt/NPR
South Sudan gained independence just six months ago, but the country is already plagued by ethnic violence at home and ongoing tensions with its previous rulers in Sudan.
Potential humanitarian crises are brewing in both Sudans, and U.S. diplomats are sounding frustrated that the two are not talking to each other enough.
U.S. officials still don’t really have a handle on the violence that exploded this month in a remote part of South Sudan. But U.S. envoy Princeton Lyman says the deadly cattle-raiding and ethnic clashes that have forced tens of thousands to flee shows that the new government’s reach is still weak.
“There are real fragile points in this society and years of neglect of their basic needs,” Lyman says. “The government is going to have to move very, very fast to get a handle on it and not let ethnic politics get in the way.”
Humanitarian groups are desperately trying to reach people in South Sudan’s troubled Jonglei state. Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America says the violence threatens the new nation’s plans to develop its agricultural sector.
“When you see this type of displacement happening in this short period of time, where you see the challenges cattle keepers are facing … it’s really worrying,” he says. “If [agriculture] is what the government of South Sudan pins its hopes on, this will need to be addressed.”
U.S. Sending Military Advisers
The White House announced recently that it is sending five military advisers to help United Nations peacekeepers, who warned of the latest violence but mainly stayed on the sidelines.
The Obama administration also cleared a legal hurdle to provide military assistance. Lyman says the goal is to help a former liberation movement that fought for independence become a real army with civilian oversight.
“Right now we are looking at help for establishing a stronger Ministry of Defense, command-and-control capability, human-rights monitoring and better overall organization,” he says. “We have no plans under way for lethal assistance to South Sudan.”
One of Lyman’s former aides, Cameron Hudson, says the U.S. needs to show more tough love with South Sudan. Hudson is now with the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and he’s worried about what former rebels now in government might do during this volatile time.
“Politically their instincts, I think, are in the right place, but when faced with really overwhelming violence, tribal violence and intercommunal violence around them, there are tendencies and temptations on the ground that make doing the right thing difficult on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “So the United States and other allied countries, I think, have a real opportunity and responsibility to keep Sudan on track.”
There is frustration, but there is frustration that both countries have failed to establish the kind of relationships, or even any of the basic institutions for dealing with their bilateral problems. There’s almost no high-level communications between the two.
– U.S. envoy Princeton Lyman on the tension between Sudan and South Sudan
The U.S. is also worried about the relationship between the two Sudans. The north accuses the south of arming rebels. Lyman can’t rule that out, though the south denies it is meddling.
“There is frustration, but there is frustration that both countries have failed to establish the kind of relationships, or even any of the basic institutions for dealing with their bilateral problems,” Lyman says. “There’s almost no high-level communications between the two.”
Now there are fears of famine in those areas where Sudan has been cracking down on rebel movements.
“We’ve gone to the government, we’ve gone to countries around the world to say, ‘Look, this is a catastrophe, but a preventable one,’ ” Lyman says. He says that the U.S. has urged other countries to tell Sudan’s government that it must allow in the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council, though, has been deadlocked on the issue, says Hudson, the former State Department official.
“What China and Russia see is a proxy war,” says Hudson. “So they are reticent to take really strong action like the U.S. government would like to see because they think there isn’t just one side involved here. Both sides are at fault.”
And there is another brewing conflict between the two Sudans that the U.S. is trying to manage. They are fighting over their shared oil wealth, and U.S. officials warn that if this isn’t resolved soon, both countries could face a serious financial crisis.