Bloody cattle raids set challenge for South Sudan
- 2 September 2011
- From the section Africa
The charred remains of huts and hundreds of freshly dug graves along a trail of destruction in Jonglei state indicate the extended site of the latest deadly cattle raid in South Sudan.
The state authorities say more than 600 people from the Lou Nuer community were killed, 200 children abducted, and as many as 25,000 cows were stolen.
The attackers - from the Murle ethnic group - were responding to a June assault by Lou Nuer fighters in which an estimated 400 Murle were killed.
This cycle of revenge attacks stretches back decades, and now represents one of the greatest challenges to stability in newly independent South Sudan - and one the fledgling state so far seems unable to deal with.
"They came from over there," Kuol Bol explains, pointing to the lush green countryside on the edge of the small town of Pieri.
"They attacked when we were sleeping, but I was able to run away. A lot of people were killed, and they took many children.
"Two of my nephews were killed during that attack by the Murle. What I know is that I want to take revenge for that attack. I will do what I will do."
You could have almost the same conversation with Murle survivors of Lou Nuer attacks, or with the Jikany Nuer or Dinka who have also been involved in clashes in Jonglei state in recent times.
Way of the gun
The pattern of inter-ethnic fighting fuelled by cattle raids can be found elsewhere in South Sudan too, though the situation is particularly bad in Jonglei.
South Sudan's new government has urged action, and the army is sending reinforcements into the area, as are the UN peacekeepers.
Cattle raiding is not new in this part of the world. In many South Sudanese communities the cow is incredibly important.
It is a source of personal wealth, and young men cannot get married without paying a dowry of cows.
So, in what are very poor communities, cattle raiding has become a way of life for some.
To make matters worse, automatic weapons are everywhere, following decades of civil war.
In the past, cattle raids caused relatively few casualties. Now the guns boom, and scores or even hundreds die in a day - creating a commensurate desire for revenge.
So what can be done to stop the bloodshed?
So far the security forces have shown little ability to keep the peace.
"It will be good when the government provides security in the area, but for now I don't know what they are doing. There is no protection," says Gatluak Kony, a Lou Nuer chief, who narrowly escaped being killed in Pieri.
There are more armed civilians than police or soldiers in Jonglei, even with the latest reinforcements.
The lack of good roads means it is very difficult to speed the security forces to hotspots.
Not everybody trusts the army either.
It would certainly be denied by the South Sudanese army, but some outside observers believe it does not see much benefit in intervening in a messy inter-ethnic conflict between civilians.
The risk, the argument goes, is this could fracture the army along ethnic lines.
The leader of the opposition in parliament, Onyoti Adigo, told the BBC the military should send reinforcements from ethnic groups not present in Jonglei.
He also believes not enough is being done.
"The problem of Jonglei is not new," he says. "The whole thing is negligence from the government, because the work of the government is to ensure the safety of its citizens and their properties."
Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin represents the area which recently came under attack and accepts progress needs to be made on several fronts.
"It is not just in Jonglei state, we have seen it in Unity state, we have seen it in Warrup, we have seen it in Lakes.
"So to us as a government, we are really serious that this should come to an end."
The government's plan involves the comprehensive disarmament of civilians, reconciliation using traditional and religious leaders, and developing infrastructures including building "security roads" and providing better services.
But all that takes time, and is easier said than done.
For the moment, an estimated 25,000 Lou Nuer have fled the fighting.
Some of them are gathered in the small town of Mutot.
Stripped of their cows and with their homes destroyed, they are now dependent on handouts and local kindness.
"The conditions are not good and my people are not comfortable," local chief Michael Bang complains.
"We have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat."
It is little surprise that in these conditions of hardship and loss, there are already rumours that the next revenge attack is being prepared.
South Sudan has been independent for less than two months, and the joy of that moment is still fresh.
But in Jonglei state and all over the country people will have to be disarmed, and the security forces professionalised, if this deadly cycle of revenge attacks is to be broken.