South Sudan horror at deadly cattle vendetta
- 16 January 2012
- From the section Africa
South Sudan, the world's newest country, has been engulfed by a wave of deadly raids by rival communities, which have left an unknown number of people dead. Journalist Hannah McNeish reports from Pibor, which was attacked by some 6,000 fighters.
Huddled amongst hundreds of people waiting for food distribution in the blazing midday sun, Labakal Kalahin cradles her 18-month-old baby as she relives the horror of fleeing armed attackers that tore her family apart.
"We were running to the bush, and they were firing on us, and my daughter was killed… she was eight years old."
Like tens of thousands of others, Ms Kalahin fled her burning home in Pibor County, as ethnic violence engulfed South Sudan's Jonglei state.
An age-old vendetta between two communities known for stealing each other's cattle, women and children recently escalated to unknown proportions when over 6,000 armed Lou Nuer youths marched on Pibor to attack the Murle.
Ismiah Shan and her eight children escaped death in the village of Thaugnyang, but others were not so lucky.
"Some of them were shot and some were cut in front of me," she says.
In a vast area with little or no infrastructure, the UN and government have been unable to give an idea of the death toll caused by this deadly column of angry young men.
A figure speedily produced by Pibor's county commissioner of more than 3,000 dead remains unverified.
This would make it South Sudan's worst conflict since it gained independence from Sudan in July 2011.
County medical officer James Chacha witnessed the attacks and thinks "2,000 plus" were killed by attackers en route to Pibor town, that he says stationed troops struggled to defend.
"In fact they came and they entered the town. The deployment was not that big to cover the headquarters itself", and surrounding villages felt the full force of attacks, he said.
Mr Chacha said around 800 government troops in Pibor only fired on attackers when they had been driven back.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) had 400 peacekeepers in Pibor at the time of the attack and has increased numbers to 1,000.
"That represents almost half of the UN's 2,100 combat ready personnel", who will be sent to reinforce densely populated areas, said Unmiss official Kouider Zerrouk.
Revenge attacks last week, that the government say killed almost 100 people, are highlighting the authorities' inability to contain violence.
"They are villages of cattle created by people in remote areas. You can hardly protect them," said Jonglei state governor Kuol Manyang after an attack on Thursday night that killed 57 people, mostly women and children.
"The lack of access and roads is a major setback. Even if you have police 20km (12 miles) away, they can't get there," he said.
Attacks on Friday left 13 people dead in a village just 6km from an army garrison, and some troops were sent to protect other areas.
The UN is also concerned about accessibility for a "massive humanitarian response" aimed at around 60,000 people forced from their homes.
"Our survival now depends on the food brought to us," said Akuer Alan, who like many has been living on wild fruit.
The UN's World Food Program (WFP) registered more than 30,000 people in Pibor last week and 4,500 in Gumuruk, roughly 40km away.
South Sudan UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande says the lack of aid agencies working in the troubled state poses further difficulty.
"In some of the worst-hit places, there are only a handful partners on the ground. In some places, there are none," she says.
WFP is setting up distribution in Likuangole, one of the villages razed to the ground.
Pibor's only clinic, serving up to 160,000 people and run by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), was looted and ransacked in the attack.
MSF has been unable to track down around half of its 156 local staff since.
Scattered papers and piles of medicines litter the mostly cordoned off premises, now treating many people suffering from malaria and injuries.
"We are also seeing a lot of people with gunshot wounds, of people running away from the violence," said Karel Janssens, MSF Coordinator in Pibor.
Ending the enmity
In Jonglei, people affected by violence have criticised the government for inaction and delay.
Aid worker Both Jangjuol witnessed another revenge attack in Akobo that killed 24 people.
"Even the SPLA [army] now is residing in its headquarters - they just can't take these people on... the government has no control," he says.
South Sudan is awash with small arms after decades of civil war that ended in 2005.
Military spokesman Philip Aguer said more than 20,000 guns in Jonglei were "magnifying the disputes".
He said when another 3,000 troops are deployed, 6,000 would "disarm all these communities" to contain violence.
Douglas Johnson, a Sudan expert at Oxford University, said that in the 1980s and 90s, both the Khartoum government and the then rebel SPLA army fighting it armed the minority Murle community, leading to "the rise of ad-hoc militias" in Jonglei.
Cattle lie at the heart of a long-standing enmity between the two communities.
In a country without banks, cows represent wealth, a dowry, property and a source of food in the lean season. A single cow can be worth hundreds of dollars depending on its colouring.
The Murle and Lou Nuer have long raided each other's cattle, or battled over access to grazing land and water but the conflicts have turned increasingly deadly with the arrival of automatic weapons.
Koko Alan escaped alive but is distraught after 500 of his prized cows were stolen.
"I don't know what I will do now," he said.
A December statement by a Nuer group based in the US claiming to be behind the advancing army vowed to "wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth".
But Minister of Information Barnaba Marial Benjamin said the genocidal statement was the work of a refugee living in the US trying to capitalise on conflict he had no connection to.
The Jonglei governor thought it was timed for a "war planned by another person".
He said that, after cattle raids in August 2011 left 600 people dead, the Nuer had agreed to halt retaliation if abducted women and children were returned. "This attack was supposed to take place in September but the government intervened."
But after a three-month deadline passed and church-led peace talks collapsed in December, the rampaging youths unleashed their wrath.
Now authorities are struggling to stop a bitter enmity spiralling out of control.