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In South Sudan, tribal militias exact revenge (+video)

Some 2,000 people may have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by tribal conflict since Christmas, in what may be new South Sudan's greatest existential challenge.

By Hereward HollandCorrespondent / January 17, 2012

Victims of ethnic violence in Jonglei state in South Sudan wait in line at the World Food Program distribution center in Pibor to receive emergency food rations, last week. Tens of thousands fled their homes after ethnic violence erupted in Pibor county.

Michael Onyiego/AP


Pibor, South Sudan

Pulling back a small dark sheet, Mangiro reveals his wounded nine year-old daughter Ngathin lying face down in the bed.

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Ngathin, from the South Sudan’s Murle tribe, was shot while riding piggyback on her granny’s shoulders, fleeing an ethnic vendetta that plunged Jonglei state into a theater of slaughter over Christmas.

“The next day, we found my mother dead and that my child was still alive. I brought her here,” Mangiro says, referring to a clinic in Pibor town, the only health facilities in the state, which was ransacked in one of the attacks. 

In late December, some 6,000-8,000 young men from the Lou Nuer tribe, who call themselves the white army because of the pale ash they smear on their skin, marched southward into Murle tribal lands, armed with knives and automatic weapons.

“We have decided to invade Murleland and wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth as the only solution to guarantee long-term security of Nuer’s cattle,” the white army said in an emailed statement sent from

Another Nuer activist, based in Seattle, Wash., says he raised $45,000 for the offensive.

Nobody is certain how many died in the massacre that followed, but James Chacha, Pibor county medical officer estimates more than 2,000 people may have been killed. The UN say some 60,000 others were scattered across the dry savannah.

Fouad Hikmat, an analyst from the International Crisis Group, says the cycle of revenge and counterattack is likely to continue unless the government can find a comprehensive solution.

“The solutions have to not only be in resolving insecurity but also in improving livelihoods, providing services, and addressing grievances,” he told Reuters. “Justice has to be brought, at all levels, including those in the diaspora that have been raising money for the attacks.”

South Sudan became independent in July under a 2005 peace agreement with Khartoum that ended decades of civil war that ravaged much of the country, one of the most neglected and remote areas of the world.

The French oil firm Total, which owns a vast unexplored concession in the state, hopes that crude could be lurking under the black baked earth, but the clashes are likely to put off any investment in the near future.

The government has been struggling to assert control over a country roughly the size of France, brimming with arms and plagued by tribal and rebel violence that killed more than 1,000 people last year.

The scale of the massacre in Jonglei, a state of the size of Bangladesh that is almost devoid of roads or development, showcases some of the challenges facing Juba.

“The evolution and magnitude of this outbreak of violence far outweighs anything we've ever seen,” said Jonah Leff, a Sudan analyst from conflict research group Small Arms Survey.


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