In South Sudan, tribal militias exact revenge

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.

Michael Onyiego/AP
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.

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

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. 

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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.

Emerged as a youth militia

The white army emerged as a Lou Nuer youth militia in the early 1990s, backing a splinter group of the then-rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement / Army (SPLM/A) according to the Small Arms Survey.

The SPLM now governs the fledgling nation, which voted overwhelming for secession a year ago.

The white army says the rivalry goes back centuries. More recently, tit-for-tat clashes broke out between the two tribes over cattle in 2009 but subsided as the country united behind a drive to vote for independence from Khartoum.

The rift re-emerged last year and swiftly escalated. In August, the Murle youth militia attacked the Lou Nuer, killing some 600 people and abducting another 200 people, according to the United Nations.

Attempts by the church to mediate a peace between the two tribes broke down in mid-December because the negotiations involved elders, politicians, chiefs, and urban youth, but failed get the rural youth on board, some analysts say.

Nuer groups in the diaspora say they raised funds for the assault, which they describe as an act of self-defense to compensate for a security vacuum caused by an inadequate disarmament program following the civil war.

“Unfortunately, a functional government does not exist in South Sudan and different tribes in the South live in Hobbesian anarchy in which men live without a common power to keep them safe,” the white army statement said.

Army, UN overwhelmed

Some 25 miles west of Pibor in Gumuruk, a small village of circular grass huts, the World Food Programme distributes food for the first time since the fighting abated, aiming to help some of who sought refuge in the bush.

Achan James Lero, a young mother of eight, says she had to leave half of her children behind as she fled. She says the Lou Nuer torched her village, a two-hour walk away.

“We were just sitting at home and when we were attacked. The Nuer came in with their machetes and started cutting people and everybody started running their own way,” she says.

“Some of them were shot with a gun and some were cut in front of me with knives.”

Like many others, Koko Alan says he lost around 500 cows when his village was hit. He only survived because his sons helped him hide.

“They were shooting people, and if they got old men like me they were slaughtering them,” he said, miming slitting his throat as he talked.

Inadequate response

The United Nations deployed 1,000 peacekeepers, roughly half their combat-ready personnel in the country, to Jonglei during the attacks.

They say 400 peacekeepers were able to protect several thousand people in Pibor, but the size and remoteness of the region was a huge challenge.

“Given its limited military personnel and assets, the mission’s response had to focus on Pibor town and other major areas of population in the that part of the state,” UN spokesman Kouider Zerrouk told Reuters.

South Sudan’s Army spokesman Philip Aguer says his forces in remote corners of Jonglei are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the attackers from both sides.

He says the rebel leader George Athor, who was killed in mid-December, was supplying weapons to the area throughout last year with the intention of raising an army against the government in Juba, assisted by Khartoum.

“The were carrying machine guns and mortars. The arms the Lou Nuer have go way beyond what the army have. In Pibor we were completely overwhelmed.”

Cycle of violence

The cycle of violence has already turned again. Murle militias have reportedly retaliated and killed 57 Lou Nuer in Uror county this week.

Government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said authorities wanted to restart peace talks, and send in more police and Army reinforcements to end the conflict. 

“We need a reconciliation. We are sending reinforcements of police and Army but it is difficult because it is such a vast state. The government cannot control everything,” he told Reuters.

The government has also planned more development projects such as infrastructure and housing to create jobs and improve the living standard of local people.

But aid workers and UN sources fear the violence could continue unchecked as each side seeks revenge and the return of their cattle.

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