The top commander of the South Sudan army’s controversial disarmament campaign in Jonglei state recently announced a shift in the strategy for dealing with the most troublesome challenge to their “Operation Restore Hope”—the David Yau Yau rebellion in Pibor. The SPLA will now “launch aggressive attacks” against the rebels, said Lt. Gen. Kuol Deim Kuol, effectively ending what the SPLA previous said was its plan to only assume defensive positions to allow the necessary space for an initiative that saw local elders travel to their communities to convince the population not to join Yau Yau or to be in possession of guns.
Those local efforts were having limited results, the Enough Project found during recent field research in Pibor, presented in a new report published this week. In September, youth affiliated with Yau Yau shot a chief while he was trying to disseminate this message of peace. The rebellion also appears to have attracted 4,000-6,000 youth, according to the SPLA and UNMISS.
Far from being a stabilizing force, the SPLA’s own operations in areas of the state mostly inhabited by Murle community have thus far resulted in at least 100 civilian casualties and have therefore served to stoke animosities that drive youth to join Yau Yau.
In early August, eight SPLA soldiers entered the house of Anna and Tapisa, whose families were disarmed in April. “If you don’t tell us about the guns, you will be beaten to death,” the SPLA said, pointing guns, according to the two women. “If Yau Yau is going to come here, we will beat you until you die.”
The two women were beaten on their heads and lower backs; both women’s faces were still swollen in mid September when the Enough Project spoke to them.
“I am angry at [the army]. It looks like they are doing it intentionally,” said Tapisa. “We are not with Yau Yau, we have no relationship with him. We are civilians; we do not deal in politics. We are fearing so much.”
David Yau Yau, a former county official, has seized on those feelings of the Murle being marginalized or worse, targeted, by the South Sudanese government to stake out his group’s purpose.
Yau Yau doesn’t come from a military background, having studied theology before his posting with the county administration, but he launched his first rebellion in May 2010, shortly after losing an election. Yau Yau was known to have had a close relationship with the late rebel commander George Athor, who was directly stocked by Khartoum and served as source for weapons to local armed groups across the state.
Following his first rebellion, Yau Yau announced he had signed an amnesty agreement with the government in June 2011. But the extent of the integration of him and his 200 men into the army is debatable.
Yau Yau defected again in April of this year but maintained a small force of just 20-30 followers for the first few months. In August, operations against the SPLA began in earnest; since then, at least 100 SPLA soldiers have been killed.
Khartoum’s hand in the rebellion this time around is, again, highly likely. In September the U.N. mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS, witnessed an airdrop of seven or eight bundles from an unlabeled white plane in Likuangole. UNMISS could not verify the contents, but the SPLA said the packages contained of arms and ammunition to the Yau Yau rebellion from Khartoum. The SPLA alleges that the Sudanese government is using Yau Yau to exploit divisions in the community with the aim of destabilizing South Sudan, a strategy that Khartoum has a long history of putting to use in Jonglei state to divide and undercut the effectiveness of the then rebel SPLA during the civil war.
Yau Yau’s motivations to rebel once more are unclear. What is certain is the potential for civilians to be caught between the SPLA and Yau Yau’s forces should the SPLA begin their offensive. Not only does the SPLA have a history of carrying out campaigns against militias in an indiscriminant manner that leaves a heavy toll on civilians, the definition of a Yau Yau supporter is highly ambiguous. A significant portion of these youth may simply be picking up a gun from the militia group and using the weapon for their own purposes, such as cattle-raiding. Are these youth considered Yau Yau supporters? In a rebellion that is consistently labeled as a Murle rebellion, will the SPLA end up targeting the entire community in order to root out those few who support Yau Yau?
Murle leaders at the county and payam levels are highly conscious of the potential civilian collateral this dry season could bring. In response, they’ve attempted to facilitate a strategy of physically separating supporters and non-supporters to help the military distinguish between innocent civilians and those who are fighting alongside Yau Yau.
Conversations between the Juba government and the Murle leadership have been ongoing, and the assistance of Murle leaders sought to politically tame the rebellion in their areas. Amnesty has been extended to Yau Yau once more, but no response has yet been received. As we say in our recent report, the international community has an important role to play in watching and preventing the potential bloodshed that may take place in the new few months in volatile Jonglei.
Photo: Pibor residents travel through town in a canoe during flooding earlier this year (Enough / Amanda Hsiao)