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Still Counting the Dead in South Sudan’s Jonglei Conflict

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Still Counting the Dead in South Sudan’s Jonglei Conflict

Posted by Nenad Marinkovic on February 7, 2012

JUBA, South Sudan — The long-standing Lou Nuer-Murle feud in Jonglei state claimed the lives of a large number of civilians when some 6,000 Lou Nuer youth attacked the rival Murle in Pibor town at the end of December and early January. United Nations officials in the country cannot provide the exact number of people killed, but the U.N. estimates that 140,000 people were affected by the violence.

While the United Nations and the government are working to provide emergency relief for those affected on the ground—a situation that the U.N. humanitarian chief called “terrible”—some 70 Murle and 88 Lou Nuer are housed at the Juba Teaching Hospital, undergoing treatement. These patients, among the most severely injured, are a stark reminder of the challenges the new South Sudanese nation faces. 

Murle elders, men, women, and children—some as young as five months old—are struggling to survive. For many severely wounded patients at the hospital the likelihood of recovery is entirely dependent on whether someone from their family or from the community is able to tend to them and can afford to provide them with medicine and food.

The patients lay on beds or on the floor with broken limbs and severe head wounds, in a chilling silence that accentuates the grim atmosphere of the inadequately equipped hospital ward. There is not enough medical care, they complain.

Kenya is a middle-aged woman with two broken legs. She said doctors rarely come to check on her. She told Enough that the last time the doctor saw her was at least a week ago. Kenya shares a room with four-year-old Nyibi, who has a bullet wound in his thigh, and nine-month-old Paul, who was struck in the head with a machete while he was on his mother’s back when she was murdered.

“An elderly woman died last week as she could not move and had nobody to bring her neither food nor medicine,” said Mary Boyoi, a human rights activist and famous South Sudanese musician. As a Murle living in Juba, Boyoi is raising funds to help Murle patients. She said some patients are in desperate need of blood, but there aren’t enough donations. She is using the funds she raises to pay for blood donations in addition to providing medicine and food.  

“The condition of these people is very serious, and we need help,” Boyoi said.

Rivalry over access to water and grazing land in Jonglei has become more deadly given the availability of arms and lack of state capacity to provide security. Fueling the intensity of the violence is the impression among the Murle that the government is biased toward the Lou Nuer. But youth from both communities have taken charge of meting out retributive justice for past grievances.

Across the hospital grounds is the Lou Nuer ward, separated as comes naturally to the two communities, but the arrangement is helpful in this environment where emotions run high.

The atmosphere in the Lou Nuer ward is remarkably different, even cheerful, as some 88 people, mainly youth, are counting the days before they go home, they said. Their recovery has been quicker, partly because their wounds are typically less severe and because of generous support from the large Lou Nuer community in Juba. Most are young, strong men who were at the time of attacks fit enough to march to Pibor town in a deadly quest for Murle.

In interviews at the hospital they say they attacked the Murle in revenge for the Murle’s attack on Lou Nuer in August 2011, when some 700 Lou Nuer died and 38,000 cattle were stolen. The August attack was, however, the Murle’s reprisal for Lou Nuer attack in June 2011.

“The government must get involved,” a group of young Lou Nuer patients said, speaking all at once. They accuse the Murle of stealing cattle and abducting children and women.

“If the government doesn’t get involved, we will do it on our own and finish each other off,” said Tut, a young Lou Nuer man.

The Lou Nuer patients at Juba hospital blame the government for ineffective disarmament. They said the government took their weapons away twice and left them vulnerable to Murle attacks.

“We do not have to tell the government what is happening. They can see by themselves. They can either do something or keep watching,” Tut said.

Disarmament of Murle and Lou Nuer communities in Jonglei is an issue of fierce debate in Juba. Some warn that the government's vows to go ahead with forced disarmament are dangerous. Results of the past disarmament attempts in Jonglei have only heightened tensions, leaving one community vulnerable and giving the other an advantage militarily. Fear of this outcome has also prompted communities to fight back fiercely against the SPLA soldiers who come to carry out the disarmament. Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, told the press in Juba that is “very important to disarm people,” but she quickly added, “Everyone must lay down their weapons.”

In a recent policy paper on the violence between the Murle and the Lou Nuer, Enough warned that undertaking a disarmament campaign in the current highly charged context in Jonglei would be a grave mistake and should be postponed. Rather than conducting a forced disarmament campaign, Enough recommended a non-violent, community-engaged disarmament process once greater trust and goodwill between the two communities is established. Disarmament must also be accompanied by the deployment of South Sudan security services to lessen the need for young local men—so candidly expressed by the Lou Nuer youth at the hospital—to take community security into their own hands.

Photos courtesy of Jared Ferrie and Chris Kelly