Gruesome and alarming stories continue to trickle out of the remote region of Akobo in southern Sudan’s volatile Jonglei state. Just over a week ago, a riverside area of Akobo county was the site of one of the worst outbreaks of violence in southern Sudan since the signing of Sudan’s North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.
Intercommunal violence throughout southern Sudan has made headlines this year perhaps primarily because the death tolls in this semi-autonomous region of Sudan in 2009 thus far exceeds the number of violent deaths recorded in Darfur for the same period. This statistical comparison demonstrates why increased attention from the international community on the challenges facing southern Sudan in the run up to its 2011 self-determination referendum is desperately needed.
But this is only a starting point, and what is needed now is hard thinking on how to prevent further violence, how to better protect civilians throughout the South, and how to provide services to those people affected by the recent violence.
The Government of Southern Sudan, the National Congress Party in Khartoum, the United Nations Mission in Sudan, and the international community—especially the “guarantor” nations who witnessed the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and agreed to support its implementation—are all responsible for prioritizing this issue as a key means of preventing a return to war in the South now and after the 2011 referendum. (Don’t forget that the southern government has repeatedly accused the Khartoum government of arming proxy militias in the South to destabilize the region before its referendum; these claims are not unfounded, given Khartoum’s proven history of arming proxy militias throughout the country, from the East to Darfur).
But instead of detailing policy recommendations (if you’re interested, see Enough’s here on southern Sudan), I want to give you a clear sense of what occurred in Jonglei, why it is significant, and why it should be of major concern as a disheartening sign of what could be still to come in the South in the next year and a half (emphasis mine in all of the following quotes):
Human Rights Watch noted in its latest statement on southern Sudan:
In the latest in a series of violent incidents between the Lou Nuer and Murle ethnic groups, armed Murle youth attacked a group of Lou Nuer civilians on August 2, 2009, killing at least 185 men, women, and children, and seriously wounding scores more.Witnesses told UN peacekeepers and Jonglei state authorities who visited the site on August 5 that the attackers used automatic rifles, knives, and spears. Most of the victims were women and children, their bodies buried in shallow graves on the banks of the Geni river.
The BBC reported that Akobo County Commissioner Goi Jooyul Yol, who visited the site of the attack, called it “a clear massacre.”
Via Reuters, the World Food Program’s Michelle Iseminger said:
I saw dozens and dozens of dead bodies. The stench and the vultures gave us a clue to the magnitude…Clearly women and children were the majority of victims.
You may have heard about another violent incident in Jonglei state in June, when members of a Jikany Nuer ethnic militia attacked a convoy of World Food Program barges headed South from Nasir toward Akobo on the Sobat River near the Ethiopian border. The barges were carrying food to remote reaches of Akobo Country, which is experiencing severe food insecurity problems during the current rainy season—also called the “hungry season.” Since this attack, the World Food Program now airlifts food into the region due to insecurity and the onset of the rainy season which has made roads impassable, WFP is now airlifting food into the region. Another World Food Program representative said:
We are getting food there…But, that does not mean that people are not suffering from food insecurity. Obviously, because of the fighting, because of the displacement going on, that increases the peoples’ inability to be fully nourished and they are having to resort to finding other means of getting food and the like. At this point, it is a period of rains and people are able to fish.
Finally, in the context of the threat of future violence and food insecurity, the presence of Sudanese security forces and U.N. peacekeepers is less than a drop in an ocean of needs. Here’s a snapshot again from the Human Rights Watch statement to give you an idea:
An estimated 90 police officers cover all of Akobo county, an area the size of Switzerland and Austria combined – more than 122,000 square kilometers – most of it inaccessible by road. Although approximately two dozen soldiers and a handful of police had accompanied the civilians, reportedly to protect them in the hostile terrain and fish with them, the security forces lacked equipment to call for back-up…
The recent violence in Jonglei is emblematic of the immense challenges currently facing southern Sudan. As I’ve noted before, this region is on the brink. Absent sustained attention, hard thinking, and coordinated action by the Sudanese parties and the international community, it will be impossible to prevent a return to war in the South—tomorrow or in 2011.