South Sudan tribe vows to ‘exterminate’ rival group

Thousands of villagers in South Sudan hid in the bush on Monday, waiting for UN and government troops to stop a cattle vendetta which officials fear may have left scores of people dead over the weekend.

A column of some 6 000 armed youths from the Lou Nuer tribe marched on the remote town of Pibor in the troubled Jonglei state, home to the rival Murle people, who they blame for cattle raiding and have vowed to exterminate.

They burned thatched huts and looted a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontierès, the worst flare-up in a dispute that has left more than 1 000 dead in recent months and threatened to destabilise the world’s newest country.

“The situation is tense as the Lou Nuer are still around Pibor,” said Jonglei state information minister Isaac Ajiba, adding army reinforcements were still on their way to the remote settlement.

“They [the army] are yet to arrive but we hope to have the reinforcements there soon … We have reports of several casualties but at present the exact numbers are not verified,” Ajiba added.

Newly independent South Sudan was left in ruins by decades of war with northern Sudanese forces, who fuelled conflict by backing proxy militia forces across the south, often exacerbating historical enmities between rival groups.

A group calling itself the Nuer Youth White Army issued a statement on December 26 vowing to “wipe out the entire Murle tribe … as the only solution to guarantee long-term security of Nuer cattle.”

‘Major tragedy’
The government and the UN — which has warned the violence could lead to a “major tragedy” — were beefing up their forces in the area.

“We are moving in a big number of forces from the army and from the police to the area … to stop what is happening,” South Sudan President Salva Kiir said in a New Year’s Day address.

Despite disarmament efforts, guns remain common in Jonglei, an isolated and swampy state about the size of Austria and Switzerland combined but with limited mud roads often impassable for months during heavy rains.

Reverend Mark Akec Cien, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches, an umbrella organisation with members across the area, said they had reports of many killed and wounded in the clashes.

“The situation is very bad, there have been heavy casualties and the Murle have fled out of the town,” Cien said from South Sudan’s capital Juba. “The Lou Nuer are there in the town but others have left chasing after the Murle.”

Over 30 people were killed in Lukangol, some 30km north of Pibor where Lou Nuer fighters attacked last week, burning the settlement to the ground, Cien said.

Ethnic violence, cattle raids and reprisal attacks in the vast eastern state left over 1 100 people dead and forced some 63 000 from their homes last year, according to UN reports based on local authorities and assessment teams.

Tit-for-tat cattle raiding is common in a grossly underdeveloped region awash with guns but Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said that casualties from recent clashes were not as high as many feared.

“The Murle left their villages ahead of the Lou Nuer, so while some structures were set on fire, not so much life was lost,” he said.

“The Lou Nuer have been ordered to return back home and to leave Murle villages, and some are already doing so,” Benjamin said.

Many groups accuse the Murle of abducting children from neighbouring tribes with the boys used to herd cattle and girls valued for the future dowry of cows they will earn, communities say.

“The government has repeated that it will work alongside the UN to ensure that all abducted children and women, and the thousands of cattle, will be released and that people must not take these matters into their own hands,” Benjamin added.

Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, said on Sunday that the number of government forces heading to Pibor was estimated at 3 000 troops and 800 police. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Peter Martell
Guest Author

Related stories

Strandfontein homeless site more a prison than a place of safety — Human rights report

Independent reports slam Cape Town’s Covid-19 homeless site, the city says things have improved since independent monitors visited the site

South Africa must not repeat Libya’s mistakes with refugees

South Africa can work hard to be the positive example to lead the way for proper and humane migration management by improving its immigration policies

​MSF: We don’t care which side you’re on. We’re here to save your life

Doctors Without Borders reaches out to people, driven solely by medical criteria and independent from any powers.

South Africa, show up Europe’s dirty anti-refugee deal

Western nations are turning their backs on refugees fleeing war and there are alarming signals that Kenya and South Africa may adopt this stance.

War crimes swept under the carpet

This is not the first time the US has bombed a hospital.

Ebola thrives on the scraps of war and blight

Personal accounts from Liberia and Sierra Leone bring home the devastation wrought by the virus.

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

DRC: Tshisekedi and Kabila fall out

The country’s governing coalition is under strain, which could lead to even more acrimony ahead

Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs.

Klipgat residents left high and dry

Flushing toilets were installed in backyards in the North West, but they can’t be used because the sewage has nowhere to go

Nehawu leaders are ‘betraying us’

The accusation by a branch of the union comes after it withdrew from a parliamentary process

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…