Active Citizens, Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

AFRICA: Youth Wars Cause Turmoil in Jonglei

Skye Wheeler

AKOBO, Sudan , Sep 30 2009 (IPS) - There was no moon the night the armed men from the Murle tribe attacked the fishing village: it took place in complete darkness. Nyakong Both grabbed her two youngest boys and fled across the nearby river, as the men from the Murle tribe burnt down huts.

The river drowned several children from her village that night. But her three girls, her elder children, managed to cross it and fled into the forest. And she hasn’t seen them since. It has been over a month, so she assumes they were shot dead. "I haven’t found the bodies," she said.

The inter-ethnic attack on Both’s fishing camp killed 185 people this August. It lasted from about 4 am to midday the following day – when the attackers were still burning down huts. Humanitarians who visited the area a few days afterwards reported dozens of bodies still lying in the sun. The living, who would have buried the dead, had all already fled.

This attack was probably revenge for a series of attacks on villages by hundreds of armed Lou Nuer on Murle villages in April. The 453 people killed in those attacks were mostly women and children.

This was quickly followed by another revenge incursion by the Murle on the Lou Nuer: early reports put the death toll at 177, but Lou Nuer officials now say 250 people were killed.

Jonglei State from the air: vast, green and wild, its endless flat plains are broken only by looping rivers and swamps.

Historically, it was a place of slavery, tribal conflict and two civil wars. It should now be in peace. But over 1,300 people – many of them women and children – have been killed here this year in a brutal resurgence of inter-ethnic fighting.

Akobo town is in the north-east of this wild area. It’s not a big place. There are mostly huts, surrounded by sorghum patches, and built next to a river that connects the town to nearby Ethiopia and the rest of Sudan. It’s to where Both and others from her village fled to after their homes had been attacked.

But today in Akobo, all the young men are missing. They have all gone into the bush – armed with guns.

"There were rumors 300 Jikany youth were coming towards Akobo," explained Jimem Riek the local head of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, the humanitarian wing of the semi-autonomous Southern government.

After the call to arms had been made – shots fired in the air – the Lou Nuer youth of Akobo had mobilised themselves within hours to deal with the Jikany – a sub-tribe of the large Lou Nuer group.

"They think they are an army," William Khor Reath, a senior member of the local government, said about the young armed men. His boss, the area’s commissioner, is absent. He has hastened from the village to chase the youth, in order to calm them.

There is violence every year in Jonglei State. For as long as anyone can remember, groups of mostly young men have raided other pastoralist tribes and clans for cattle. The huge number of guns in the south have mostly been left over from the long north-south conflict in the region. The ready availability of weapons has worsened this dry-season fighting, setting up vicious cycles of revenge attacks.

Some in the south Sudan government have suggested that the hundreds of deaths this year represent an escalation in fighting that in the past would only have claimed dozens of lives. "Perhaps this is just the year," the south’s Vice President Riek Machar told journalists when pushed for an explanation of this year’s worsening violence.

During the war, relations between the various tribes were sometimes worsened by Khartoum backing tribal militias that fought against the main southern Sudan rebel army. These battles claimed many of the two million deaths of this civil conflict.

The southern Sudan army spokesman, Kuol Deim Kuol, is one of those who sees this year’s bloodshed as a re-birth of wartime militias, again supported by Khartoum. Many southerners feel that northern Sudan has good reason to spark violence in the south.

In 2011 south Sudan, whose leading Sudan People’s Liberation Movement signed a peace deal with Khartoum in 2005, will get a chance to vote on independence from the north. Most southerners say they want to separate. If they did, Khartoum would lose control over valuable oil-reserves in the south. Khartoum has denied involvement.


Jonglei has been marked out into oil concessions, including one huge unexplored area that is owned by French major Total. Conservationists are excited about the potential of wildlife tourism for the area: two giant migrations of antelope take place here every year in numbers that rival those of east Africa’s Serengeti.

But few are focused on these stores of wealth right now. "I have not seen any peace. People are still killing themselves," Nyakuoth Lul, a woman in her 40s said. Lul is from the same village as Both, and like her, she was also displaced to Akobo after the attack by armed men from the Murle tribe. Like others here she views the Murle as a far worse enemy than the Jikany.

More recently there have been attacks on Dinka communities on the western side of Jonglei by the Lou Nuer. In mid-September over 100 people died in Duk County. A few weeks before 38 were killed and another 64 wounded during a Lou Nuer attack on Wernyol village.

Graves are dotted around pastures that surround Wernyol. "If there is no rescue from the government the people of this area will be finished," a local official who asked for anonymity said. The young men of Wernyol are bristling with anger. They believe the attackers were a Lou Nuer militia with a grudge against the Dinka of Wernyol, sent to bring chaos.

The Dinka and Lou Nuer fought in especially bloody battles during the north-south war after the south Sudan insurgent army split. These young men believe the attack in part sprung from remaining animosity between the two groups.

"This is not just cattle raiding," army spokesperson Kuol said. He pointed to the sizes of the attacking groups: in Wernyol survivors said they saw over 800 armed men encircle their homes. In another case, the same guns used by Sudan’s army were used by the attackers, he said.

Some say southern politicians are supporting their own ethnic groups, for among other reasons, to help them build up support in their base. Especially ahead of elections planned for next April.

Old tensions between senior southern leaders left over from the war have also not disappeared entirely and may also be a driving force. "We need to … look at our own problems. Our own politicians are involved," a member of one of the affected communities said.

For now confusion and fear reign but one thing is certain: south Sudan has much work to unify its many nationalities ahead of its vote on secession in 2011.

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