South Sudan Raid Shows Rivals' Escalating Clashes
man/index.html?inline=nyt-per> JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: January 4, 2012
NAIROBI, Kenya - About one week ago, an enormous column of 8,000 armed
youths was advancing through the bush in
uth-sudan/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> South Sudan, bent on revenge. United
Nations aircraft had been steadily tracking its movements and relaying
information back to the head office in Juba, South Sudan's capital. Several
er> peacekeepers and government soldiers were rushed into place, but the
authorities knew they were far outnumbered, and so they told residents to
"This was a massive, overwhelming force," said Lise Grande, the United
Nations humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan.
When the 8,000 rowdy fighters stormed Friday into their destination, the
eastern Pibor area, they unleashed a spasm of destruction and violence on a
rival ethnic group, burning down huts, looting stores and mercilessly
hunting down women and children, witnesses said.
They rampaged for several more days, and the young fighters were even so
bold as to trade shots with the South Sudanese Army. But by Wednesday
afternoon, the column of fighters seemed to be retreating, heading home with
tens of thousands of stolen cows. And though the precise number of deaths is
still unknown, a number of bodies have already been discovered, and Ms.
Grande said the death toll would probably be "in the tens, if not the
South Sudan, the world's newest country, was
> born last
July in ceremonies pulsating with pride and jubilation. Now, it seems to be
exploding in violence. More than 1,000 people have been killed in the past
several months in clashes between rival ethnic groups, often over cattle.
Tensions between the neighboring Lou Nuer ethnic group and the smaller Murle
have been percolating for months, if not years. Both prize cattle and have
been viciously raiding each other's herds. This has escalated into
full-fledged fighting between Murle and Lou Nuer youth, who are typically
armed with automatic weapons. A few generations ago, such fighting was done
The Murle killed more than 600 Lou Nuer last summer and abducted scores of
women and children, which led to reprisals and then counter-reprisals. South
Sudanese religious leaders tried to broker a truce in the fall, but the
talks broke down over mistrust. In December, the Lou Nuer began to assemble
its youths for a revenge raid. A force of 8,000 marched toward Pibor, razing
the Murle village of Likwangoli along the way.
South Sudan's vice president, Riek Machar, who is a member of the greater
Nuer ethnic group, visited the massed fighters near Pibor last week and
begged them to turn back. He was rebuffed as well. And so on Friday, around
1 p.m., the column of Lou Nuer fighters burst into the Pibor area, though
most of the residents had heeded the warnings and fled.
The Lou Nuer then waded into the bush around Pibor town, attacking
civilians. When some fighters tried to cross a river and enter Pibor town,
government forces fired at them, and the United Nations even mobilized
armored personnel carriers, which might have been what caused the Lou Nuer
to turn back eventually.
Several Murle leaders are now expressing frustration over the lack of
"I've heard reports of pregnant women getting sliced up and their babies
killed," said John Atiel, a Presbyterian pastor and a Murle, who spoke by
telephone from Juba.
He said that government forces had been unable - or unwilling - to safeguard
civilians and that 150 people had been killed, maybe more. Calls to South
Sudanese government officials went unanswered on Wednesday.
Ms. Grande said that the United Nations had protected the town of Pibor as
best as it could with its limited resources in South Sudan, where there are
far fewer peacekeepers than in Darfur, the long-troubled but now relatively
quiet area of western Sudan. She said the death toll could have been much
higher had the United Nations not been closely following the movements of
the Lou Nuer fighters.
"It's not that the U.N. was panicking and saying, 'Run for your lives,' "
she added. "A key piece of protection is early warning and telling people to
get out of the way, and that's exactly what we did."
As many as 50,000 villagers are now displaced, living in the rugged South
Sudanese bush with little food or water.
"The humanitarian situation is grim," Ms. Grande said.
Meanwhile, the aid organization Doctors Without Borders has lost contact
with more than 100 of its local staff members, who scattered along with the
local people into the bush.
"We know roughly where they are," said Robin Meldrum, a spokesman for the
organization. "But we're still worried. We don't know if they're safe or
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Received on Wed Jan 04 2012 - 16:23:00 EST