South Sudan: Killing for culture

By Rob McKee
Posted on Monday, 26 September 2011 14:45

She cannot say her name. The South Sudanese girl was shot in jaw with an AK-47. But the reason she cannot communicate her identity isn’t because of the bullet wound. It’s because she has yet to learn how to speak. Only four months old, the little girl is a victim of a new wave of violence in South Sudan, which experts have described as genocidal. While inter tribal conflicts are not uncommon, a worrying trend of this fighting is the somewhat deliberate attacks on women and children.

The United Nations says the death toll from an attack by Murle people on the rival Lua Nuer tribe in Jonglei State is more than 600. It is estimated that an additional 850 were wounded and 26,000 displaced. What’s more, 200 children were kidnapped and nearly 8 000 houses torched to the ground.

“It is the first large-scale attack since South Sudan’s independence that goes well beyond cattle raiding” said UN Peacekeeping mission head, Hilde Johnson.

Some of the wounded are being treated at a Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) hospital in Leer, Unity State. The stories they tell describe an attack of genocidal proportions.

“They came very early in the morning and just started shooting everything, men, women, and children,” said Chol Deng from her hospital bed. The young woman was shot twice but managed to hide her baby in a thatch of long grass before the first bullet tore through her left arm and the second through her right hand. “I just lay still and the gunmen walked over my body believing I was dead,” Deng recalled. Twelve hours passed before anyone came to her aid.

Other victims’ stories are equally, if not more, disturbing. Take that of Bang Duoth. His frail body is sprawled out on a hospital stretcher, hooked to an intravenous feed replacing the blood that he lost after being shot three times in the abdomen. “I dragged myself along the ground into a garden where I was able to hide as the rest of the attack unfolded,” he said. “I saw the attackers put a whole family inside a house and then set it on fire. They burned everyone alive.”

This recent violence in Jonglei State was not a typical cattle-raiding incident where one tribe attacks men from another in order to steal a herd.

Cows are currency in South Sudan and cattle raiding attacks are a near-everyday occurrence. But this attack was of a magnitude that is difficult to fathom. Survivors claim that many of the attackers were in military uniforms and used heavy calibre weapons – including rocket propelled grenade launchers – on unarmed women and children.

In addition, there are signs the attack was coordinated. At the same time on the same day, people from the Murle tribe hit seven separate villages.

Lua Nuer people too, however, have a history of similar attacks on the Murle. In June, they were accused of massacring Murle people in an attack that also went beyond cattle raiding. Lua Nuer people readily admit this.

Another young victim, who has no understanding of politics, religion or tribalism, represents the uncorrupted innocence that is under-fire in parts of South Sudan. A small toy rubber duck sits idly at the feet of the one-year old girl as she sleeps on the floor of a hospital tent. “I was with my family when they entered the village and started shooting”, the father, who requested anonymity. “My family and I ran in different directions. I never saw them alive again.”

The man’s wife and five of his children were killed. When the attack was over, other survivors found his youngest, sixth daughter, lying on the ground, wounded from a gunshot. She will live but will never know her mother or five siblings.

Even MSF, a world leader in providing emergency medical assistance in some of the world’s most hostile environments, was not spared in the recent clash. Its office was looted and vehicles burned, and one local staff member in Jonglei was killed. Initially 17 people were reported missing, one of whom remains unaccounted for.


“We condemn this attack on our medical facilities and the killing of our staff in the strongest terms,” said MSF mission head, Jose Hulsenbek. “This is totally unacceptable. Medical facilities should always be respected as places of neutrality, where patients and medical staff should have no fear of attack. It is difficult to imagine the scale of this attack – this is so huge and we are still trying to assess all the casualties, the wounded, and the damage.”

“The South Sudanese authorities, the international community, and other aid organisations should quickly step in to assist the victims of these large scale killings”, Hulsenbek continued.

MSF also concerned at the situation in remote areas that have not yet been reached due to seasonal rains.

“Authorities should step up their efforts to ensure the safety of the population,” said Hulsenbek.

On August 26, the United Nations announced it is sending peacekeepers to Jonglei to act as a buffer between the two tribes and hopefully prevent a rash of revenge killings. This year has been the most violent in South Sudan since the end of a two-decade civil war with the north in 2005. The UN says 2 500 civilians have been killed compared with 940 at the same time last year.

In 2010, the US intelligence community issued a clear warning relating to tribal violence in southern Sudan. Yet today the advice remains largely unheeded. “Over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk of a new outbreak of mass killing,” the statement read. “Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan.” One year later, the intelligence community’s prediction is showing increasing signs of accurateness.

Both arms in casts, Chol Deng sits up attentively from her hospital bed to answer a question. “Do you want to go back to Jonglei when you recover? Do you feel safe there?” She has a confused look on her face and in a matter of fact way states what she deems to be the obvious. “Of course I’ll go back. It’s our land. Even if we die we’ll die in our land. We will never leave and we will never accept anybody else in our land. If they want to kill women and children, then I, as a woman, will pick up a gun and fight myself.”

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