Yuai — The huge Russian-made helicopter descended slowly towards conical mud huts clustered together and surrounded by endless grassland, lush and green with the season's rains here in the South Sudanese village of Yuai.
The scene is tranquil now, but less than a year ago this was a community caught up in ethnic conflict that engulfed Jonglei state and saw thousands of people murdered.
Villagers of Yuai gathered at this dirt airstrip on Oct. 26 to welcome members of a committee tasked by South Sudan's President Salva Kiir with bringing peace to the violence-wracked state.
At least 1,600 people died in 2011 in fighting between the Murle and Lou Nuer ethnic groups, according to the United Nations. Clashes continued into February, killing another 400 people.
"The president asked me and other colleagues to bring peace to greater Jonglei as a whole, because at the time Jonglei was almost breaking apart. We were eating ourselves, Nuer, Dinka, Murle," committee head Daniel Deng, who is the archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and South Sudan, told community leaders in Yuai.
In the wake of the violence, the government launched a peace process as well as a state-wide programme to disarm civilians in March.
The disarmament campaign has been plagued by allegations of abuse by government soldiers, but peace has largely held between the ethnic groups, whose leaders signed a reconciliation agreement in May.
That fragile peace is now being threatened by the emergence of a new anti-government militia led by David Yau Yau, and analysts and officials warn the rebels could spark renewed ethnic conflict in Jonglei.
"We hope that the government has the upper hand, they will control this rebellion," Deng told IPS.
"If the government manages to control David Yau Yau, then I think the civilians will be happy and the peace will continue."
The South Sudanese government blames its former civil war foe, Sudan, for arming Yau Yau - a charge Sudanese officials deny. But abuses during disarmament perpetrated by its own army, which is known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), have also contributed to the militia's gathering strength, according to a report released on Wednesday Oct. 31 by Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research institution.
"Soldiers conducting the campaign have committed rapes, torture, and killings--mostly against Murle communities--deepening Murle distrust of the SPLA," according to the report entitled "My Neighbour, My Enemy: Inter-tribal Violence In Jonglei".
Jonah Leff, the report's author, told IPS that Yau Yau has "been able to recruit Murle youth by exploiting their grievances over SPLA misconduct during the disarmament programme." He added that Lou Nuer youth have begun to rearm in case of attacks by Murle youth who have been provided with weapons by Yau Yau.
Deng said he was worried that Yau Yau could destroy the peace between tribes if the SPLA was unable to prevent his forces from attacking other ethnic communities.
Such a damaging pattern may have already begun.
In an interview in Yuai, capital of Uror County, the county commissioner, Simon Duoth, said rebel fighters attacked a family in neighbouring Akobo County on Oct. 25.
Both counties are part of the traditional homeland of the Lou Nuer.
Previously, Yau Yau's forces primarily targeted SPLA posts in Pibor County, which is home to the Murle. At least 100 soldiers have been killed since Aug. 22, according to Small Arms Survey, which estimates that the militia now numbers 3,000 fighters.
If the pattern of abuse of Murle civilians by soldiers continues, that number could grow.
Small Arms Survey said in the report that soldiers have even "beaten and detained civilians trying to bring violations to their attention." The group said the attitude towards disarmament in Lou Nuer areas has been more positive, with people reporting that soldiers have returned stolen cattle and escorted farmers to their fields.
"The Murle, on the other hand, report that the SPLA have offered little or no protection, and in some cases have stolen their farming tools," says the report. "For many Murle, the principal enemy is no longer the Lou Nuer but the SPLA."
Colonel Kella Dual Kueth, an army spokesman, denied that soldiers were committing abuses. Other government officials have blamed individual soldiers, denying that there is a pattern of abuse against Murle civilians.
Deng echoed those statements: "It is not the policy; it is some soldiers who might have gone astray.
"So it cannot be considered that it is the SPLA. It is those who are not respecting the law and already the SPLA has taken measures against them," he said.
But organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented widespread abuses in Pibor that include rape, beatings and torture. In an Aug. 23 statement, HRW said "authorities have not taken sufficient steps to curb the violations or hold abusive soldiers accountable."
Small Arms Survey noted that between March and September the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNMISS) had made only one public statement about "apparent human rights violations" taking place as part of disarmament campaign ordered by the ruling party, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM).
"UNMISS has failed to carry out its mandate to protect civilians in the face of widespread SPLA abuses, and has not sufficiently taken up the matter with the SPLM or SPLA leadership in Juba," the report said.
Kouider Zerrouk, a spokesman for the mission, denied the charges.
"On the contrary, UNMISS has raised its concerns with the SPLA, calling for the abuses in Pibor County to be stemmed," he told IPS.
"UNMISS recognises that some steps have been taken to strengthen investigations, with some arrests in recent rape cases and some older cases going to trial."