Juba — Women and children are increasingly being caught up in violent attacks related to cattle rustling and inter-communal rivalries in South Sudan's Jonglei State, say officials.
"We know that Jonglei has a history of being a violent state, but primarily we are seeing an increase in women and children being caught up in it," said Chris Lockyear, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) operational manager.
MSF has released a new report, South Sudan's Hidden Crisis, highlighting insecurity in the area. It is based on medical data from the organization's six health centres in Jonglei and over 100 testimonies from patients and staff taken between January and September.
One patient, a 55-year-old woman, told MSF: "On the day of the attack... they set [huts] on fire and threw children in the fire. I collected the children to run away but, because I am old, I cannot run fast and they killed the children... If the child can run, they will shoot them with the gun. If they are small and cannot run, they will kill them with a knife." (In line with MSF policy, the report did not identify the perpetrators of these attacks.)
South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, after decades of war with Sudan. During the conflict, Sudan pitted communities in the south against each other, even arming them. The legacy of this violence continues, with South Sudan accusing Sudan of backing rebel militias in the south.
Jonglei has recorded at least 302 attacks between January 2011 and September 2012; over 200,000 people were displaced and 2,500 were killed, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). These represented 43 percent of all attacks in the world's newest nation.
Women and children now bear the brunt of this violence.
"The introduction of small arms and the decades of brutality have changed the dynamic... The men carrying out these attacks view anyone as a viable target - including women and children. Indeed, the cycle of revenge has now spiraled to the extent that the attackers regard the killing or abduction of women and children as a necessary method of revenge," Lydia Stone, an advisor to South Sudan's Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, told IRIN.
The men carrying out these attacks view anyone as a viable target - including women and children. Indeed, the cycle of revenge has now spiraled to the extent that the attackers regard the killing or abduction of women and children as a necessary method of revenge
Sexual violence is also emerging as a new dynamic in Jonglei's Pibor County, said Stefano Zannini, head of MSF in South Sudan. "Since 2005, in the area of Pibor, MSF never treated - had never seen - any cases of rape. And if you look, for example, at 2012, we have received 26 cases of sexual violence." He added that 74 percent of violence survivors in Pibor treated by MSF were women and children.
Jonglei witnessed large-scale massacres in January of this year when up to 8,000 youths led by the Lou Nuer ethnic group marched on Pibor, home to the Murle, a rival minority ethnic group.
At least 600 people died, according to UN estimates, with local officials putting fatalities at over 3,000. An October report by Geneva-based think-tank Small Arms Survey (SAS) weighed up both tallies and estimated 1,000 deaths of "mostly Murle women and children."
The violence is being fomented, at least in part, by South Sudanese officials. "Local and national-level politicians have manipulated the conflict for personal and political gain, while Jonglei-based militia groups have provided weapons to tribal fighters to further their own agendas," noted SAS.
Attempts to pacify Jonglei have been undermined by the emergence of a new rebel threat - a militia under David Yau Yau - and a stalled disarmament effort. Yau Yau, a Murle, had been granted a presidential amnesty and given a job as an army general, but he gave up the post to resume fighting in April.
Murle mistrust of government forces has been fuelled by the misappropriation of aid meant for those affected by the Pibor massacres. "SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] officers reportedly have stolen cattle and food aid that was delivered to communities after the December and January attacks," the SAS report said, noting that Yau Yau's revolt reflects "Murle discontent and general insecurity in Pibor county".
By late October, the army was forced to halt its disarmament efforts in Pibor. "The reason for suspension is the existence of [the] David Yau Yau militia group in the area," Maj General Butrous Bol Bol, who commanded the disarmament operation at the time, told the Sudan Tribune.
An August Human Rights Watch statement reported a string of alleged abuses against civilians, mainly in Pibor County, during the disarmament operation. The abuses included rape, torture and beatings by government forces.
But outside Pibor, the seven-month disarmament process was largely successful, according to South Sudan analyst John Ashworth, who said people "are very supportive of disarmament." Ashworth says May peace talks between warring communities, a reshuffle of army commanders, and talks with 50 youth leaders have also helped calmed tensions.
"Life is getting better in Jonglei, and there was less violence after the peace agreement and a lot of hope that it will work," he said. "In May, you even had community leaders saying to the SPLA: 'If you find one of my youths with a gun and he won't give it up, then shoot him'," he added.
But according to the SAS report, since 2005, disarmament campaigns in Jonglei "have yet to show any durable effectiveness... The weapons that continue to flow into Jonglei to Yau Yau's forces have prompted Lou Nuer youths to begin arming to protect against newly armed Murle. As in years past, the cycle of disarmament and rearmament persists".
Armed groups are also becoming increasingly sophisticated; reports indicate Lou Nuer groups are carrying satellite phones, rocket-propelled grenades and sub-machine guns.
More violence to come?
Because of the violence, only a few aid agencies are working in Jonglei. Most international staff have been evacuated from Pibor, and national staff members risk being caught up in the conflict. The NGO Plan International reports that on 29 October, a former community worker with Plan South Sudan was abducted and later killed by his captors in Pibor.
MSF is concerned the situation in Jonglei could worsen. "The dry season is now upon us, making movement around the area possible again, and we fear a further spike in violence, injury and displacement," said MSF's Lockyear.
On 18 November, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) received a threatening letter allegedly signed by Yau Yau, ordering peacekeepers to withdraw within 24 hours and to stop assisting the SPLA. "It started with 50 soldiers of the militia entering into UNMISS's compound and requesting UNMISS leave immediately," said a South Sudan military spokesman.
One South Sudan expert, who preferred anonymity, said UNMISS should "prioritize Jonglei, and put all their troops there... They need to reinforce troops and be seen as more of a deterrent."
The SPLA needs to be seen to be providing security, said Ashworth. "As long as the army is willing to control the situation, the people will allow them to do it," he said.
But a government counter-insurgency would "likely to lead to displacement on a very large scale, civilians being caught in fighting and prevented from accessing basic services or continuing their daily activities that are key to their livelihoods," an aid worker said.
"If the SPLA choose to do a dry season offensive, the potential impact could be twofold: One, atrocities, and [the] potential downside that civilian communities will be affected and displaced with potentially more human rights abuses. The second is that if they fail to neutralize a militia, then reputation and morale is affected," said Richard Rands, a security analyst who has trained the SPLA.
UNMISS is more optimistic: "The dry season of 2012 was less violent than the dry season of 2011, so I'm hoping that trend continues," said Toby Lanzer, the Humanitarian Coordinator and the UN Secretary-General's Deputy Special Representative at UNMISS.
"We know that Jonglei is the hotspot in the Republic of South Sudan, but it's not all of Jonglei. It's a couple of the counties there, and we're following events on the ground very closely," he said.
The UN has launched an appeal for US$1.16 billion in aid for South Sudan in 2013. "One of the reasons why we were the first country in the world this year to issue our humanitarian appeal for 2013 is precisely because we need to get ready in case the worst occurs," Lanzer said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]