Residents of the South Sudanese town of Pibor are returning home, weeks after fleeing from an invasion of heavily armed members of a rival tribe. Dozens of houses were torched, but the majority of the homes stayed intact. The town of Likuangole, by contrast, was wiped off the map.
The destruction of Likuangole is best seen from the air. No building has survived the rage of the 6,000 men strong White Army of the Lou Nuer tribe. The term ‘White Army’ derives from Nuer youths' practice of smearing their skin with light-coloured ash as a protection against biting insects.
The entire population of Likuangole fled to the bush during Christmas, when the Lou Nuer said they were seeking revenge on the local Murle population in a cycle of ethnic violence which has persisted in Jonglei state for years.
“Their aim was to finish us all off,” says Juma Balan, an eyewitness. “Whoever didn’t escape in time was killed,” he says, as we walk past the skull of one of the victims. What is left of Likuangole is the airstrip, where hundreds of survivors gather daily, waiting for food distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP). “At night, we hide in the bush because we fear a new attack,” Balan says.
March on Pibor
From Likuangole we fly to Pibor, the main town of the Murle community, following the same path as the White Army took late December. On the last day of 2011, the Lou Nuer swarmed the town, but the residents had already fled.
“Over three thousand people of our community lost their lives,” says Commissioner Joshua Konyi, who bases his case on casualty reports of village chiefs. The armed tribesmen hunted down the people who fled Pibor, killing women and children along the way. The United Nations questions this death toll.
Three weeks after the attack Pibor’s main market has reopened. People have returned from their hiding places, but without their cattle. They’ve lost them all. The central square is packed with desperate and hungry people. Like Ngedeth, a 27-year-old woman from Likuangole. She and her five children ran away from the attackers.
“I have been sitting here under the threes for the last nine days. We are waiting for food aid, but up to now we haven’t eaten.” Elsewhere, parents are reporting missing children; the raiders kidnapped women and children, and took the cattle as well.
The World Food Program has so far been using helicopters to fly in food supplies. A first road convoy with food reached Pibor last Friday, with enough food to feed 50,000 people for the next two weeks.
The cycle continues
The Murle, a minority tribe in South Sudan, have been accused of staging retaliatory attacks. In Urur and Duk counties dozens of people were killed in the past weeks. Commissioner Konyi acknowledges that young warriers from his tribe might seek revenge. “But not this soon. Our people are completely displaced. We are not in a position to strike back already,” he says.
After the attacks, there were many reports of ethnic hate speech, even on the internet. Politicians, on the other hand, are proposing military deployment and peace talks. But people in Jonglei state wonder whether the same politicians may be behind the attacks.
Commissioner Konyi says he does not encourage any revenge attacks from the Murle, but insists that he cannot stop them. “If it happens the death toll won’t be counted in the dozens. There will be many more.”