A massive disarmament operation has netted thousands of weapons in South Sudan's Jonglei State, but security in what is one of the country's most marginalized states is now being jeopardized by a rebel leader on a recruitment drive.
The operation was launched in the wake of the killing in January of at least 600 people during an attack by Nuer fighters on the rival Murle community in Jonglei’s Pibor County.
Violence between these communities, which have a long history of tit-for-tat cattle raids, has subsided since the January attack.
Now, according to the government’s military spokesman, Philip Aguer, one of the main threats to security in Jonglei comes from a rebel group which plans “take Pibor as a place to challenge the government of South Sudan.”
Like many opponents of South Sudan’s government, the group's leader, David Yau Yau, a Murle, had been granted a presidential amnesty and given a job – as a general - in the army. But he gave up this post and resumed his rebellion in April.
Aguer accused him of “instigating the youth of Murle not to accept disarmament” and of being behind a 23 August ambush that left 24 soldiers dead, 12 seriously wounded and 17 missing.
A few days after the ambush, soldiers came under fire again 60km away in Likuangole - a Murle town that was almost totally destroyed in January - prompting civilians to flee to outlying villages and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to beef up the number of peacekeepers there.
Likuangole’s only clinic, run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was ransacked and looted during the January attacks, and has again been targeted.
“A number of buildings in Likuangole, including the MSF facilities there, have been emptied of materials in recent weeks,” UNMISS Director of Communications Liam McDowall said, without identifying the perpetrators.
An aid worker who asked not to be named accused government soldiers involved in the disarmament operation of “stealing food aid and other humanitarian aid from civilians. They've been taking what they want from who they want".
“Given the fact that most of the communities are still trying to recover from the violence in January, the humanitarian aid represents a key part of their livelihoods and now civilian populations are without food or shelter,” the aid worker added.
Few aid agencies now work in Pibor County and only two do so in Pibor town. Recent flooding means many parts of the county can only be reached by boat or helicopter.
|The lull is simply part of the usual pattern of conflict, whereby the youth simply tire of fighting, take a break only to resume when one of the unresolved issues triggers a new fight|
“The reason that Yau Yau has support is because of how abusive the disarmament process is,” said another international aid worker who asked not to be named due to fear of reprisals.
This view is shared by elders and other Murle community leaders, who, in a 1 September letter to Deputy Defence Minister Majak D’Agoot, said the disarmament operation should stop so as “to discourage youth from joining David Yau Yau, as it is the main reason which made them join him.”
Some reports suggest that Nuer as well as Murle youths are being recruited into Yau Yau’s rebellion.
While there are few Murle in the state government, they “are not the only group feeling marginalized in Jonglei,” said Judy McCallum, former head of peace-building NGO Pact’s operations in South Sudan. McCallum is currently writing a PhD thesis on the Murle.
“I hesitate to state that only Murle youth are being recruited, but would emphasize more the fact that disenfranchised youth, who have little representation and little hope that their grievances will be addressed, are the ones being drawn into the militias,” she told IRIN by email.
South Sudan started statewide disarmament in Jonglei in March, and last week claimed to have collected 12,000 guns there.
The state was a particularly fierce theatre of conflict during the 1983-2005 North-South civil war, with its Nuer and Dinka populations for the most part fighting for the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) - which is now the national army of South Sudan - while many Murle militia groups were armed by Khartoum to weaken the SPLA.
“The Murle have long considered the disarmament as another way to punish them, and a suitable guise to do it under,” the aid worker added.
MSF noted an unprecedented level of “extreme violence” during this year’s attacks, with the elderly, women and children targeted with unprecedented brutality.
Human rights and advocacy groups have repeatedly warned of the dangers disarming the state, pointing to the lack of a buffer zone between rival communities, the failure of peace talks involving youth leaders and the violence that accompanied previous botched disarmament efforts.
In April, UNMISS said it was “very concerned about these reports of human rights violations during disarmament”, but added it was “encouraged” by steps to bring perpetrators to justice.
In May, Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the government to end “longstanding impunity” and investigate “serious crimes” committed after the disarmament operation evolved from a voluntary phase to a forced phase.
Photo: Hannah McNeish/IRIN
|Displaced...Clashes in January in Jonglei's Pibor County forced thousands from their homes|
She also urged the government to fulfil its pledge of establishing a Jonglei Committee to investigate violence - a body still not functional as of September.
Among the abuses cited in a recent Human Rights Watch report were “soldiers shooting at civilians, and ill-treating them by beatings, tying them up with rope, and submerging their heads in water to extract information about the location of weapons” as well as “rape and beatings and additional acts of torture”.
“The documented cases are likely to represent a small fraction of the total number of incidents, because many victims and witnesses do not report the crimes to county authorities,” the report said.
While describing security in Jonglei as “significantly improved,” UNMISS in late August also reported "alleged violations including one killing, 27 allegations of torture or ill-treatment, such as beatings, and simulated drowning in some cases, 12 rapes, six attempted rapes and eight abductions," between 15 and 20 August.
"The majority of the victims are women, and in some cases children," it noted.
A resident of Pibor County who fled to Juba told IRIN that soldiers had “raped my mother and my sister and they tortured an eight year old. Why would anyone do that to a child, and why is no one caring about the Murle to stop them?”
Between March and 20 August, MSF treated 90 people with “violent trauma injuries” - including several rape survivors - in its Pibor clinic, three of whom died from their injuries.
The government and army have dismissed reports of widespread abuses as “one-sided”, “inflammatory” and based on “rumour” and exaggerations by “politicized groups”.
Although floods are hampering transport, more troops are being sent to Pibor County to take on Yau Yau and those who have refused to disarm.
“The process of disarmament will continue,” said military spokesperson Aguer.
Cycles of violence
For Jok Madut Jok, an academic and Undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture, public statements welcoming a decline in inter-communal clashes are premature.
“The problem is that despite the lull in that conflict and in many other similar ones, this was not a result of a concerted program of security sector reform, reconciliation between the ethnic groups or a resolution of the root causes and issues that fan that conflict,”Jok wrote in an article in the newly formed Sudd Institute.
“Instead, the lull is simply part of the usual pattern of conflict, whereby the youth simply tire of fighting, take a break and only to resume when one of the unresolved issues triggers a new fight,” he warned.
Even if the Yau Yau threat subsides, there are fears that revenge attacks will restart as rains abate in the coming weeks.