Since South Sudan’s turbulent birth in July last year, the state has been faced with a constant succession of crises, threatening its very stability.
On-going disputes over its border with the North have seen air and ground attacks by Omar al-Bashir’s troops, causing widespread death and displacement whilst raising the spectre of a new war. Meanwhile splits within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) have resulted in serious violence; in one case militia loyal to George Athor, a former Southern General with possible Northern backing, ruthlessly slaughtered hundreds of civilians before he was tracked down and killed.
However, such challenges may be overshadowed in both human cost and the level of threat to South Sudan’s future by the turmoil now engulfing the Eastern state of Jonglei; where a long-running dispute over cattle rustling is rapidly escalating into the most brutal of civil conflicts.
Since the end of the Sudanese Civil War in 2005, members of the Murle and Lou-Nuer tribes have frequently clashed over thefts of livestock and associated abuses including kidnapping and sexual violence. Yet huge raids by Murle militias last August set in motion an unprecedentedly rapid upshot of attacks and reprisals, that have so far left over one thousand dead and sixty-three thousand displaced.
In recent weeks Lou-Nuer troops have launched a fierce push back into Murle territory, that has seen the town of Lukangol razed to the ground and scores of civilians killed. Thousands of men, women and children are now hiding in the bush as the militias continue to advance through conurbations toward the town of Pibor; burning houses, killing residents and seizing livestock. In a particularly ominous development, the local Medicins Sans Frontiers clinic –solely dedicated to providing humanitarian medical aid- has been overrun; its staff remain unaccounted for.
In what could quickly transpire to be a perfect storm, the attacks are gathering momentum due to the vast amount of accessible weapons and ammunition left over from the civil war. And though no one is yet referring to ethnic cleansing or genocide, at least one of the Lou-Nuer groups involved in the offensive has pledged to “wipe out the entire Murle tribe.”
The need to urgently bring the situation under control is clear; however the South Sudanese army remains under-trained and overstretched, whilst the UN Peacekeepers are thinly spread and, as always, restrained by the strict conditions of their mandate. Their chances of success in halting the violence are far guaranteed – but the consequences of their failure, for South Sudan and its people, are too dire to comprehend.