Nairobi – South Sudan -the world’s newest country– now faces the danger of a wide-spreading “inter-ethnic” war after increasing armed clashes between two major tribes that took around one thousand lives so far.
During the last days of December 2011, UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) deployed a battalion of troops in the town of Pibor in Jonglei state, “which is under imminent attack by an estimated 6,000 armed men from one of two feuding communities in the area.”
“The situation in Jonglei is very worrying,” said Lise Grande, the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan said. “There are 6,000 armed youth from one of the Jonglei tribes, the Lou Nuer, that is marching on the town of Pibor where another community, the Murle community, are concentrated.”
Jonglei state has been blighted by a series of reprisal attacks between the two communities, which have a history of animosity over grazing land, water sources and cattle raids during which women and children are often abducted.
More than 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed in ethnic clashes in 2011, with Jonglei one of the states worst affected by the violence. Thousands more civilians have been displaced from their homes.
The “New” Country
South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, extends over 700 sq. kms. Its 2000 kilometres long borders limit with Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, RD Congo, Central Africa Republic, and Sudan.
Its population, estimated in around 9 million inhabitants, is composed of more than 200 ethnic groups and is, along with the adjacent Nuba Hills, one of the most linguistically diverse regions of Africa.
South Sudan’s population is formed mainly by three major tribes: the Dinka, the largest; the Nuer, and the Shilluk.
Meanwhile, damaged crops combined with conflict and insecurity are threatening to leave some 2.5 million people in South Sudan in critical conditions unless food assistance is provided immediately, according to the UN.
“A gathering storm of hunger is approaching South Sudan, caused by crop failure and market disruption,” said the UN World Food Programme (WFP) Director in South Sudan, Chris Nikoi.
“Very Serious Risk”
“We deemed that there was a very serious risk to civilians [and] in support of the Government of South Sudan’s primary responsibility to protect civilians, we have gone ahead and deployed a battalion-size force in Pibor with the aim of deterring violence and helping the Government to protect its own people,” UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan Lise Grande said.
Lou Nuer fighters raided the town of Lukangol, sending thousands of civilians fleeing towards Pibor, Grande said. An estimated 500 members of the 6,000-strong column of armed men is now on the outskirts of Pibor, she added.
“We were so alarmed by the situation that during the course of the afternoon we have reinforced our positions in Pibor. All this is in support of the Government of South Sudan’s primary responsibility to protect. We are there to help them do that.”
She said the Government had also deployed a battalion of its army, the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA), inside Pibor, and that the troops had also taken up positions in the town’s periphery to deter an attack.
South Sudan’s vice president, Riek Machar, is also leading an initiative to bridge the differences between the Lou Nuer and the Murle communities, including encouraging the armed men to disband and go home, Grande said.
“Considerable Logistical Challenges”
She said that despite UNMISS’ “quick” and “robust” deployment in Pibor, the mission faces considerable logistical challenges, particularly the shortage of helicopters.
“Basically the only way into Pibor at the moment is by air,” said Ms. Grande. “We did manage two days ago to get two armoured personnel carriers into the town, but it took them more than a day and half to arrive.”
“The convoy of trucks that we were using to try and reinforce our troops… simply didn’t make it – they got stuck in the mud and they couldn’t enter the town. At this point our only way in to support our troops on the ground is through air assets, however, the mission simply doesn’t have sufficient number of air assets… it’s a major constraint and it is affecting our operational effectiveness on the ground,” she said.