NAIROBI (AlertNet) – South Sudan’s Jonglei State is in the throes of an emergency, and a renewal of the attacks, killings and abductions – particularly of children – that plagued it early this year is likely now that the rains have ended, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a report on Tuesday.
Jonglei has been the most violent place in the country since South Sudan became independent in July 2011. The remote, swampy state accounts for almost 60 percent of 2,675 violence-related deaths and over 200,000 violence-related displacements recorded by the United Nations in South Sudan since the start of 2011.
Inter-ethnic hostilities and cattle raiding have evolved into a budding insurgency, fuelled by resentment over a heavy-handed government disarmament campaign earlier this year, and MSF said it feared fresh outbreaks of violence in the coming months.
Through interviews with patients in its clinics, MSF paints a chilling picture of the brutal treatment of civilians during fighting between tribal and ethnic groups and between government troops and rebels, and said attacks on its clinics had left many people with no medical care.
“They set tukuls (huts) on fire and threw children in the fire,” one 55-year-old woman told MSF. She tried to run away with three children but two were killed and one was injured when the raiders threw her on her head.
“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,” she said. It was not clear who the attackers were.
RAIDERS ATTACK CIVILIANS
The newly independent state of South Sudan has been struggling to stamp its authority on a vast, undeveloped country awash with weapons, at a time when state revenue has fallen sharply because of Juba’s suspension of oil production in January in a row with Khartoum.
MSF says the nature of the violence in Jonglei has changed in the last two years.
“While appropriating cattle used to be the main aim of the attacks, nowadays civilians are targeted, with women and children making up a large proportion of victims treated by MSF teams,” the report said. It did not say why it thought this was happening.
Between January and March 2012, one-fifth of patients treated by MSF in Nyirol and Uror counties for violence-related injuries were children under the age of five.
“When I started running with my two children, I was shot and fell on the ground,” a 24-year-old mother said. “They took my four-year-old child and they stabbed him with a knife, they slaughtered him, they cut his neck. Then they took my baby and kicked his head.”
Pregnant women have also been subjected to appalling attacks.
“[The attackers] caught up with me and beat me on the head and I fell down,” one patient said. “They opened my stomach with knives and my baby fell out. I was eight months pregnant.” The MSF report did not identify the attackers or the victims.
FURTHER SPIKE IN VIOLENCE
The worst bout of fighting took place in late 2011 when a “White Army” made up of an estimated 7,000 heavily armed Lou Nuer marched on rival Murle villages, triggering a wave of revenge attacks. Some 900 people were killed, tens of thousands displaced, an unknown number of women and children abducted and tens of thousands of cattle stolen.
MSF warned that the recent end of the rainy season could bring a flare-up of violence.
“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,” MSF’s operational manager Chris Lockyear said.
The report also gives evidence of the brutality meted out to civilians, including children, during the government’s disarmament campaign, launched in March with the aim of ending the inter-communal violence.
MSF treated over 100 patients for injuries sustained during the disarmament operation, of whom 26 were treated for sexual violence and three died.
These abuses fuelled an armed revolt in Jonglei, led by Murle militia chief David Yau Yau. The Murle, who believe they have long been persecuted and marginalised by the government, felt its soldiers had unfairly targeted them.
During clashes between the army and rebels, most aid groups have to flee along with the population. Four of the MSF’s six clinics in Jonglei – for a population of 287,000 – have been looted or destroyed since 2011.
“This disturbing trend of targeting medical facilities not only raises concerns about the extreme nature of the violence in the region, but also about the wider impact on access to healthcare for people already vulnerable as a result of violence,” MSF said. In South Sudan, three-quarters of the population have no access to health facilities and life expectancy is just 42 years.
MSF says the spike in violence since 2011 has also contributed to a surge in malnutrition and malaria cases. In January 2012, after the “White Army” attack on Pibor, MSF admitted three times as many children into its feeding programme as in the previous January.
The government announced plans last week to hold South Sudan’s first national peace and reconciliation conference in April 2013.