NAIROBI (AlertNet) – The government of South Sudan must prosecute those responsible for killing hundreds of people in Jonglei state six months ago, the United Nations said in a report released on Monday.
In its human rights report, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said 888 people were killed between December 2011 and February 2012 in a conflict between the Lou Nuer and Murle cattle-herding communities over water and grazing land.
“Government and state authorities often define the inter-communal violence as the continuation of a longstanding traditional practice and somehow ‘understandable’,” the report said.
“It is essential that those responsible for the violence, including those who planned, led or condoned the violence, be held to account and prosecuted.”
Cattle-raiding is often accompanied by killings, abduction of women and children and the destruction of property. One witness described how children who cried too much were killed by fighters from one the warring sides.
UNMISS said its report documented some of the main obstacles to accountability including the authorities’ “unwillingness to enforce domestic laws which could be used to hold to account those responsible for the killings, abductions and other crimes”.
“This is partly due to resource constraints and infrastructural challenges, but also to political and cultural reasons,” it said.
The report found that 612 people were killed when an estimated 6,000-8,000-strong ‘White Army’ of the Lou Nuer ethnic group carried out a 12-day attack on the Murle community between December 23 and January 4. An additional 276 people were killed during retaliatory attacks by the Murle from December 27 until February 4.
Some 60,000 were displaced and hundreds remain unaccounted for.
UNMISS called for abducted women and children, the youngest of whom was 10 months old, to be found and returned to their families.
One former abductee described how armed Lou Nuer youth had seized her and her three children on January 1. They were forced to join the column of retreating youth which included a large number of abducted people.
“There were twice as many abducted children as there were women,” UNMISS quoted the woman as saying.
“Children who cried too much or were perceived to be complaining too much about the arduous journey were killed by the armed Lou Nuer youth.”
When the column arrived in Akobo on January 13, the abductors took the woman’s five-year-old and six-year-old children, letting her and her baby go free.
Jonglei is the largest of South Sudan’s 10 states with some of the world’s worst development indicators after decades of marginalisation by the central government and civil war. Most of the state is only accessible by air during the rainy season.
The report described the government’s authority over Jonglei as “tenuous”.
“The Government was slow to respond in any robust way, and failed to stop the Lou Nuer advancing, both to Likuangole and Pibor, in spite of a number of meetings with Lou Nuer and Murle leaders,” UNMISS said.
“The fact that the Lou Nuer advanced to Pibor after it was thought they had agreed with the Vice President not to do so seriously undermined the Government of the Republic of South Sudan’s efforts and demonstrated a lack of government authority.”
Government forces were heavily outnumbered by the Lou Nuer attackers. There were only 400 soldiers in the Likuangole barracks while several thousand attackers were killing civilians.
The government formed a committee to investigate the killings in March but its members have not been sworn in. It has also launched a civilian disarmament campaign.
UNMISS released the report after 20 field missions to the affected areas.