REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Neighbors found the 18-month-old boy crying alone in the bush outside his village of Wek in South Sudan.
Both his parents had been shot to death about two weeks ago during ethnic clashes between the Murle and Luo-Nuer tribes in Jonglei state. The attackers had smashed the child’s head against a tree and left him for dead, according to witness accounts collected by the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders. His head injuries were severe.
“He was abandoned, without any help,” a witness told the group, which released a report Tuesday on the violence. “We, the community, came looking for people who needed help in the bush and we found him, still alive and alone.”
Doctors Without Borders did not release the names of the witnesses out of concern for their safety.
About 55 people died in the Jan. 11 assault, which left dozens wounded. Many remain missing. The violence was carried out by Murle tribesmen in revenge for attacks by the opposing Luo-Nuer tribe late last year.
At least 120,000 people in Jongwei are in need of aid after violent attacks in December and January, according to the United Nations. There are no reliable estimates of the dead, with victims scattered over vast areas of bush.
“It was evening when we were attacked,” an 18-year-old woman from Wek, whose husband and one of her children were shot and killed, told Doctors Without Borders. “People all around us were being shot and cut with knives. When I heard the shooting, I tried to run away with my husband and my children, but I was shot in the leg and I fell down.”
Doctors Without Borders treated 94 people at the site for stabbing and gunshot wounds. More than half of the 13 victims airlifted out by the group were less than 5 years old.
Accounts of attacks in late December by Lou-Nuer gunmen against Murle tribesman near Pibor were equally grim.
A 24-year-old woman fled her village near Pibor with her 3-year-old daughter, along with two other women with their boys, ages 10 and 11, and hid in the grass. But the attackers heard her child crying and came for them.
“They abducted my child and slit the throats of the two boys in front of us. They told us three women to run -- we ran 10 meters and they started shooting. The other two women were killed right away. I was shot in the leg so I fell down. They came over to me and shot me in the head to make sure I was dead and left me there.”
Shot in the cheek and leg, she survived alone in the bush for a week by crawling to a river for water. Later she found out her mother had been killed. Her daughter is still missing.
“My only child has been taken; I feel so alone and it’s very painful,” she said. “Ten people have been killed from my family, four women and six men. Eight people have been killed from my husband’s family.”
Intercommunal violence between the Murle and Lou-Nuer tribes has been going on for centuries, mainly around the issue of cattle rustling, which brings honor to young tribal men when they successfully steal stock and increase their own herds. Some 80,000 cattle were stolen in the recent violence. The loss of cattle, the main store of wealth in these communities, leaves families without a livelihood.
But battles that were once fought with spears are now fought with guns and carry high fatalities. Vast numbers of weapons can be found in South Sudan after decades of civil war that led last July to its independence from Sudan.
The Enough Project, a human rights group, said in a report released Thursday that the Sudanese government had fueled the intercommunal violence during the civil war in order to destabilize the south. The recent violence underscores the weakness of South Sudan's police and army, and the breakdown of traditional authority structures, just one of many threats facing the fragile new state, according to the group.
“The tip of the iceberg is the resurgence of conflict between the Lou-Nuer and Murle communities of Jonglei state, but below the surface, other potential intercommunal crises exist throughout South Sudan,” the report says. “The causes of this violence go beyond the retaliatory nature of cattle raiding and touch upon broader issues of accountability, reconciliation, political inclusion, state effectiveness, development, and the proliferation of arms among the civilian population.”
A 39-year-old man shot in the arm in the December attacks near Pibor said his family escaped death by hiding underwater in the river, with just their mouths exposed for air.
“My home has been burned to the ground, all of it, everything,” he said. “I don’t know if I can go back home -- because so many are missing, many are dead.
“How can we think about our future?”
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: A woman and her 18-month-old baby, displaced by ethnic violence, wait for aid at a U.N. food distribution center in Pibor, South Sudan, this month. Credit: Hannah McNeish / AFP/Getty Images