At least 888 people lost their lives in violence involving the Nuer and Murle tribes between December and early February, the United Nations mission to South Sudan said in a devastating report that found the government had faltered in protecting its people and investigating the attacks.
Whole villages were targeted in bloody assaults fueled by hate speech, with women, children and the elderly killed along with grown men, the report said. In one episode recounted in the report, which was released Monday, a woman told U.N. investigators that a dozen Murle gunmen had stabbed her and another woman in January, killing the other woman by slitting her throat.
At another town, the U.N. mission found school walls bearing graffiti with the slogan, "We come to kill all Merle," scores of huts burned to the ground, and corpses strewn through the town, the report said. Attackers on both sides were said to use machetes on women and children to save their ammunition to use on the men.
The tribal violence in Jonglei state has threatened the stability of South Sudan, the newest nation in the world, born out of a lengthy war for independence from Sudan. Bad blood has long lingered between the tribes over cattle rustling, which can strip families of their livelihoods. The Times’ Robyn Dixon wrote this year about the fallout from the cycle of killings in the vast, isolated region:
The December attacks exposed the government's failure to protect its citizens, and to offer services and jobs in a destitute region. Bitter young men whose tribes measure their wealth in cows are left reliant on cattle rustling and killing for their livelihood and marriage prospects.
"They're going to have to face up to national reconciliation," says a Western observer in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. "The issues for the Nuer and the Murle are basically the same. They feel completely abandoned by the government. ... The government's done nothing."
South Sudan, the report said, had failed to stop or investigate attacks, contributing to the fatal cycle. Though the government said it would protect civilians, it sent too few troops too late. Its failure to stop cattle raids and other attacks led those victimized to plot revenge attacks, the U.N. mission found.
"Regrettably, retribution has become synonymous with justice in Jonglei," the report said.
The report did not address the allegation that politicians had fomented the violence, saying that "requires further investigation as it did not fall within the scope of the report." It also stressed that South Sudan and U.N. mission officials faced "serious constraints" in reaching remote areas.
It urged South Sudan to draw up plans to protect Jonglei communities, hold those behind the attacks responsible, publicly condemn and prosecute hate speech, and take other steps to defuse tensions between tribes. Peace talks, restarted in April, should be followed through, the U.N. mission recommended.
"The failure to implement previous agreements, including through the return of abductees and cattle, has contributed to a deep lack of faith in state institutions and to the continuation of attacks," the report said.
Although the report focused on attacks from December to early February, the violence has continued since then. A new bout of attacks in March was believed to have killed scores of people; aid groups have said more than 100,000 people were displaced by the ongoing violence earlier this year.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Nyarath Kolitok was shot in the arm and lost her 25-year-old daughter in one of the December attacks in Jonglei state in South Sudan. Credit: Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times