LIKUANGOLE, South Sudan — Nothing is intact in this town, save the memories. Every hut was burned to the ground. The only health clinic and the only school were torched. Hundreds were killed or injured. Thousands more fled.
The United Nations and South Sudan’s government had combat forces in this town at the time of the assault late last year. But witnesses say they did nothing to stop the killings.
When the attackers reached a village nearby, they shot Nyandit Allan, 28, twice in her left leg and again in the face, then slit the throats of her two stepsons. “They were singing as they left,” said Allan, who is now recuperating in a clinic.
Six months after celebrating independence, the world’s newest nation is grappling with a virus of tribal violence. In many ways, the inevitable has happened, as ethnic and political tensions exploded after being suppressed by the promise of separation from the north, after a decades-long war against rulers in Khartoum.
The United States and its allies have spent billions to help South Sudan become a stable, pro-Western pillar in a region plagued by terrorism and militant Islam. But now the intensifying attacks have ignited tribal violence and threaten to undermine a government already facing a long list of daunting challenges.
Stopping the violence “would demand a very, very significant military operation, and the government also would have to move significant forces to make that happen,” said Hilde Johnson, the head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan.
The state of Jonglei has long been gripped by poverty, ethnic and political tensions, a massive influx of weapons and a history of cattle raiding between the Nuer and Murle tribes. Last year, the United Nations documented 208 attacks that displaced more than 90,000 people.
But the current bloodletting appears far more vicious and widespread. Once, only cattle camps were raided. Now, entire villages and towns are being razed, infrastructure destroyed.
“Our clinic is full of women and children,” said Karel Janssens, field coordinator for the aid agency Doctors Without Borders in the town of Pibor, where many of the wounded have sought refuge.
Since the attacks by the Lou Nuer, a subgroup, on this area in late December and early January, the Murle have risen up. They have marauded Nuer areas across Jonglei. Two weeks ago, 47 people were killed in the village of Duk Padiet. Aid agencies have launched a massive humanitarian effort to help those harmed by the raids, which the United Nations now numbers 120,000 people.
On Dec. 17, a Nuer militia known as the White Army announced that it would protect the Nuer population and their cattle from the Murle because the government was not doing enough.
The militia, which has a fundraising and media arm in the United States, said it was also seeking revenge for the massacre of 700 Nuer by Murle warriors in August, a month after South Sudan declared independence.
In a telephone interview, Gai Bol Thong, a Nuer spokesman who lives in Seattle, said his group had raised $45,000 from supporters in the United States and Canada for food and other “humanitarian” needs of the fighters.
On Dec. 25, the White Army e-mailed a statement vowing to “wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth.”
The next day, 6,000 Lou Nuer fighters attacked Likuangole.
They stole thousands of heads of cattle. They destroyed all the boreholes, eliminating the main source of water here. Groups of warriors targeted Murle men, while others tracked down women and children who had fled into the thick bush.
Kayoi Maze, 42, was separated from her two daughters, ages 18 and 16. Her neighbors later told her that the fighters had abducted them.
“I don’t expect to ever see them again,” said Maze, who like hundreds of villagers returned to Likuangole to receive aid from the U.N. World Food Program. “At least I have two daughters left.”
Local officials estimate that 850 people were killed in Likuangole and nearby villages, including 660 women and children. An estimated 150 women and children were abducted. An additional 2,250 people were killed in surrounding areas. But neither the United Nations nor the government have confirmed those figures.
In Likuangole, two human skulls lie on a patch of charred ground near the U.N. base. The smell of rotting flesh still wafts through the air. In graffiti covering the walls of the school, the Lou Nuer fighters have declared the town part of their territory.
“We have done this to you,” reads one message, “because you have done it to us.”
When the gunmen attacked, Achiro Manibon remembered running in one direction as his three wives and four children ran the other way. They were all shot dead.
Manibon, 35, had expected the United Nations combat force and South Sudanese troops stationed in the town to fend off the attackers. But they didn’t fire a weapon, he said. Across this area, people feel betrayed by their military and the U.N. peacekeepers, which has a mandate to use force, if needed, to protect civilians.
For weeks, the peacekeepers had tracked columns of Lou Nuer fighters making their way toward Likuangole and Pibor. Yet they dispatched only 400 of their 3,000-member force.
Simon Ali, a local administrator, said he brought five disabled people to the U.N. base for protection. The peacekeepers told him to put them in a hut about five yards from the base, he said. When the Lou Nuer arrived, they fired into the hut. Then, they torched it with the people inside, Ali said.
“The U.N. failed us,” he said. “We asked for their help and they did nothing.”
Johnson, the head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, said U.N. forces in Likuangole had evacuated 41 people, mostly disabled and elderly, before the attack, “but we cannot rule out there might have been some civilians left.” She added that she was not aware of any incidents in which U.N. forces did not provide assistance to civilians seeking refuge.
In Likuangole, there’s also deep mistrust of the government. Many senior officials, including Vice President Reik Machar, are Nuer, and Lou Nuer soldiers number in the thousands in the military and are unlikely to intervene, residents said.
Col. Philip Aguer, a South Sudanese military spokesman, said that only 500 soldiers were in Likuangole at the time of the attack, and that it would have been like “sentencing your soldiers to death” if they had tried to fight the 6,000 Lou Nuer warriors.
“The real reason why they did nothing is because the force was not capable of confronting the attackers,” Aguer said. “Not because many are Nuer.”
Today, roughly 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers — half the force — are patrolling Jonglei state. But it has become even more difficult to stop attacks. The Murle fighters are moving in small groups, staging swift stealth attacks, making the violence harder to monitor and predict. “You could see a pattern of where they are moving, but we, with all our helicopters, are not able to detect that they are going to that village or not that,” Johnson said.
Back in the United States, Gai Bol Thong is continuing to raise funds for the White Army. If the government cannot protect the Nuer community, “we will do some revenge against the Murle,” he warned.
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