Displaced by recent violence in Jongeli state, mothers and their children take shelter near Pibor, South Sudan (UN Photo)

Over the weekend my colleague Dan and I were in Juba, South Sudan. While there, we met with humanitarian groups and personnel working in the security sector to discuss the tenuous situation in Jonglei state where fighting between tribes has led to massive civilian suffering. We were warned that the cycle of revenge attacks is unlikely to end in the near future and many expect another major attack in the coming months.

The most recent major offensive occurred in early January where an estimated 6,000 youth from the Lou Nuer tribe attacked the people of the Murle tribe. While cattle raids between the two tribes are not uncommon, this most recent attack utilized different tactics and the scale was much more devastating than has been previously seen. We met with a humanitarian group with operations in Jonglei who told us that over 1,000 were likely killed, many of which were civilians.

During the most recent attacks in January, the Lou Nuer utilized scorched earth tactics, burning fields, homes, and villages. While the armed elements of these tribes have repeatedly clashed, the primary victims of the violence are women, children, and the elderly. A new aspect of these attacks was the use of hate speech and the role that technology had in promoting the attack. The youth from the Lou Nuer who conducted the attacks even issued a public statement announcing their desire to wipe out the Murle. This hate speech was exacerbated by the use of social media to spread fear and hatred among the tribes, which was fueled by members of the Diaspora living outside of Sudan.

Cattle raids between the Lou Nuer and Murle occur fairly regularly. Yet, little has been done to end the cycle of violence or to at least mitigate the impact on civilians. The tribes do not have much trust in the government of South Sudan. Therefore, recent mediation efforts have been conducted through the church. Unfortunately, in December talks failed because the church mediation team and the elders who normally negotiate peace were unable to access the youth responsible for the attacks. This is thought to be the result of a growing generational divide that is taking place across South Sudan.

Despite the mistrust from the tribes, the government of South Sudan must be actively engaged in the peace negotiations between the groups and support the church’s efforts to lead the process. The South Sudan military also needs to proactively prepare security forces to protect civilians from violence instead of merely responding afterwards. The government must also support the development of lasting structures to maintain dialogue between the tribes to prevent future outbreaks of violence.

While the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was able to assist in the response to attacks in Jonglei, the lack of resources such as helicopters and other means of transportation was a serious handicap to peacekeepers. Earlier today we flew on one of the Russian helicopters which are being withdrawn in April. The withdrawal of the helicopters will make transportation even more difficult especially once the rainy season begins. The international community must provide additional helicopters and ensure that UNMISS is adequately equipped to fulfill its mandate to protect civilians.

The Murle have already begun conducting counter raids against the Lou Nuer and according to our humanitarian partners we met with in Juba, another massive attack will likely occur in the upcoming months. The international community has the ability to help end the cycle of violence and must take action to fully equip UNMISS and pressure the South Sudanese government to proactively take steps to protect civilians.

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