Jonglei 101

By Caelin Briggs
An armed man and a woman from the Luo Nuer tribe talk in Yuai, Jonglei State, South Sudan. Reuters Photo/Andreea Campeanu

In recent weeks, stories from the unfolding crisis in Jonglei State, South Sudan, have started reaching Western newspapers. More than 100,000 people are estimated to be displaced, trapped in soon-to-be malaria-infested swamps beyond the reach of aid agencies. The government of South Sudan has denied access to the displaced and wounded, leading to fears that the situation in this severely food-insecure state could rapidly deteriorate into a full-scale humanitarian emergency.

But why are 100,000 people displaced? Who displaced them? And why aren’t they returning home? These are important questions that have gone unanswered in many media reports, and which merit closer consideration.

As a starting point, it is worth talking about who these displaced people are. The majority originate from the Murle ethnic group in Pibor County. The Murle are a minority group living in the southern areas of Jonglei, where historically there has been significant inter-communal violence. This recent round of displacement, however, stems from a different conflict – one that in many ways is more troubling. Rather than fleeing inter-ethnic clashes, most Murle who have been forced from their homes this year were fleeing attacks by government forces on the civilian population.

This chart provides a snapshot into the dynamics of the violence raging in Jonglei state. Although it is far from comprehensive, it can be a useful tool for outside observers trying to understand this crisis.

1. Jonglei State has been plagued by inter-communal violence for decades. The Murle and another ethnic group, the Lou Nuer, carry out intermittent cattle raids against one another that have become increasingly violent and dangerous for the civilian population. The Murle typically launch repeated, small-scale raids, while the Lou Nuer respond less frequently but in greater force. An attack in Manyabol, Pibor County, on July 11th resulted in over 150 medical evacuations and an unknown number of people killed. While the government of South Sudan occasionally suggests it will take action to halt this violence, little has been done.

2. David Yau Yau, a former member of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, launched a Jonglei-based rebellion against the South Sudanese government in 2010 after losing an election for a seat in the state assembly. Yau Yau is ethnically Murle, leading many SPLA soldiers and members of the South Sudanese public to associate Murle civilians with Yau Yau’s rebel force. In reality, while Yau Yau fights for representation for the Murle people, his rebel group, the South Sudan Democratic Army, is composed of fighters from a variety of ethnic groups and should not be considered a Murle movement.

3. The South Sudanese government and its army, the SPLA, have been working to disarm Yau Yau since 2010. In addition to the threat he poses in fighting for better government representation, there are also widely accepted reports that Yau Yau is receiving support from Khartoum, adding further tension to his relationship with the South Sudanese authorities. After offering amnesty to Yau Yau multiple times, in February 2013 the government launched a military offensive to disarm him and his fighters. This offensive comes after an abuse-ridden, government-led disarmament campaign last year in which the SPLA’s tactics were widely criticized.

4. The government’s ongoing military offensive in Jonglei has been characterized by widespread SPLA attacks on the civilian population – attacks which drove the displacement of roughly 150,000 people now hiding in the bush. NGOs on the ground told Refugees International that these attacks could have been perpetrated for a number of reasons, some having to do with Yau Yau and others not. Because Yau Yau is ethnically Murle, some NGOs believe that the SPLA are taking out their frustrations on civilians who share his ethnicity. Others see these attacks as an SPLA tactic intended to weaken Yau Yau, either by terrorizing his community and thereby weakening his support network, or by making him believe the stakes are too high to continue fighting.  

Other likely causes of violence have little to do with Yau Yau. NGOs told RI that SPLA soldiers frequently do not receive salaries, and that they are told by commanders that goods looted from civilians count as ‘payment’. As a result, looting of both civilian and NGO property is now one of the most visible abuses perpetrated by the SPLA in Jonglei. Impunity for these crimes is so extreme that soldiers are reportedly using stolen equipment inside their own barracks. The SPLA has also deliberately vandalized NGO property – perhaps, some NGOs say, with the express purpose of making it more difficult for international staff to return.

With the towns in Pibor county now essentially SPLA bunkers, Murle civilians are scared to return home. NGOs fear that many are wounded, malnourished, and living in deplorable conditions. Despite this however, the Murle appear to feel it is safer to stay in the bush rather than risk being attacked by the SPLA upon returning to towns.

5. Aid workers on the ground have noted the ethnic makeup of SPLA units in Pibor may be an additional driver of violence. The SPLA troops stationed in the area are of the Lou Nuer ethnicity, which historically has clashed with the Murle. NGOs note that this relationship undoubtedly factored into the violence, and that when SPLA units from different ethnicities were in the area, abuses were much reduced.

While the South Sudanese government has officially avoided taking sides in the inter-communal violence between the Murle and the Lou Nuer, its other policies in Jonglei cast doubt on its impartiality. The government is currently rolling out a “community policing” program designed, ostensibly, to allow vulnerable communities to protect themselves. In practice, this means that having finished its disarmament program in Jonglei last year, the government will now start distributing weapons – but this time, only in non-Murle areas of the state. A number of ethnic groups have received arms so far, but not the Murle. Whether deliberate or not, the government’s rearming of one side of an ethnic conflict has the clear potential to enflame the violence.

6. Public opinion has undoubtedly also factored into the ongoing conflict and discrimination against the Murle population. The Murle group has been widely stigmatized throughout South Sudan because of rumors that they suffer from congenital syphilis, and that sterility has driven them to abduct children from nearby ethnic groups. While reports indicate that there were indeed high levels of syphilis present in the early 1950s and 60s, a World Health Organization treatment campaign has brought the disease down to normal levels. The stigma, however, remains strong and, alongside the assumed affiliation with David Yau Yau, has increased the Murle’s isolation.

Anti-Murle hate speech is common both within Jonglei and at the national level, and there have been well-documented threats by the Lou Nuer and others to “wipe-out” the Murle population, with little action taken by the government to rein in such language. Overall, discrimination and hate speech have helped create an environment in which the South Sudanese government may not feel pressured to halt its abuses against the Murle population.

Jonglei needs our attention. Without international pressure, SPLA abuses will continue, inter-communal violence will go unchecked, and a humanitarian emergency will develop. Jonglei has long been the poorest state in South Sudan, and with upwards of 100,000 people now displaced and hiding in swamps the situation is beyond dire. But if the international community is to act responsibly and effectively, it must first understand the context and the dynamics of this complex crisis.