S. Sudan Must Protect Civilians During Pibor Offensive

By Caelin Briggs
A Murle tribesman displaced by violence in Jonglei State in 2009. UN Photo/Tim McKulka

The South Sudanese army (SPLA) is preparing this week to launch a major military offensive in Jonglei State against rebel leader David Yau Yau. The new operation comes after multiple failed attempts to convince Yau Yau to cease hostilities in the region.

Jonglei has historically been the site of widespread cattle raiding between the Murle, Lou Nuer, and Dinka ethnic groups, but in recent years these attacks have become increasingly violent. While previously women and children were considered off-limits, today the raids are characterized by numerous causalities and abductions of men, women, and children alike.

The UN’s peacekeeping force in South Sudan (UNMISS) is under-resourced and unable to effectively counter these raids.

The most recent surge of violence in Jonglei began in December 2011 and January 2012, when a group of 8,000 Lou Nuer staged a retaliatory attack against a predominately Murle area. Though they were eventually rebuffed by South Sudanese forces and peacekeepers, at least 1,000 people – mostly women and children – were killed. The months since have been filled with smaller-scale attacks between the ethnic groups, the most recent of which occurred in Walgak on February 8, when more than 100 Lou Nuer lost their lives.

Yau Yau is widely believed to be behind much of the violence committed by the Murle ethnic group.  Murle rebel groups have historically been difficult to dismantle due to their horizontal leadership structures, which make it challenging to identify and isolate those individuals driving the violence. Yau Yau has capitalized on this, and has so far managed to evade capture.

As the offensive against Yau Yau begins, the protection of civilians must remain a top priority. Both UNMISS and the South Sudanese government have encouraged the SPLA to focus on civilian protection, but that will only happen if there is continued, high-level oversight of the military’s activities.

Right now, civilians in Pibor County are being encouraged to leave their villages and gather in larger towns to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. This conflict-driven displacement is likely to escalate as the offensive continues, and the humanitarian community in South Sudan should prepare for the worst. Contingency plans should be drafted immediately, and should include the possibility of complete lack of access to the region.

While removing David Yau Yau from power is undoubtedly critical, the South Sudanese government must ensure that it doesn’t come at the cost of another humanitarian crisis, which neither they nor the over-extended aid community will be able to handle.