Cattle rustling in the land of white bulls

Cattle rustling in the land of white bulls.

By May Ying Welsh in Sudan

A defeated people, sheltering from rain under a tree - heads shaved to mourn their dead - unable to go home, feed themselves, or imagine a better day.

This is what has become of thousands of people in the Mundari tribal area of Terekeka County, Southern Sudan after neighbouring tribes killed or chased away their men, burned their villages, and stole thousands of their cattle in raids this year. 

"We are not really feeling that good," begins Regina Kareng, shell-shocked. The women beside her seem motionless, eyes fixed on distant points, until the sound of children crying slowly returns them.

Sudan's cattle rustling scourge
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"Our husbands were killed by the Dinka. All the women here lost their husbands. All of them. Even our children - many were also killed."

Mundari land is a patch of rust coloured soil and bustling cattle camps in what is literally the heart of Africa. Sudanese claim measured east to west, north to south, the Mundari tribal area is the precise geographic centre of the continent.
What is happening here is part of a larger pattern sweeping Southern Sudan - a spate of cattle raids killing and displacing thousands each year. 

In 2009 tribal violence killed more than 2,500 - exceeding the death toll in Darfur - and displaced over 350,000 people. The UN has recorded over 100 deadly incidents so far this year.

The violence is causing widespread hunger. With families expelled from farms, there will be no harvest. The South is now chronically dependent on food aid, though it has the richest agricultural land in Sudan.

Regina and her clan survive by picking leaves from nearby trees and cooking them to eat - a miserable meal that does nothing to quieten the children, their bellies more distended, and limbs more skeletal by the day.

"Before we didn't need assistance from anyone," says Regina, "we had our cows and farms. We fed ourselves. Now our children are slowly starving."

The few men who survived the raid can only look on, miserable and ashamed. 

The government's solution

Ironically, Regina and her clan are victims of an effort to stop the violence. 

Following two civil wars - nearly 40 years of fighting - Southern Sudan is highly armed and militarised. Now instead of traditional cattle raiding with spears, it is cattle raiding with RPGs and AK-47s by men with military experience used to getting power through violence.

The answer of the government of Southern Sudan is to wage a massive campaign to disarm tribes. The Mundari complied turning in their weapons - over 5,000 in all according to the army.   

But Anthony Kayni Wani, a Mundari paramount chief, claims that while his people were forced to give up their guns, their tribal enemies the Dinka were not. He says neighbouring Dinka laid in wait for Mundari disarmament to be completed, then attacked. 

"My people were displaced just days after the government came and disarmed them," fumes Kayni shaking a wooden staff with a panther carved on top, the symbol of his power. 

"They chased my people out and stole everything in our village and I could do nothing to defend myself. I just ran with the others and left the dead behind."

The Mundari blame their predicament not on bad luck or poor planning, but on what they believe is an intentional and coordinated policy by their tribal enemies.

"The Dinka control the government and that's why we were disarmed and they were not," rasps Enoka Majod, a Mundari chief since 1966. "They control the army too. All power is in the hands of the Dinka. Now they come into our area anytime they want and say: 'What do you want to say to me now? I'll kill you.'"

While admitting the process is not perfect, Southern Sudan's military - the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) - say they are disarming all tribes.

"None of this is true," says SPLA chief of staff General James Hoth, himself an ethnic Nuer. 

"We have disarmed the Dinka. And if you go now to their area the Dinka will tell you the same story. They'll say 'the government disarmed us, while the Mundari were not disarmed, and now we are vulnerable'. The real problem is a few people who during the process of disarmament hide their guns or run away."

Hoth says the army is facing a huge challenge to extract weapons from anxious tribes clinging to the only form of security they have ever known.

Dangerous legacies

"Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at
significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing...
Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan. "

Dennis Blair, US director of National Intelligence

One of the many legacies of Sudan's civil wars is the gross underdevelopment of the South. Residents do not have roads, electricity or education, let alone democracy.

People here live much as they have for centuries, and all politics are seen through a tribal lens.

The Mundari and other small Equatorian tribes, have always complained about the dominance of the majority Dinka people who make up as much as 40 per cent of the population of the South. 

In the past, Khartoum was able to exploit those grievances to divide and control the region - a major factor in the outbreak of the second North-South civil war in 1983.  

During that war the Mundari and many smaller tribes sided with Khartoum, and their territory was a government-controlled area. When largely Dinka SPLA rebels attacked and overran Mundari land in 1986 the battle was characterised by mass rapes and atrocities still vividly remembered here. 

"My nephew's wife was working by the Nile when she saw the soldiers coming," remembers Chief Enoka Majod. "She tried to run away and hide herself, but they caught her and raped her until she died."

Incidents like these caused the Mundari to form armed militias to defend their area from SPLA rebels. 

When the war ended, as part of reconciliation Mundari militias were absorbed into the SPLA, and their leader General Clement Wani Konga was co-opted by the South's ruling party SPLM - and made governor of the important Central Equatoria State which hosts the Southern capital Juba. 

But an atmosphere of intense suspicion remains.

When Mundari girls were raped by SPLA soldiers in a string of incidents in Spring 2010, Mundari leaders saw it as collective punishment.

Together with the disarmament and tribal raids, they felt the government and army were settling old scores.

This combination of old tribal rivalries and bitter civil war legacies is an explosive dynamic repeated across the South between the Dinka and many other tribes. 

Dennis Blair, the US director of National Intelligence, has called Southern Sudan the place in the world most likely to witness genocide or mass killing in the coming period. 

Southern political and military leaders say Khartoum is secretly funding and arming tribes and renegade military officers to fuel the violence and destabilise the South. 
"Their intention is to keep southern Sudan insecure and tell the international community the South shouldn't be allowed to secede," says SPLA spokesman General Kuol Deim Kuol. 

"These are the kicks of the dying horse."

An elusive peace

After Sudan's two long civil wars (1955 to 1972 and 1983 to 2005), Southerners finally obtained peace with the North in the historic Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005. 

But the effects of so much brutality do not disappear overnight. 

The wars deepened animosities between tribes, destroyed the fabric of communities, and gutted the authority of traditional tribal chiefs who can no longer tell youth what to do.

Tribes that once intermarried and settled their disputes through elders and chiefs became irrevocably split. 

Elders say cattle raiding actually intensified after the 2005 Peace Agreement because all the heavily armed and militarised youth suddenly returned to their communities with nothing to do.

"When the peace agreement was signed I thought peace had come to the people," says Nyakun Simon Lado, a teacher chased from his home by a cattle raid. "But now we civilians do not have peace, and the government is just leaving us to kill one another."

Locals here say what they need is not disarmament, but good governance and real tribal reconciliation. They say that is the only path to security. 
What strikes any observer travelling to villages and cattle camps on the few dirt tracks through the bush is just how vulnerable the people are.

Cattle raids and killings take place in remote, inaccessible areas where there is no government or security presence - no NGOs, far from the lenses of television cameras.

The South's new police force is severely understaffed and outgunned by the cattle raiders. They are not ready to protect the people. 

"If we go back we're just going to be attacked again," says Regina Kareng. "We have no place to go."

The author is a journalist for Al Jazeera.