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Violence Spiking in South Sudan’s Jonglei State

  • Hannah McNeish

A woman from the Dinka tribe stands in front of her shelter near Bor, Jonglei state, in South Sudan, March 31, 2012.

A woman from the Dinka tribe stands in front of her shelter near Bor, Jonglei state, in South Sudan, March 31, 2012.

Medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders is warning of a marked increase in violence in South Sudan's troubled Jonglei state. The group, known by its French acronym MSF, says rising numbers of women and children are being stabbed, shot, and beaten - with the youngest victim being just four months old.

MSF says Jonglei state is now the “the epicenter of violence” in South Sudan - a country trying to establish stability after almost five decades of war.

In a report released Tuesday, the medical aid group says traditional cattle raiding has evolved over the last 18 months into a new, more violent dynamic, with escalating cases of maiming, rape, and beatings.

Vile cruelty

Speaking to reporters in Juba, MSF Operations Manager Chris Lockyear expressed dismay at the brutality.

“We’ve seen patients who have been stabbed, shot and patients that have been beaten, and a large proportion of these patients are women and children. And a large proportion of these patients have had their injuries inflicted at a very close range," said Lockyear. "The brutality of some of these attacks, when you hear of a pregnant woman who’s had her stomach cut open so her baby falls out, is horrendous. What we’re trying to do is to highlight the nature of the violence and extent so that hopefully it doesn’t happen again this year.”

MSF attributes the surge in violence to ethnic clashes, a government crackdown and a rebellion.

At the end of 2011 - just six months after South Sudan gained its independence from the north - the new nation was rocked by violence between the rival Lou Nuer and Murle ethnic groups. Thousands of Lou Nuer marched on Murle areas threatening to wipe them out. Smaller Murle groups carried out a spate of revenge attacks. United Nations and local officials put the death toll between 900 and 3,000 people.

Escalating violence

The new government responded with troops and a disarmament campaign. Rights groups say the effort to quell the ethnic conflict, however, was marred by government forces committing abuses against civilians.

Some analysts say that pushed already disgruntled youths into the hands of rebel leader David Yau Yau, who has been fighting government forces in Jonglei state for months. And that has only incited more hatred and violence.

Stefano Zannini, head of MSF Belgium in South Sudan, said his group has since seen a jump in women and children in Pibor county seeking treatment.

"So 74 percent of the victims of violence treated in the area of Pibor were women and children, with brutal cases, like a one-year child being beaten in front of the mother who was raped," said Zannini.

Sexual crimes

The charity group is also concerned about seeing cases of sexual violence for the first time in Jonglei state, in a country where it is generally considered taboo to report rape.

“The new dynamic I think it is important to highlight is that, present since 2005 in the area of Pibor, MSF never treated, had never seen any cases of rape," said Zannini. "And if you look, for example at 2012, we have received 26 cases of sexual violence - 18 of them rapes and eight attempted rapes. This is one of the things we are very concerned about.”

MSF Operations Manager Lockyear also expressed concern that MSF medical facilities are starting to come under attack.

“The pattern that we’ve seen has been extreme. Four out of six of our health facilities in Jonglei have been razed or looted to the ground. Nobody has told us why that was and nobody has admitted responsibility to us,” he said.

MSF condemns attacks on its neutral staff, and calls on armed groups to respect the safety of its impartial medical team, but said it remains committed to bringing urgently needed care to the people of Jonglei.
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