Disarming small militias is an ongoing problem in southern Sudan. Following a proliferation of arms during Sudan's 21-year civil war, rival villages in the region armed themselves, leading to violent inter-tribal fighting. With the north/south war now over, southern leaders this year attempted to force villagers to give up their weapons, igniting even more violence.
Villagers in the southern Sudanese town of Akobo are celebrating today. In two weeks residents of Akobo have voluntarily relinquished to authorities some 1,300 weapons out of 1,500 believed to be in the county.
Akobo is the first village in southern Sudan to participate in a voluntary disarmament program.
The hand-over of the weapons comes in stark contrast to a forced disarmament earlier this spring. The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), which came to power in the south after the signing of a peace deal that ended Sudan's civil war, was given the task of collecting weapons in the south, but faced violent reprisals from southerners who did not want to give up their arms.
Southerners said they needed the weapons to protect themselves from neighboring rivals. Small villages often compete violently for resources like cattle and water.
Hundreds of SPLA soldiers and villagers died in clashes that shook parts of southern Sudan when the SPLA attempted to forcibly collect weapons.
In the aftermath of the violence, local leaders, like Doyak Shoal, the commissioner of Akobo county, began to think that a voluntary program might have more success than forced disarmament.
Shoal was proven correct, as the vast majority of weapons in Akobo were turned in to authorities in late July and early August.
"This day is a meaningful day to Akobo County because we have carried out peaceful disarmament without casualties," Shoal said. "We thought to not wait for the SPLA to come and make disarmament. Akoba has been a place of a lot of problems. Even humanitarian organizations are not willing to come because of these problems. Today we are declaring to non-governmental organizations that Akoba is a peaceful county."
The commissioner told VOA he hopes that an end to localized violence will allow the war-torn region to develop the infrastructure it desperately needs.
At the moment Akobo lacks schools and though it has a hospital, the county has no doctors.
The inter-tribal clashes, mainly over resources like cattle and water, have gone on for decades. But the presence of weapons made those clashes far more deadly.
Following the disarmament there will still be challenges.
Those who have handed in their weapons are members of the Lou Nuer tribe. The Lou Nuer have had a deadly relationship with the neighboring Murle tribe who often conduct attacks on their neighbors, stealing cattle and burning homes.
It was a leap of faith for young men and boys in Akobo to relinquish their guns, while the Murle still have their weapons.
Commissioner Shoal says another attack by the Murle is preying on the minds of people here.
"Our people are worried because the Murle is not disarmed. Our people are very panicked. It is very important that the Murle must be disarmed," Shoal said.
Attacks on the Lou by the Murle continued this spring, with some 150 Lou reported to have been killed in raids on their villages.
David Lochead of the United Nations Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Unit, worked closely with local authorities to aid the disarmament.
Lochead says there were serious doubts that voluntary disarmament would be successful.
"There was actually an increase in violence before the disarmament in anticipation of it because people were carrying out blood feuds and revenge attacks for other killings that had taken place in the past," Shoal said. "So they knew they were going to be disarmed one way or another so the violence escalated immediately before. But now the violence has completely stopped. There hasn't been any killing since the disarmament took place.
It is now critical for Akobo to build its police force to prevent attacks by those militias that have refused to disarm.
Lochead told VOA that local police have had little, if any, training. That and a lack of basic supplies like uniforms often makes it appear as if the police are simply civilians with guns.
Despite the difficulties that lie ahead, those in Akobo hope that their example will persuade other southerners to lay down their weapons, too.