The trail of corpses begins about 274m from the corrugated metal gate of the UN compound and stretches for kilometers into the bush.
There’s an old man on his back, a young woman with her legs splayed, skirt bunched up around the hips, and a whole family — man, woman, two children — all face down in the swamp grass, executed together. How many hundreds are scattered across the savannah, nobody really knows.
South Sudan, born six months ago in great jubilation, is plunging into a vortex of violence. Bitter ethnic tensions that had largely been shelved for the sake of achieving independence have ruptured into a cycle of massacre and revenge that neither the US-backed government nor the UN has been able to stop.
The US and other Western countries have invested billions of US dollars in South Sudan, hoping it would overcome its deeply etched history of poverty, violence and ethnic fault lines to emerge as a stable, Western-friendly nation in a volatile region. Instead, heavily armed militias the size of small armies are now marching on villages and towns with impunity, sometimes with blatantly genocidal intent.
Eight thousand fighters just besieged this small town in the middle of a vast expanse, razing huts, torching granaries, stealing tens of thousands of cows and methodically killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of men, women and children hiding in the bush.
The raiders had even broadcast their massacre plans in advance.
“We have decided to invade Murleland and wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the Earth,” the attackers, from a rival ethnic group, the Nuer, warned in a public statement.
The UN, which has 3,000 combat-ready peacekeepers in South Sudan, tracked the advancing fighters from helicopters for days before the massacre and rushed in about 400 soldiers. But the peacekeepers did not fire a single shot, saying they were vastly outnumbered and could have easily been wiped out.
The attack was presaged by a fundraising drive for the Nuer militia in the US — a troubling sign that behind the raiders toting Kalashnikovs and singing war songs was an active back office half a world away. Gai Bol Thong, a Nuer refugee in Seattle who helped write the militia’s statement, said he had led an effort to cobble together about US$45,000 from South Sudanese living abroad for the warriors’ food and medicine from South Sudanese living abroad.
“We mean what we say,” he said in an interview. “We kill everybody. We are tired of them.” (He later scaled back and said he meant they would kill Murle warriors, not civilians).
Such ethnic clashes were unnervingly common here in 2009, before the final push for independence. More ominous than the small-scale cattle raids that have gone on for generations, the attacks often seemed like infantry maneuvers, fueling accusations that northern Sudanese leaders had shipped in arms to destabilize the south.
But southerners seemed to rally together as the historic referendum on independence from the north drew near. The exuberance brought reconciliation. Major ethnic clashes all but disappeared.
The respite was short lived. Fighting broke out almost immediately along the tense border between north and south. Then, only a month after South Sudan celebrated its independence last July with a new national anthem and a countdown clock that blared “Free at Last,” Murle fighters killed more than 600 Nuer villagers and abducted scores of children. That attack set this month’s massacre into motion.