South Sudan’s army on Tuesday reclaimed control of a town destroyed in a bloody cattle vendetta that sent thousands fleeing into the bush and threatened the stability of the world’s newest state.
A column of about 6,000 armed youths from the Lou Nuer tribe marched on the remote town of Pibor in troubled Jonglei state, home to the rival Murle people, whom they blame for cattle raiding and have vowed to exterminate.
“Pibor is under the full control of the government, and the Lou Nuer have been ordered to return to their homes, and they are starting to do so,” South Sudanese Minister of Information Barnaba Marial Benjamin said.
Gunmen burned thatched huts and looted a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in the worst flare-up in a dispute that has left more than 1,000 dead in recent months and threatened to destabilize the fledgling nation.
John Boloch Kumen, from the government-appointed Peace and Reconciliation Commission, visited on Sunday the village of Lekongele, 30km north of Pibor as part of an assessment team.
“No single house was left, the whole town was devastated ... seven people were burned in their tukuls [thatch huts], all of them women,” Kumen said, adding that two churches, a school and a health center were razed to the ground. “What was left was only the vultures and the trees.”
The government and the UN — which has warned the ethnic violence could lead to a “major tragedy” — were beefing up their forces in the area.
Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, said “probably well over 20,000” people had fled into the bush “running for their lives and looking for safety.”
Asked about a possible death toll while speaking to correspondents at the UN via video link from Juba, she said: “I would put the number ... in the the tens, perhaps hundreds, but we don’t know.”
The “decisive” action by state troops on Monday led the Lou Nuer to pull back, she said.
“The government army shot at them. Fire was exchanged,” she said.
UN peacekeepers also moved personnel carriers behind the government perimeter.
The Lou Nuer started pulling back hours later with a large number of cattle, the envoy said.
Unconfirmed reports based on survivor accounts suggested up to 150 people, largely women and children, were hunted down and killed after fleeing Pibor town.
“There are many casualties, people that have been killed,” -Pibor Commissioner Joshua Konyi said. “We are still waiting for the reports to confirm.”
However, Benjamin stressed that the violence of the cattle vendetta would be brought under control, saying that “South Sudan is not, and will not become, some kind of Somalia.”
Just one health clinic remains to provide healthcare for 160,000 people in Pibor county, after Pibor hospital and a clinic at Lekongole run by Doctors Without Borders were looted.
Parthesarathy Rajendran, MSF head of mission in South Sudan, said that the longer people stay in the bush, the “more serious it will become for people who are injured or sick.”
“They fled in haste and have no food or water, some of them doubtless carrying wounds or injuries, and now they are on their own, hiding, beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance,” Rajendran said in a statement on Tuesday.
Doctors Without Borders have temporarily suspended their operations after the clashes forced them to evacuate staff, but remains ready to provide “emergency care as soon as possible.”