Simona Foltyn in Yambio
Horrific attacks prompt South Sudan’s communities to form armed groups
Despite a peace deal signed in August, fighting has continued along complex tribal divisions, with young people mobilising to protect their families
A group of villagers from Birisi, near Yambio, the capital of Western Equatoria state, South Sudan
Faustino Kusara was working his fields in Birisi, near the state capital of Western Equatoria, Yambio, when he heard gunshots coming from the direction of his son’s house. When he ran to see what had happened, he found the dead bodies of his son and three grandchildren lying in the dirt.
“When they saw me, the Dinka soldiers started shooting at me and I ran into the bush … After they left, I went to the house and collected the four burned bodies.”
What has happened in Birisi in Western Equatoria, a once-peaceful and fertile region in the south-west corner of South Sudan, is a stark reminder of the consequences of institutional breakdown.
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Born amid international optimism and local euphoria in 2011, South Sudan plunged into civil war in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his former vice-president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup.
What started as a power struggle spread out from the capital, Juba, initially rushing along age-old channels of ethnic rivalry between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. In its later stages, however, the conflict became increasingly complex due to shifting alliances, with a sub-group of the Nuer fighting alongside the government.
Peace deals – and there have been many – have been short-lived. Despite the most recent agreement, signed in August, the fighting has continued, with reports of repeated violations by all sides.
More than 10,000 people have been killed and about 2 million forced from their homes. Last month, food security experts warned of the risk of famine in some parts of the country.
The spread of conflict to Western Equatoria underscores how easily tensions arising from power- and resource-sharing between ethnic groups can boil over in a country where the government is often accused of favouring the Dinka, the biggest of South Sudan’s 64 tribes.
In response to the rising violence, thousands of young Zande men mobilised into armed groups across the state. Some said they were protecting their communities and demanded justice from the government. Dwindling faith in South Sudan’s national army guaranteed them support among fellow Zande.
Susan Marko, whose husband and father were also killed in the Birisi attacks, is now sheltering with one of these armed groups. “Any time these people want to attack, it is our youth who defend us. Even now we have taken refuge behind them,” she said, unable to hold back tears.
According to eyewitness accounts, at least eight Zande civilians were killed in Birisi by soldiers of the national army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), in July this year. Three soldiers and one Dinka civilian were killed in subsequent revenge attacks. More than 100 people, most of them civilians, are believed to have died across Western Equatoria over the past months, according to eyewitness reports and interviews with church leaders and government officials.
Friction began earlier this year when armed Dinka herders, thought to be backed by members of the army and high-ranking officers in Juba, brought thousands of cattle to Western Equatoria in search of grazing land, destroying crops and threatening the livelihoods of farmers.
Although the cattle were later removed, the incident was seen locally as a provocation. It rekindled misgivings among Equatorians, many of whom feel they have been marginalised for decades by the SPLM, the liberation movement turned ruling party.
“I look at it as something that has been planned above. They are implementing a certain plan against these small tribes,” said Hussain Enoka, an ethnic Zande and commissioner of Yambio. Inhabitants in Western Equatoria often speculate that the government has ambitions to occupy their land and curtail their rights.
When tensions spiralled into violence and the government faltered in its response, young Zande men decided to take up arms. “The government is not protecting us, so it is better we protect ourselves,” said John Singera, 39, who belongs to a civil defence force called the Arrow Boys.
This is not the first time the Zande youth have taken security into their own hands.
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As part of the Arrow Boys, Singera fought the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militia formed in Uganda under Joseph Kony that later spilled into neighbouring countries, including South Sudan. Often armed with nothing but bows and arrows and home-made shotguns, the Arrow Boys leveraged their extensive network and knowledge of the local terrain to track down the LRA.
Their role in fighting the LRA earned them popular support, but many of them are disgruntled at the government’s failure to recognise their contribution. A reward of 5m South Sudanese pounds (about $300,000 based on black market rates), promised by the government, never materialised.
The Arrow Boys weren’t integrated into the armed or security forces, further fuelling the sense that promotions in the army are awarded based on ethnicity, not merit.
Although the Arrow Boys remain popular, not everyone feels safe.
“Where soldiers are is where civilians are protected,” said Victor Deng, a Dinka trader, whose area was attacked in August by armed youth, resulting in the death of a Dinka civilian.
“We are fearing those who are in the bush,” said Wilson Paul, a Zande whose sister and niece were killed last month by unknown gunmen.
The government has yet to release a comprehensive estimate of casualties and conduct conclusive investigations into the killings in Western Equatoria. “Our response has been very slow as a government, maybe guided by the fact that we look at what is happening as an insurgency,” said Daniel Zingifuaboro, the state minister of information.
Some of the armed groups have sought to form alliances with Machar’s opposition movement, hoping they can gain representation in a promised transitional government, while others have entered into church-led negotiations with the government in an attempt to resolve their grievances directly.
But many remain sceptical of the government’s willingness to accommodate the demands of Equatorian tribes.
“This is a one-tribe government. I’m not sure they can bring peace,” said Singera.