The attacks were horrific. Hundreds of women and children were hunted down and brutally shot, stabbed or beaten to death. Towns and villages were burned to the ground, leaving 120,000 people homeless and thousands hiding in the bush.
The shocking reports from witnesses and aid workers are still trickling out of remote districts of South Sudan after a wave of reprisal attacks and inter-ethnic clashes over the past few weeks. The survivors, many with severe injuries, are slowly emerging from hiding, but many soon return to the bush in fear of more attacks.
The slaughter has cast a shadow over the long-awaited independence of South Sudan, which was finally formalized just six months ago. Even with the help of hundreds of combat-ready United Nations peacekeepers, the fledgling government has been unable to halt the violence, despite advance warning from the raiders.
Tribal clashes and cattle-raiding violence have been common in parts of South Sudan for many years, but the clashes have become more deadly as the fighters gained access to heavier weaponry as a result of the civil war that racked Sudan for decades.
“Many women and children are coming to us shot, stabbed, beaten,” said Colette Gadenne, operations co-ordinator in South Sudan for the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). “They try to keep safe by hiding in the bush, but it seems that even running away is not enough.”
An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 armed raiders marched into Pibor county in South Sudan in late December and early January, in reprisal for earlier attacks. Three MSF clinics – the only source of health care for the 160,000 people who live in this region of Jonglei state – were ransacked or torched by the raiders. Their medical workers were forced to flee and the group said that 25 of them are still unaccounted for.
Since the clinics reopened on Jan. 7, according to MSF, staff have treated 47 survivors for gunshot wounds, including 24 women and children. A further 43 patients were treated for stab wounds, beatings, or injuries caused when they fled into the bush.
“One recurring characteristic of the attacks is their extreme violence,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Hospitals, health clinics, water sources – these have become targets for armed groups on all sides, suggesting a tactic of depriving people of their basic life essentials just when they will need them most, after fleeing into the bush.”
Karel Janssens, a field co-ordinator for MSF in Pibor county, described the scene of devastation in one town, Lekwongole, which was attacked on Christmas Day. “Lekwongole town is a ghost town, it’s completely burnt to the ground, not a single hut still standing,” he said in a transcript released by MSF.
“Stray dogs, some birds, some individuals wandering through that sinister landscape. …The people don’t dare yet to go back to Lekwongole town, to stay there, because there is nothing left any more, but also because they are afraid of other attacks.”
On a road out of Pibor where he travelled last week, half of the villages were burnt out, he said.
Nobody has yet produced a reliable estimate of the death toll in attacks over the past month, but hundreds and perhaps thousands are believed to have died. Some escaped only by hiding in long grass or underwater in rivers.
Survivors gave harrowing accounts of the violence in interviews with MSF that were made available by the group. One person described how an 18-month-old baby was beaten against the trees and left for dead. Another said her 18-month-old daughter was shot in the face and cut with a knife.
Another woman, who survived gunshots in the leg and face, said her three-year-old daughter was abducted and 10 other family members were killed, along with eight members of her husband’s family. “It is very painful because my whole family has been killed,” she said.