PIBOR, South Sudan (AP) — Two months after cattle raiders stole his entire herd, Nyati Kelabo stalks around this desolate river town, sleeping under a tree, begging for food and worrying constantly about how he will feed his five children and two wives.
South Sudan became the world's newest country in July, amid high hopes that it would leave its violent past behind. A 2005 peace deal with the north ended a civil war and paved the way for January's independence referendum.
But the new country is already reeling from internal violence — often in the form of massive cattle raids — that is devastating communities in the vast swamplands of its eastern region.
The U.N. said Monday that new clashes last week have killed as many as 600 people, and that reports suggest that between 26,000 and 30,000 cattle have been stolen. Jonglei state Gov. Kuol Manyang Juuk said eight villages were destroyed when warriors from the Murle tribe in Pibor county attacked the Lou Nuer tribe of Uror county on Thursday. Juuk estimated the death toll at 125.
Last week's deaths bring to more than 3,000 the number of people killed in hundreds of violent incidents in South Sudan this year.
Local officials in Pibor, which was ravaged by violence in June, estimate that more than 360 members of the Murle ethnic group were killed in raids just weeks before the south declared independence. And though the tactic of child abduction was long a feature of the Murle's raids on their rivals, the Murle now say their children are being stolen by the Nuer.
Chiefs and community leaders reported the numbers of missing to the Pibor County government, which said 73 women and children were reported missing during the June raids. They are presumed dead or abducted by the Nuer.
What was once petty violence between rival tribes seems to be spiraling into something more complex. The cattle-related violence may well have political implications for the newly independent south.
Kelabo, who is in his 50s, said he couldn't protect his cattle or his family from the raiders when they attacked in mid-June, because he gave up his AK-47 during an army-led disarmament drive last year. He said the thieves were a mix of armed civilians and men in army and police uniforms.
In his Murle culture, cattle are virtually the sole form of capital and currency.
Without his herd, he said, "I'm getting nothing, only from begging."
Kelabo was lucky to escape unharmed with his entire family.
Tutktuk Nyachen watched raiders shoot her 2-year-old son in the chin and steal away her older daughter during a separate June attack.
"The Nuer took her," she said.
Officials also say the attacks are mounting in frequency and violence — compounded in part by caches of leftover weapons from a decades-long civil war that ended in 2005.
Pibor County Commissioner Akot Maze spoke of a "massive attack" in terms of the weapons used in the June raid in Nyachen's village of Kongor. Eyewitnesses said raiders had hand grenades and heavy automatic machine guns. Some attackers wore southern army, police, wildlife and prison services uniforms, he said.
Maze estimated that thousands of raiders attacked the area in well-planned assaults over more than two weeks.
"We describe it as ethnic cleansing. They are trying to push us off this land," he said. "The type of fighting is now completely different. ... We really wonder what kind of attack this is."
South Sudan's poorly disciplined security forces now face the challenge of containing insecurity not only along the contested border with north Sudan, but also among South Sudan's tribes who have not yet been made to feel that they are equal and valued citizens.
The Murle have little representation in the south's ruling party and army, and thus little voice in the government. And now, robbed of their only source of income — their cattle — the Murle have few options.
Nyikcho Bolem, a local chief, said that even if he wanted his youth to retaliate against their neighbors, the Nuer, "most of them have had their guns taken" by the army.
"So even if they wanted to fight, they would be powerless," he said.
As the chief spoke, the sound of war songs and whistles blowing punctuated the humid air. A hundred or so men dressed in feather headdresses and carrying wooden sticks marched through town as a crowd of barefoot children trailed behind.
"They are celebrating themselves," a Pibor resident explained, a euphemism for preparing for battle.