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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Wednesday 19 May 2004

SUDAN: Conflict in the south escalates ahead of peace deal

NAIROBI, 19 May 2004 (IRIN) - A number of conflicts in the lakes area of Bahr al-Ghazal, southern Sudan, escalated this year in advance of a likely peace agreement between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), according to an NGO organising peace initiatives in the region.

"In February and March everything escalated... There is a general feeling that people have to settle scores before a peace deal," said Keer Bol Weet, a community development officer with Pact Kenya, "because after Anyanya I [the rebels who launched Sudan's first civil war which ended in 1972] there was a general amnesty for everyone."

The government and the SPLM/A, which are continuing peace talks in Naivasha, Kenya, are considered to be closer to a comprehensive peace deal than ever before. On Monday both sides agreed to extend the peace talks for an additional week.

Since February this year, thousands of people had been displaced by a series of concurrent conflicts between different ethnic groups and sub-groups in the seven counties of lakes: Rumbek, Cheibet, Tonj South, Tonj North, Tonj East, Yirol, Aweirial and Mvolo, Bol told IRIN. It was unclear how many had been killed, wounded and subjected to looting.

The impact of the various conflicts had led to increased banditry around Rumbek, to the extent that aid agencies were unable to travel freely and conduct their work, he said.

According to Bol, part of the problem was the proliferation of small arms in the region, which civilians had either bought from the SPLM/A, received from the SPLM/A in the past to protect themselves during conflicts with the Nuer, or received from SPLM/A deserters.

A second factor was the inadequacy of the local authorities to deal with the violence. "The situation is out of hand. Neither the local authorities nor the police or judiciary are able to deal with it," Bol said. "There is no judiciary, so people act with impunity."

The few police present in the area were untrained, and were usually either elderly or wounded SPLM/A soldiers who were not up to the job, he added.

Local conflicts - which tend to manifest themselves along ethnic lines - over access to grazing land, resources and cattle are nothing new to southern Sudan. In Cheibet and Rumbek counties, feuds between the Dinka Ngok and Dinka Agar over cattle raiding had escalated in April, leading to thousands of displaced and unprecedented looting, a source from a local NGO, Diakonie, told IRIN.

An inter-agency rapid assessment by humanitarian agencies had revealed that on 6 April and 7 April, the Dinka Agar from Rumbek had raided two payams (administrative units) in Cheibet, looting villages of food, seeds and property. "The area was completely cleaned out," the source told IRIN.

Four primary health-care units and a diocese were looted, and unknown numbers killed, he said. Village chiefs had reported that up to 50 villages had been looted, displacing up to 8,000 families to Rumbek, Cheibet, and Agangrial. He had personally seen between 4,000 and 5,000 IDPs and several bodies.

Numbers of IDPs in the area are very difficult to verify independently.

A separate inter-agency assessment, conducted with the Sudanese authorities, reported that 8,000 people had been displaced in clashes between the Dinka Agar of Rumbek and the Dinka Atuot of Yirol in mid-March after a number of clan killings. Attacks, counterattacks and fear of retaliation had led to a full-scale war between the two communities, resulting in killings and looting, said a draft report.

Houses were not destroyed or burned, but food reserves and household property were looted, it said. "The trust and neighbourliness developed over decades" had been shattered in a few days of mayhem. "To ensure resumption of a peaceful coexistence, a lot needs to be done to not only punish the perpetrators but also compensate the victims," it continued.

Many other incidences of escalated fighting between different clans and ethnic groups, both pastoralist and non-pastoralist, have also been reported this year.

Between May and June, Pact Kenya is organising a series of nine peace meetings in the region to bring the various groups together in an initiative called the "Lakes subregion rapid response".

According to Pact, a number of key steps need to be taken to avert future violence. "You need to establish proper police, proper prisons, and to strengthen the judiciary in terms of availability and quality," said Bol.

At community level, chiefs' positions, which had been eroded by the presence of arms in the area, as well as competition with payam administrators and judges, also had to be strengthened, he said.

Local peace committees needed means of travel - such as bicycles - to areas of conflict to monitor developing situations on the ground. The committees had also requested the setting up of special courts, with neutral judges from outside areas, he added, which would have to be established and then supported with food and stationery.

SPLM/A forces sent to the areas to stem the violence had become part of the problem in that they looted food from local people, Bol claimed. Four or five Agar had already been killed by forces around Rumbek in clashes of this nature, he said.


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