A scant two years into its formation as an independent nation, South Sudan has erupted in civil conflict with severe tribal over tones.
On December 16 fighting broke out on the military base in Juba following an altercation between soldiers loyal to former vice president Reik Macher and those dedicated to the government of president Salva Kiir. That initial conflict split the presidential guard and spread across South Sudan pitting members of the Nuer tribe against Dinkas.
Machar is an ethnic Nuer while Kiir is a Dinka. Kiir dismissed Macher as the nation’s vice-president in July 2013.
Opposing theories have emerged on the origin of the conflict. The government alleges that Machar sought to create a coup to forcibly take over the government and Kiir suppressed it. Others suggest that Kiir took advantage of unrest in his Tiger Battalion barracks to get rid of segments opposed to his accretion of power and which sought a more democratic government.
According to NBC News reports 500 persons were killed and 800 wounded in the first days of the conflict. Included in the casualties were three U.N. peacekeepers from India who were killed in Juba and four U.S. military personnel who were reported wounded when their plane came under fire while approaching the city of Bor. The plane had been dispatched to help evacuate Americans. On December 18 President Barak Obama dispatched 45 military personnel to South Sudan to help safeguard U.S. citizens and property.
On December 21 reports emerged that the Ugandan Air Force had bombed Nuer positions in Bor the capital of Jonglei state. Some observers see this action as active support of the government of Salva Kiir. One day earlier Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni sent his special forces to Juba claiming it was at the request of President Kiir.
In spite of Ugandan bombs, the strategic town of Bor 120 miles north of the capital Juba was captured by rebel forces on Dec. 31. It has changed hands three times since the conflict began, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee according to the United Nations. Bor is an important town because it controls both the road and river access from Juba to the northern areas of South Sudan. According to the Voice of America, government forces are now in nominal control of Bor and residents are beginning a slow return only to find bodies strewn about the town from the weeks of violence.
Similar battles for control have see-sawed in Bentiu capital of Unity state and Malakal capital of Upper Nile state. Shifting lines and conflicting claims by government and rebel forces make it difficult to ascertain current conditions.
UN food stores in Malakal have been looted and carried off. The World Food Programme had intended to feed as many as 220 thousand people over the coming months with the stores that were stolen.
Differing reports emerged regarding the activities of members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the official armed forces of the government of South Sudan. The government claims that the SPLA was dispatched to control all violence and to assure the rights of all ethnic minorities to peace and safety. Eyewitnesses say that SPLA forces patrolled dressed in various uniforms seeking out Nuers. Observers on the ground feel that these actions are not being directed by the government but are misguided expressions of loyalty to the president by Dinka soldiers. Alternately there are reports of SPLA soldiers protecting Nuers from criminal attackers in Mia Saba and Gudele as well as the protection of Nuer students in Lologo.
Many observers believe that the conflict does not have its origin in tribal differences. Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan issued the following statement: “We condemn and correct the media statements and reports that refer to the violence as conflict between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. These are political differences among the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Party.”
The United Nations estimates that over 89 thousand refugees have crossed borders into Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan to escape the violence. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that another 494 thousand are displaced within South Sudan. While many seek shelter in UN refugee camps a majority have taken to the bush because of fears of attacks upon those refuges. On January 20 UN officials reported that heavy fighting near its peacekeeping base near Malakal wounded at least 32 civilians and two UN contractors within the base.
Because of the scope of violence and chaos throughout the country the death toll is currently impossible to verify but is estimated by the UN to be many thousands.