PIBOR, South Sudan — A century of enmity between two cattle-herding tribes in an isolated corner of the world's newest country has burst into the open in killings and revenge attacks. For more than a week Aliye Amor has slept on bare earth, being among tens of thousands made homeless after armed raiders invaded.
Attacks in South Sudan by armed raiders killed scores, possibly thousands, of people in just a few weeks. This region is among the world's poorest, studded by grass or mud huts and where few roads exist.
When 6,000 or more armed warriors from the Lou Nuer tribe descended on Pibor Country on Dec. 23 to attack Murle residents, neither U.N. forces or South Sudan troops could stop them. Thousands fled into the bush, where dozens, hundreds or possibly even thousands were killed. No one is yet sure. A government official from the Murle tribe said more than 3,000 died, but neither the U.N. nor the central government has verified the toll.
Amor's face is dark and weathered, with deep creases chronicling her many years in one of South Sudan's harshest environments. On Thursday Amor waited patiently for a ration of sorghum, beans, oil and salt from the World Food Program.
When the Lou Nuer arrived in her village of Liloth, Amor fled. She says she witnessed armed tribesmen kill young men and abduct women and children. She ran to Pibor with nothing but a walking stick and the tattered clothes on her back.
"They killed the women, they killed the children," said Amor, who like many in this region does not know her age. "I am an old women, I don't know everything. The children were killed, the young men were killed. I ran into the bush."
The Lou Nuer's large-scale attack lasted about a week and then subsided. Now, reprisal attacks by the Murle have begun.
Simon Hoth, a county commissioner in Jonglei state and a member of the Lou Nuer, said Friday that hundreds of armed Murle charged into three villages on Wednesday, burned them to the ground and killed 57 people, including 25 women and 23 children. Another 40 are missing and were likely abducted, he said.
"They have butchered these people," Hoth said. There was no immediate independent confirmation of Hoth's figures.
The attack on the three villages in Uror Country of Jonglei state on Wednesday was just one of the latest of tit-for-tat onslaughts that began almost a half year ago — the latest chapter in a long history of tribal warfare. In August, Murle raiders killed an estimated 600 Lou Nuer. Tens of thousands of cattle have traded hands in the battles.
Cattle raiding between the Lou Nuer and Murle are decades old. The 23-year civil war between the newly independent South Sudan and its northern neighbor, Sudan, flooded this region with weapons.
"Cattle rustling has been there since 1898," government spokesman Barnaba Benjamin Marial said this week. "But in those days they were using spears and sticks. Now they have acquired a lot of weapons during the civil war and this has made the cattle rustling to be much more damaging than anything else."
The tens of thousands of people — 60,000 by some estimates — who fled into the bush are trickling back, but in many cases have nothing to return to. Because Jonglei is perhaps South Sudan's most remote state, most aid must come through the air. The World Food Program began bringing food into Pibor last week, but country director Chris Nikoi says resources are stretched thin.
"The 60,000 are scattered all over and yes, we are having difficulties to get to everybody," says Nikoi.
Pibor, the capital of Pibor County, was spared much of the violence that swept the county. South Sudan and U.N. troops were deployed to defend its government buildings, but the forces could not — and did not try to — protect the population.
The column of Lou Nuer youth made it to the edge of Pibor. The raiders stormed the Doctors Without Borders hospital near the county headquarters and ransacked the medical supplies building. Boxes of emergency food rations and medication were still strewn along the road.
Karel Janssens, the facility's coordinator, noted that 160,000 people live in Pibor County. The Doctors Without Borders building is the only medical facility. The group has resumed operations, but many of its 156 staff members fled during the attack.
"We have been in contact, seen only 80 of them. We have heard some good news about others but we are still missing a lot," Janssens said.
Among the victims inside the clinic is 9-year-old Ngathin. Her father, Mangiro, said they fled the fighting but met a group of attackers along the road. Ngathin was shot while in her mother's arms. Mangiro says his wife and two other children were killed.
At the heart of the tribal attacks is cattle, the lifeblood for survival here. Cattle are a measure of wealth as well as a way to acquire wives and prestige. While the raids always involve the capture of tens of thousands of cattle, the escalating violence seen in each successive raid has added an element of revenge to groups' rivalry.
The International Organization for Migration said in a statement Friday that "over 50,000 cattle are said to have been herded away by the Lou Nuer" in the latest attack. In South Sudan it's sometimes difficult to say that one group stole cattle from another, because the cattle in question may have been stolen in a previous raid.
Dina Parmer, a policy adviser for peacebuilding organization PACT, says the communities have little access to formal justice mechanisms that can help resolve grievances and stop the cycle of violence.
"Violence has become the norm. It has become the only way in which to get noticed and the only way in which to get what people need," she said.
The first reprisal attack came last Sunday, when Murle fighters attacked Lou Nuer villages north of Pibor, killing 22 people. That was followed by the Wednesday attack in Uror that killed 57. Hoth said Uror's residents have little hope of being kept safe.
"Arms are still in the hands of the civilian population and these attacks will continue, definitely," said Jonglei Gov. Kuol Manyang Juuk.
The crisis in Jonglei is just one of a host of problems in one of the world's most underdeveloped nations, which gained independence last July. Besides the 60,000 displaced in Jonglei, the country is also hosting more than 80,000 refugees who have fled rebellions in neighboring Sudan. Thousands of South Sudanese have returned from Sudan since independence and thousands more have been displaced by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group plaguing Central Africa.
"All these represent an enormous challenges for the people of South Sudan," said United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres when he visited the country earlier this week. "They need massive solidarity from the international community to cope with this humanitarian, very difficult situation."