by William Davison
Around 80 injured victims of Friday’s attack on Nuer communities in the west of Gambella region were taken to Gambella town’s hospital. Maybe 50 or 60 of them were women and most have gun shot wounds. All numbers are fuzzy, but 15 to 20 villages were attacked before dawn. The largest distance between them is 3 hours’ walk and they’re 20 to 30 kilometers from the border with South Sudan.
People awoke to the sound of gunshots. The raiders, who were on foot, had surrounded the communities and were also among the huts. When one man tried to flee, he was confronted with a gunman. The guy came into his hut and he wrestled him to the ground. Then he ran. He suffered a gunshot wound to his hand. He left behind his uncle, whose wife was killed and kids taken.
The killers, who were mostly from the Murle tribe, were after children up to aged 15 and cattle. They took all the animals from the villages, which numbered up to 800 cows plus sheep and goats in one location. An average cow is worth 900 birr while a prize bull goes for up to 20,000. Many children were snatched, although no one had a complete picture. People said they didn’t know what the Murle planned to do with their captives.
The raiders were armed with modern Kalashnikovs and had plentiful ammunition. They were wearing unmarked military-style uniforms and had the same model of plastic white shoe. Someone said they heard an RPG, but there was no confirmation of heavy weaponry being used.
Women who tried to stop their kids being taken were killed. Those who didn’t resist were spared. One man was shot while wading across a river. He had a fractured bone in his lower arm. The attack lasted a couple of hours. Local militia, who were the only armed members of the communities, killed some people in response. In general, the government doesn’t allow the people to possess arms, it was said.
When the corpses of the assailants were studied, a few of them had the scarification of the Dinka. The Dinka – the ethnicity of South Sudan’s embattled President Salva Kiir — are the Nuer’s main enemies and are currently the most powerful ethnicity in that country. The bulk of the attackers were Murle, as indicated by their cheek markings, missing teeth, and distinctive bracelets.
The area was less secure than usual because of the absence of the Gambella region special police. Deadly communal violence in Gambella between the Anuak and the Nuer in February resulted in the special police from those communities fighting. They all were subsequently withdrawn, even from areas where the forces – which are comprised of Gambella’s five ethnic groups – didn’t turn on each other. They’re now believed to be in Addis Ababa for training. No Ethiopian military or Federal Police have filled this vacuum, according to the victims. The area attacked was populated by a sub-group of the Jikany Nuer, the Gaajak, which can be further broken down into three smaller classifications.
There was some response from regional police and from military forces guarding a road construction project, but nobody reported a large-scale operation. Somebody said four soldiers were killed when a group of 15 tried to retaliate. A Federal Policeman I spoke to this evening said that the military would not be crossing the border in pursuit. He seemed confident, but I don’t know how well informed he is. The Nuer victims were not seeking revenge but instead wanted somewhere more peaceful to live.
The regional context for the attack is, to say the least, complicated. The Murle are a group based in Jonglei state known for violent cattle raiding. Their main rebel group led by David Yau Yau regularly launches offensives, and then makes a deal with the government. That’s fairly typical of South Sudanese politics. The Murle’s main antagonists are the Lou Nuer, who are based further south of the attack around the border towns known as Akobo. Murle raids into the area normally occur earlier in the year and are not normally as well coordinated or deadly.
The Upper Nile and Jonglei regions across the border from Gambella have suffered over two years of sporadic conflict as one of the focal points for South Sudan’s latest bout of civil war. The situation now is as tense as ever with Nuer leader Riek Machar poised to return to Juba tomorrow to become vice president in a power-sharing deal. The situation is further muddied by a government plan to sub-divide Jonglei and Upper Nile into smaller regions. The government in Juba is not commenting on the attack, and Machar’s erstwhile rebel movement is playing down the politics behind the raid. A couple of other well-placed Nuer suggested Kiir’s government was behind the assault, but they didn’t sound convincing, let alone offer any evidence.