An account by Anna Stein, Programme Officer
South Sudan’s Lakes State suffers from very high levels of violence. Ongoing conflict between the state’s inhabitants and their neighbours in Unity and Warrap states has led to widespread cattle raiding and thousands of people leaving their homes to escape cross-border violence. Conflict also arises between cattle-keepers, who make up the majority of the population, and the agriculturalists who live in isolated parts of the state’s south.
During Sudan’s civil war, many people from Lakes State fled north. Now, weeks before South Sudan’s historic referendum on independence, many of them are returning home. Approximately 2500 are expected to return in the next week alone, despite the fact that few provisions have been made for their arrival. In response to the acute needs of the returning population, and in an attempt to pre-empt a major humanitarian crisis, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) carried out a rapid needs assessment mission in early December. Nonviolent Peaceforce was invited to participate.
NP’s assessment team took the opportunity to explore expansion into Lakes State. At present, NP works in Western Equatoria State’s Mvolo County, which neighbours Lakes State, and much of the violence that occurs in the county involves pastoralists who migrate south from Lakes State at the beginning of the dry season. In order for NP to successfully bring the communities in conflict together, it must have civilian peacekeeping teams present and connected to relevant local actors in both states.
Cattle on the move in Lakes State
NP’s assessment team visited Wulu town, in Wulu County, which neighbours Mvolo to the west. Transport is always a challenge in South Sudan, and Lakes State is no exception. Often roads are impassable, even with a fully-equipped 4x4. Unfortunately, upon arrival in Rumbek, capital of Lakes State, there were no 4x4s available to hire. The only vehicle to be found was an ancient rusted Ford Escort. The team set off on the hour-and-a-half drive to Wulu to meet the County Commissioner.
The Escort survived and the team arrived at the Wulu County Commissioner’s office for a frank conversation about his community’s interest in a civilian peacekeeping presence. During the seasonal migration, cattle-keepers pass through Wulu on their way to Mvolo. This migration results in high levels of violence. During the 2009 migration, 8 people were killed, and many women were raped. In his view, the presence of civilian peacekeepers would reduce levels of violence, and persuade opposing groups to meet in dialogue.
The next day, the UNHCR assessment took place in Mayom Payam, in Rumbek Centre County. Mayom Payam is little more than a hand-pump buried deep in the bush. After turning off the main road the vehicles drove for about 20 minutes through tall grass and patches of thorny undergrowth. It was impossible to see the car ahead, as the dust and the undergrowth totally obscured the view.
Upon arrival at Mayom Payam, the team was dismayed to find no one there. As they waited, people slowly began to emerge from the bush in ones and twos, some carrying their own plastic chairs. After more than an hour, the deserted hand-pump had been transformed into a lively and bustling space, full of men, women and children. The residents of Mayom Payam split into three groups (men, women and children) to discuss perceptions of security; it emerged that none of them were orginially from Mayom, but had relocated there following fierce fighting in their home villages. They explained that the shortage of water and food often provoked conflict among communities, and that on one occasion a few months ago the crush to use the hand pump resulted in the death of a pregnant woman.
The humanitarian and protection needs in Mayom Payam are immense, as they are across Lakes State. The assessment team left the state certain that people are exhausted from violence, and the lack of durable development that accompanies it. NP hopes to return to Lakes State soon to move forward with plans for a future deployment.