NAIROBI, Kenya — Threats of genocide and ethnically charged rhetoric are roiling South Sudan's Jonglei state one week after a days-long rampage by a tribal militia forced 50,000 people from their homes and may have left thousands dead.
The commissioner of Pibor County, where most of the bloodshed took place, said that 3,141 people were killed, according to an initial assessment of the attack. But officials from the United Nations and the South Sudanese government cautioned that the number was unconfirmed and may be inflated.
Uncertainty also surrounded whether more bloodshed is in the offing. One militia spokesman vowed that a Rwandan-style genocide is on the way, but others said the spokesman represented only one faction of the militia, which is described as either a well-organized force meticulously executing central commands or simply a throng of cattle-herders bent on quick revenge and booty.
Confusion and finger-pointing are a regular part of South Sudan's so-far brief stint at statehood — the country became independent from Sudan in July — but the latest crisis has left the nation struggling to come up with answers or solutions.
The rampage began before Christmas when thousands of members of the Lou Nuer tribe began a scorched-earth march through Jonglei aimed at members of the rival Murle tribe. At least three villages were burned to the ground as U.N. peacekeepers, badly outnumbered and monitoring the militia's progress from helicopters, urged Murle to flee their homes.
The rampage came to an end last Tuesday on the outskirts of Pibor, after a Nuer foray into the city found little to steal and almost no one to kidnap. Four hundred U.N. peacekeepers and about 800 South Sudanese government troops were holed up in Pibor.
How many people died in the Nuer rampage is the most glaring uncertainty. Joshua Konyi, a Murle who is the commissioner of Pibor County, said a compilation of totals given by the area's local administrators yielded the estimate that 3,141 people had died in the attack, most of them in rural areas out of sight of U.N. peacekeepers and government troops garrisoned in nearby administrative towns.
The steep figure has met heavy skepticism. Kuol Manyang, the state governor, said the numbers came too quickly and were meant "to win sympathy." The United Nations, which initially estimated the number of dead at the "tens or hundreds," said Sunday that there was no evidence to back up the claims of more than 3,000 dead.
But neither the government nor the U.N. has offered an alternative figure for the number of dead in a campaign that covered 70 miles in one of South Sudan's most remote regions. The government is sending a commission to investigate the casualty count, said South Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer.
After seeing their homeland destroyed, some Murle were incredulous that the local count was met with suspicion and accused the U.N. of acting on the defensive after its peacekeepers failed to stop the violence.
"The UNMISS military wing did nothing to protect civilians," said John Boloch, a Murle leader who heads South Sudan's Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Juba, referring to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan by its acronym. "The number given (3,141) is true."
"Right now all the numbers are suspect, but it's probably best to start with the numbers being generated by local officials and then work to verify them," said Judy McCallum, a former country director of an aid organization in South Sudan who does research on the Murle.
Those who did survive did so only by fleeing. The attackers did not appear to be in a mindset of mercy.
Online forums and private conversations are filled with vitriol aimed at the Murle, a small, politically marginalized group that numbers between 100,000 and 150,000 and is neighbored by both the Dinka and the Lou Nuer, South Sudan's two dominant tribes.
During the long civil war in which South Sudan won its independence from Sudan, the Murle were seen as traitors. They're accused regularly of abducting their neighbors' children, a practice not uncommon across South Sudan.
One Nuer tribal member who has lived in the United States and claims to speak for the "Nuer White Army" said in email messages that the goal of the rampage was to wipe out the Murle. He promised more to come.
"The next attack against Murle will be worse than what happened in Rwanda in 1994," the spokesman, Tut Deang, emailed in reply to a series of written questions. "If committing 'genocide' will bring us peace, so be it."
He said that future raids will be launched under the cover of night to prevent detection by U.N. surveillance helicopters.
"We are fighting for survival in this part of the world and the so-called Western concepts of 'responsibility to protect' are crap," wrote Deang, whose email account uses the words "Nuer power."
Deang's claim to speak for the militia, which U.N. officials say numbers around 8,000 men, could not be verified. In mid-December, a press release indicated Deang lived in Minnesota, but now he claims to have moved back to South Sudan. But he did not provide a local contact number, and numerous email exchanges and news releases took place during regular working hours in the United States.
The Lou Nuer area's county commissioner, Goi Jooyol, questioned Deang's legitimacy, accusing radical Nuer who live outside South Sudan of hijacking the tribal war for their own political agendas.
"These groups sending these emails are just groups acting on their own behalves," Jooyol said by phone. "The people carrying out our attacks are simple people. Most are illiterate and are just trying to avenge the attack on their families, and maybe steal some cows."
Whether official or not, Deang's views are not unique. South Sudanese admit the sentiments are common, even among politicians and the educated. South Sudan's history is also not encouraging: although best known for the oppression it suffered at the hands of Arabic Sudanese authorities to the north, the long civil war was filled with numerous atrocities South Sudanese committed against one another.
And don't ask Deang to help settle the casualty debate.
"It is not our duty to count the number of Murle killed. The duty is to end the Murle problem," he wrote menacingly.
(Boswell is a McClatchy correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)
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