PIBOR, South Sudan — Martha Meroi escaped one nightmare only to fall straight into another.
Fleeing a column of 10,000 enemies in South Sudan's tribal wars, Meroi, eight months pregnant, and her family darted across the parched wilderness for four days before rival militiamen caught up and pinned them against a riverbank. Children were bludgeoned, and old men hacked to bits. The air was alive with bullets and screams. Meroi survived, fleeing across the river.
When she returned to her destroyed village of Lukunyon more than two weeks later, she faced new antagonists: soldiers from South Sudan's army. As the villagers tried to rebuild, the soldiers, most of whom were from rival tribes, hurled mocking insults at them, beat children with sticks and shadowed the women into the bush as they rummaged for firewood, raping a 13-year-old, a 15-year-old and a mother.
"We could not stay with those soldiers, so we came here," Meroi said near her temporary straw hut south of Pibor town, where a McClatchy correspondent found her surrounded by 15 half-dressed children, riddled with flies, eyes adrift.
Here in Jonglei state, where tit-for-tat raids have billowed into a full-scale internal war between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes, South Sudan's army has become part of the problem, despite the $270 million in American aid it's received since a 2005 U.S.-brokered peace deal led last year to the creation of the country.
A broad group of U.S. activists who forged close ties with the South Sudanese rebel movement spurred that deal to end Sudan's decades-long civil war. They included churches from then-President George W. Bush's hometown of Midland, Texas, the Congressional Black Caucus and celebrities such as actor George Clooney.
The violence, and the role of the South Sudanese military in it, points out the difficulty of a legacy in which the U.S. and influential activists remain supporters of a government that often lies at the heart of the problem. Even with its poor human rights record, South Sudan continues to be the darling of its committed backers.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., one of the first congressional backers of a strong Sudan policy, flew to South Sudan in February. Clooney, who met with President Barack Obama in 2010 on the situation there, continues to visit the country. Activists acknowledge the military's poor human rights record, but they haven't significantly adjusted their rhetoric.
"The South Sudan government did not do enough in the aftermath of initial attacks last year," John Prendergast, a leading activist on Sudan issues with close ties to Clooney and other celebrities, said in a January statement after a Lou Nuer attack on the Murle. But he also blamed world powers for not doing enough. "The international community's efforts have largely been too little, too late," he said.
Twenty miles north of Pibor, 200 circles of mud rubble are all that remain of Likwongole nearly three months after a 10,000-strong Lou Nuer force moved through. An apocalyptic trail of cow and human skeletons leads out of town, littered with pieces of plastic chairs, shredded cardboard, dented canisters of U.S. food aid and torn clothes.
A military barracks sits just outside town, but the South Sudanese soldiers based there never fired a shot as the Lou Nuer raiders rampaged.
U.N. officials say that despite weeks of warning, including the breakdown of peace talks in early December and aerial photos of the massive Lou Nuer force on the move, South Sudan's military and political leadership responded with a lack of interest, even after Likwongole was burned to the ground.
"SPLA is a real part of the problem in Jonglei," said one U.N. official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The official used the army's rebel moniker, still frequently used today, the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
Another U.N. official, who asked not to be named because he's not authorized to speak to the news media, said there was "fundamental indifference" to the Murle's plight among South Sudan's top leaders.
During the Lou Nuer's march on the Murle, the South Sudanese military refused to use its own helicopters, 10 Mi-17s bought in 2010 from the Russian supplier Kazan, to fly in more troops. The U.N. had to ferry the soldiers, despite the fact that some of its peacekeepers' hired Russian pilots refused to fly, in part because of what they alleged was previous abuse at the hands of South Sudanese security forces.
Backed by several hundred U.N. peacekeepers, the soldiers defended Pibor but didn't try to stop the Lou Nuer militia from hunting down fleeing Murle such as Meroi, looting cattle and burning everything else along the way. Significant reinforcements didn't arrive until the attack had ended.
The South Sudanese military's indifference to the war isn't one-sided: The Lou Nuer also bitterly complain that the army doesn't protect them from frequent raids by the Murle.
"The SPLA and other members of the security forces are often responsible for the violation of human rights, rather than protecting them," said Jehanne Henry, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, which has documented unlawful killings, beatings, destruction of homes and looting by the army.
The U.S. military aid dates to when John Garang, the U.S.-educated leader of the rebel army, lobbied for American assistance in "professionalizing" his ragtag group, a mix of former child soldiers and forces loyal to troublesome warlords.
But Garang died suddenly in 2005 after signing the peace accord, and his successor, Salva Kiir, a lifelong bush fighter who's now the new country's president, lacks his natural political skills.
With Garang's death, the situation changed. The West lost its main intermediary, and South Sudan its visionary leader. But, peace deal signed, secession on the horizon and humanitarian needs ballooning, the Western community felt obliged to keep the aid pouring in.
From 2005 to 2011, the transition period set up by the peace deal, the United States gave more than $10 billion in aid to Sudan, which included South Sudan and Darfur. About $270 million of that went to the South Sudan army. This year's total aid is projected at $58 million.
With that support, the U.S. has built barracks, donated riverine boats and trained the army in everything from special protection and rapid response to medical care and basic literacy. The U.S. support goes into the military structure itself, where it's embedded teams of advisers in military operations and civilian oversight.
As the Jonglei wars drag on, the military's human rights record doesn't appear to be improving, a cause of consternation among the country's Western well-wishers, none of whom is bigger than the U.S.
The State Department, through which all aid to the South Sudanese military passes, says that every training course includes a human rights component. The U.S. also has embedded a military justice adviser in the South Sudanese military.
With body counts rising, Kiir's solution hasn't re-engendered confidence in his regime's crisis management: As people still stumble back home, he's ordered the military to rid the civilians of their guns.
Few expect the youth to give up their firearms with war still raging. Disarmament isn't a new plan, either. In 2008, soldiers rolled into Jonglei's towns torturing villagers, demanding to know where guns were. The campaign failed, leaving a bitter taste here, and it sparked an even bloodier cycle of fighting.
"We told them this time we first need to sit down and make peace with each other, then we need to create a buffer zone, and then we can do disarmament," said the Pibor county commissioner, Joshua Konyi. "Instead, they are just jumping straight to the last step, disarmament."
The government's choice to lead the disarmament exercise has only raised more eyebrows: Peter Gadet, a volatile general who rebelled against the government last year and whose abuse of civilians during the war was brutal even by South Sudanese standards.
In Juba, South Sudan's capital, the government is trying to assuage international fears that the campaign will be as ruthless and counterproductive as in the past. Susan Page, the U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, said last week that the U.S. was encouraging "voluntary disarmament."
But in the barracks in Pibor, there's no talk of "voluntary."
Standing next to an illiterate colonel who was the acting commander of the brigade, a heavyset and prickly senior intelligence officer who identified himself only as Zacharia said to expect a military crackdown.
"If they refuse to give us the guns, we will take (them) by any means. Yes, of course, by force," he said.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special 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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