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“Do not doubt, but believe.” John 20:27

Action needed to protect civilians in Pibor County

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues to have profound concern for the people of South Sudan and, in particular, residents of Jonglei State in the east of the country.  Residents of the region face grave and frequent threats to their security due to inter-ethnic conflict, abuses by state security forces and harassment by rebel groups.  These threats have persisted or, in some cases, intensified since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011.  At the end of 2012, leaders of the PC(USA)’s partner denomination, the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS), reported fresh violence in Pibor County and asked the PC(USA) to help promote peace, justice and reconciliation in the region.

Displaced people from Sudan

What you can do

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seeks to encourage the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and the people of Jonglei State in their quest for justice, peace and reconciliation. The General Assembly of the PC(USA) has repeatedly adopted resolutions and overtures to support Sudanese peace and reconciliation initiatives and to urge PC(USA) “members, congregations, leaders and governing bodies to be strong advocates of peace with justice in Sudan” through intercessory prayer and by pressing U.S. elected officials and international organizations to exert their influence to ensure that the people of Sudan can enjoy peace and genuine security.

Presbyterian World Mission (PWM) invites you and your congregation to: 

  1. Pray regularly and fervently for the people, government and churches of South Sudan. A suggested prayer appears below.
  2. Learn more about the situation in South Sudan through individual study or corporate inquiry in your mission committee, adult education classes, or women’s, men’s or youth groups.  The Africa Office of PWM can help you to identify appropriate study materials. You can also follow postings on South Sudan on the PWM website and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations’ “Swords into Plowshares” blog.
  3. Write to your members of Congress and the Secretary of State to share your concern for the safety of the people of Jonglei State.  Ask them to assist the government of South Sudan to provide appropriate training to the military to enable them to protect civilians impartially and to use their influence to promote genuine security for all the region’s residents. The PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness can offer further resources for advocacy.
  4. Join the Sudan Advocacy Forum to advocate for peace and justice in Sudan and South Sudan.

Prayer for South Sudan

(Rev. Mark Koenig, Director, Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations)

God of grace,
God of justice,
God of peace,
you create us to live together,
to honor and respect one another.
Hear us as we pray for South Sudan.

We pray for the people of South Sudan.
Grant courage to turn from violence;
grace to see each other as sisters and brothers;
strength to work for justice for all;
passion to seek peace;
and all that is needed for the living of these days.

We pray for the leaders of South Sudan.
Grant vision for a just and peace country;
wisdom to govern wisely;
strength to work for justice for all;
passion to seek peace;
and all that is needed for the living of these days.

We pray for the peoples and nations of the world.
Grant compassion for the people of South Sudan;
commitment to act in ways
that enhance the well-being of all the people;
strength to work for justice for all;
passion to seek peace;
and all that is needed for the living of these days.

God of grace,
God of justice,
God of peace,
you create us to live together,
to honor and respect one another.
Bless South Sudan and her people.

We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

Background to the current conflict

Most of Jonglei State’s estimated 1.4 million people rely on crop farming or animal husbandry for their livelihood. The state, like South Sudan as a whole, is ethnically complex, with inhabitants from at least six major ethnolinguistic groups. Pibor County in eastern Jonglei State is the primary home of the Murle people, a pastoralist ethnic minority. South Sudan’s unpredictable seasonal rains compel pastoralists to lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle, ranging over long distances to find drinking water and food for their cattle and themselves. As a result, the Murle often compete with numerically larger groups, such as the Dinka and Nuer, for land and resources.

In addition, many of the ethnic groups in region – including the Murle, Dinka and Nuer – practice the custom of bride wealth.  Men are expected to pay bride wealth in the form of cattle before they can marry. Given the limited opportunities for men to acquire cattle through economic activity, stealing cattle from other groups often seems to be the only alternative. As a result, a cyclical pattern of cattle raiding has emerged, often with violent consequences. Women and children are also frequently abducted during such raids. Members of each of the region’s ethnic groups have been guilty of cattle raiding at one time or another, although the Murle minority are often unfairly singled out in popular accounts as the primary culprits. While the practice of cattle raiding has been carried out for decades if not centuries, there had been relatively few casualties. Since 2009, however, large numbers of women and children have been killed during the raiding. PCOSS church leaders attribute this to politicians who are trying to destabilize the area.

The South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) has been instrumental in trying to broker peace among the various groups, but they have met with limited response.  An SSCC-organized peace conference scheduled for mid-December 2011 collapsed when Lou Nuer representatives refused to attend, apparently at the behest of a local prophet.

On December 23, 2011, some 6,000 armed Lou Nuer men, as well some members of the Dinka Bor community, entered Pibor County, reportedly in an attempt to recapture stolen cattle and people who had been abducted in previous raids.  They attacked communities in Lekongole District, killing residents, burning homes and stealing cattle before moving on to the area around Pibor town. More than 120,000 people were affected by the incident and by the reprisal attacks that continued throughout January and February in 2012 killing thousands of Nuer and Murle.

In March, the South Sudan government launched a disarmament process, known as “Operation Restore Peace,” across Jonglei state. But some groups evaded the South Sudanese military and police and kept their weapons, and some Dinka youth left the area to avoid disarmament. A peace deal was signed in May between the six main ethnic groups. However, not all armed groups attended the signing, and raids and abductions have continued.

The security situation in Jonglei State has been further complicated by the activities of David Yau Yau, an ethnic Murle, who ran as an independent candidate for the state parliament in April 2010. He lost, reportedly by a wide margin. Soon afterwards, he launched an armed rebellion, although in its early days this amounted to little more than minor acts of banditry.

In June 2011, Yau Yau signed a ceasefire with the government, and his 200 rebels were integrated into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) over the next eight months (though it remains unclear if Yau Yau himself was ever fully integrated).  The following April, Yau Yau again defected, and his forces began to clash with the SPLA in late August 2012. Since then, Yau Yau has reportedly supplied arms and ammunition to an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 largely Murle youth, although his aim appears to be to further destabilize the already chaotic security situation rather than to build a disciplined fighting force. The government of South Sudan claims that the Sudanese government is assisting Yau Yau, but this has not been independently verified.

Recent abuses by the South Sudan security forces and rebels

For the most part, the Murle people have been caught in the middle between the South Sudan military (as the SPLA has become) and Yau Yau’s rebels.  The government’s disarmament campaign has not been popular with many in the region, in part because of the aggression and ill-discipline with which it has been implemented.  Between March and August 2012, Medecins Sans Frontières treated nearly 100 people for violent injuries or sexual violence trauma that the victims attributed to the disarmament campaign. Three of these died of their injuries. Amnesty International investigators also documented scores of human rights abuses, including incidents of torture and sexual violence, when they visited Jonglei State in August and September 2012. Given David Yau Yau’s ethnic heritage, many Murle feel that they are presumed by the military to be sympathetic to, if not part of, Yau Yau’s cause.

At the end of 2012, the PC(USA) received reports of fresh abuses. On December 4, 2012, security forces in Gummuruk District, Pibor County, allegedly arrested fourteen unarmed Murle civilians, chained them together and shot them one by one in cold blood. Thirteen died from their wounds.  The fourteenth said that the soldiers stripped him naked and left him for dead. Two hours later, he began to call for help and was eventually taken to Juba for treatment, where he is now recovering.

According to sources in South Sudan, an SPLA convoy bringing supplies to military stationed in Pibor encountered a group of five unarmed women on Christmas Eve in the Vuvet area.  The women had gone into the forest to collect wild fruits and had stopped by a borehole under a tamarind tree to drink. The soldiers reportedly opened fire on them without warning or provocation, killing four of them, including the wife of a local chief. The fifth woman suffered a fractured leg due to a bullet. Later that night in Pibor town, SPLA soldiers allegedly shot and killed two prison guards whom they apparently believed to be members of David Yau Yau’s forces. Locals claim that, to date, the South Sudanese authorities have made no effort to investigate any of these recent killings or to bring the perpetrators to justice.

At the same time, Yau Yau’s rebels also are also exploiting the local population. According to reports, they sneak into houses in Pibor town virtually every night to steal money, mobile phones, clothes and other valuables from civilians at gunpoint. The army makes little effort to protect the civilians or their property.

Doubly victimized, many residents are fleeing Pibor County to the relative safety of Juba and other towns. Churches and schools have dwindling attendance, and some facilities, including a Presbyterian Church primary school in Gummuruk, have been vandalized. Some Murle people fear that if David Yau Yau fails to accept the amnesty offered to him, then the government will launch a major military operation in Jonglei state. If this happens, the Murle population is likely to suffer further because the army has little inclination to differentiate between Yau Yau rebels and innocent Murle civilians.

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