In addition to the myriad other challenges faced by South Sudan’s government, the newly independent state has to contend with the often explosive relationships between ethnic groups. These are most pronounced in Jonglei, an eastern state where the government is keen to bring security and allow oil companies to develop potentially rich oil fields. Some rivalries stretch back decades or more, but they have been exacerbated by a civil war that pitted groups against each other, and climate change that is intensifying the competition for scarce resources.
Throughout 2011, tensions had been building between the Lou Nuer and the Murle. The groups had been launching attacks and counter-attacks that the United Nations said killed about 1,000 people. Women and children were also abducted and cattle were stolen. By the end of the year, UN aerial patrols reported about 8,000 Lou Nuer warriors marching toward Murle territory. Despite weeks of advance warning, neither the government nor the UN peacekeeping mission was able to muster enough force to protect the Murle.
The true number of casualties may never be known, but the UN later put the death toll at at least 600, while hundreds more died in the following two months as Murle carried out counter-attacks. The UN estimated that 160,000 people in Murle areas were affected. Many of them told stories of fleeing their villages while family members were slaughtered, then hiding in the bush for weeks, hunted and hungry. Other victims, including children, were brought to the hospital in the capital with gruesome wounds.
In the wake of the tension, the government launched a disarmament campaign. But the program was soon plagued by accusations of soldiers meting out abuses including torture and rape as they attempted to take weapons from civilians.