In this photo of Thursday, Jan.12, 2012, victims of ethnic violence in Jonglei, state, South Sudan, wait in line at the World Food Program distribution center in Pibor to receive emergency food rations . (Photo: AP)
Sitting on the edge of the bed beside his nine-year-old daughter recovering from a gunshot wound, Mangiro recounted how he lost the rest of his family in recent tribal clashes in South Sudan’s troubled state of Jonglei. "This child was carried by her mother, and her mother was killed," the next day we carried the child out from under her mother," said Mangiro, who did not give a second name.
"They were gunned down as a family. Her mother and sisters, all four of them are dead there," he added, glancing at his surviving daughter Ngathim.
An unknown number of people — at least dozens, some fear hundreds — were killed in tribal clashes this month in Jonglei, declared a "disaster zone" by the Juba government, with the UN warning some 60,000 people had been affected by the violence and are in need of emergency aid.
In Pibor’s clinic run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres-MSF), Ngathim was in one of the few functioning rooms after attackers looted and ransacked the town’s only concrete structure and medical facility.
In a dramatic escalation of bitter tit-for-tat attacks, a militia army of around 8,000 Lou Nuer youths recently marched on Pibor county, attacking villages and taking children and cows away with them, to exact revenge on the Murle whom they blame for abductions and cattle raiding.
From the air, black spots pockmarking the earth show where homes and fields were razed as attackers left villages smouldering in their wake. Large herds of stolen cattle were also seen being driven towards Nuer villages.
In Gumruk, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Pibor, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) registered more than 2,000 people this week who fled attacks on surrounding villages. "We were just sitting at home, and then we were attacked. These Nuer guys came in with their machetes and started cutting people and so we ran," said Ismiah Shan, a mother of eight who saw villagers shot and slashed with knives, spears or machetes in Thaugnyang, two hours' walk away.
The government has confirmed around 80 people killed in revenge attacks in Lou Nuer areas this week, but the UN and government cannot confirm the number of Murle killed in the first assault. Some estimates by local government officials in the thousands are not yet verified, as teams asses a vast area lacking roads.
Access difficulties and a state the size of Bangladesh have been cited as the reason why UN peacekeepers and government troops failed to stop the deadly column advancing. Others say troops were dispatched late and were clearly outnumbered, or were hesitant to intervene in a tribal conflict that last year killed around 1,100 people in a series of cattle raids.
When the violence started, Philip Mama Alan fled his village of Lawol, three hours' walk from Gumruk, but ran into more attackers. "These people came and took some of my colleagues. One of them came and held my hand and said 'sit down'. Before I sat down, I saw them kill my colleagues and so I ran," he said.
Running for his life, Alan described the scene as a "slaughter", saying the men were gunned down and women knifed. He does not want revenge, just for the government to build roads to bring trade into the neglected state, that was one of the worst hit during the decades of civil war with the north.
In the meantime, the huddled masses sitting in the glaring sun outside food distribution centres in Pibor and Gumruk were not thinking about home. Many had been living off wild berries and said there is nothing to go back to after they saw villages destroyed. Others seemed to be taking matters into their own hands in an effort to regain their livelihood.
WFP head of security Wame Duguvesi said that in Pibor this week the body of a Nuer army officer was discovered, while the death toll from other suspected revenge attacks continues to climb in increasingly remote areas far from the security forces.
"Peaceful dialogue is the only way forward to reach a final and durable settlement to their differences," said Kouider Zerrouk, spokesman for the UN mission in South Sudan, who urged communities to end the worrying cycle of violence.
"The reconciliatory peace process must restart immediately," he said, after peace talks between the two tribes collapsed in early December.