South Sudan: New Country Torn By Old Conflicts

PHOTO: Eleven-year-old Kakayo recovers from wounds suffered during a recent round of violent tribal clashes in South SudanPlayABC News
WATCH Children Victims of S. Sudan's Tribal Clashes

Before the red dust could settle in South Sudan's most recent tribal clashes, 11-year-old Kakayo had lost her father, and she has no idea where her mother and two siblings are.

"When the attackers came, we ran into the bushes," said Kakayo, as she lay idly on the floor in the back room of a dirty hospital ward in Juba, the capital of the newly independent South Sudan.

"That's when they started shooting at us."

Kakayo, whose family are members of the Murle tribe, is recovering from two bullet wounds, one in the knee, another in her foot. She has no bed, just a simple cloth to cover herself; thick bandages are wrapped around her frail legs.

Still, in this recent round of violence Kakayo is considered one of the lucky ones. She escaped, and she is one of the few who are receiving treatment at the hospital. "I was injured, but some of the others who survived took me with them," she said of her escape from her village in Jonglei state.

The violent attacks Kakayo was caught up in began around the start of the new year and have affected 120,000 people, according to the U.N.

For Kakayo, the "they" who "started shooting at us" refers to the youth fighters of the Lou Nuer tribe. Clashes over cattle in the barren region are nothing new, and for a time were put on hold as a show of unity before the referendum that granted South Sudan independence a little over six months ago after two decades of civil war. Now they've resumed with a fury, and on a larger scale, partly fueled by weapons left over from the civil war.

At the opposite end of the hospital compound in Juba, separated by a weak chain-link fence, sits a field hospital tent where young men from the Lou Nuer, who attacked Kakayo's tribe, had congregated, when ABC News visited the hospital early one recent morning.

"We think we have to go and destroy them," said a youth fighter, seemingly the spokesman for the 20 or so fighters recovering from injuries.

"They kill our wives, our children, and they've taken our cows," he said, with determination and conviction, the voices around him escalating, of the retaliation attacks initiated by the Murle people early last week that killed over 100 of the Lou Nuer.

He says he and the other fighters will return to the villages once they've recovered, and continue to attack and abduct more children in retaliation.

Child Abduction on the Rise

The fight begins over cattle, but the byproduct of these raids has always been murder and child abduction.

UNICEF says child abductions have been on the rise for the past two years in Jonglei state, one of South Sudan's most remote tribal regions.

In the past, abductions were few. "Five children, two children, three children," said Fatuma Ibrahim, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF. She says it's likely hundreds of children have been abducted in these most recent raids.

Ibrahim has been at the forefront of registering and recovering the missing children for UNICEF in South Sudan. So far, they have recovered 117 unaccompanied children in Jonglei, but they know the number will rise. She is also concerned with how violent these attacks and abductions have become.

New weaponry and military style raids in the area have increased the number of children abducted during these cattle raids.

"Before, even the abduction process itself was not violent," she said. "Now, what brings a lot of protection concerns is the violence that is associated with the process.... They are using guns," she said.

In late December, the Lou Nuer attacked Kakayo's village. Local officials and members of the Murle say that 3,000 were killed, but the UN says the number is more likely in the hundreds.

Just weeks later, fighters from the Murle tribe launched attacks on the Lou Nuer in different towns, killing over a hundred people. This is why the fighters whom ABC News spoke with in the hospital in Juba want to retaliate.

The U.N. has reported that the number of people affected by the violence has doubled: first it was thought to be 60,000; now it's more like 120,000. The U.N. has engaged a "massive emergency" response to get food and water to them.

A Culture of Cattle Raids and Child Abduction

While Ibrahim and other child protection agencies worry about the level of violence and the massive numbers of children becoming displaced, the Lou Nuer and the Murle people have thrived off these cattle raids and abductions.

In some cases, the children can be used for ransom payments and seen as a commodity to be exchanged for more cattle.

A 2010 Rift Valley Institute report for the U.N. documenting child abductions in Jonglei stated, "We learned that the youth abduct the children and then give them to the chiefs. The chiefs then sell out the children and give a portion of the sale in cattle to the youth."

Abduction has become so engrained in the daily lives of these tribes, that Ibrahim says the children are often treated well by the "new" families who have bought the children.

"Even though they are sold, they are treated like children of the family. This is one of the reasons that there are not many children escaping," she said.

Returning Home, But Possibility of Recapture

In rare occasions, the children can be recovered by South Sudan's military, but mostly the children are reported missing and/or escape by themselves. Both government and other child protection services then have to sort out the legalities of returning the children back to their families.

"Right now there is a case of one child where 15 parents are claiming that this is their child," said Ibrahim. "This happens when the child is abducted very young."

Local officials in the town of Bor, Jonglei's capital, have made attempts at bringing the tribe's chiefs together to negotiate the return of children, but mostly it is coordinated through NGO programs.

When the children do return home, it is no guarantee of safety. Some children have escaped, only to be recaptured again.

Kakayo may have escaped the raid, but she has a long journey to recovery, and an even longer journey home. Doctors are unsure when she will be able to leave the hospital; they're predicting months. But lying on her rug on the tile floor, not knowing if her mother and siblings are even alive, Kakayo tells the doctor in no uncertain terms that when she is well, she will go home to find them.