Page last updated at 10:10 GMT, Thursday, 1 April 2010 11:10 UK

Swapping guns for peace in South Sudan

herder holding gun on shoulder
South Sudan's semi-autonomous government is trying to improve security

The Sudanese elections due on 11-13 April hang in the balance, after the candidate from the south's main party withdrew from the presidential contest, citing fears of fraud and a lack of security. South Sudan is trying to recover from the effects of 21 years of conflict with the north, as the BBC's Rob Walker reports from Jonglei state.

The attackers struck the South Sudanese village of Weyr Nol from the east, just as the sun was rising.

For Yar Chan Thuc and her children there was no warning, no chance to escape:

The government is on the side of the Dinka. So we said OK, if it's like that we will go with our own force
Anonymous Lou Nuer attacker

"There were so many of them. I started running with my children. I took my daughter in one hand and my son in the other.

"But then we met more attackers. They shot my daughter, Keth, and she died there on the spot."

More than 40 were killed in the attack on Weyr Nol last year.

The people living there are from the Dinka ethnic group. Those attacking them came from the neighbouring Lou Nuer.

As between many of the pastoralist groups in South Sudan, there is a history of sporadic clashes over cattle and grazing.

Fined in cows

But this was different. The aim was to kill rather than raid livestock.

It is just one example of the sharp rise in ethnic violence across South Sudan.

piles of weapons collected
The disarmament programme seems to be working

Last year, around 2,500 people were killed and 350,000 displaced.

This is why the south's semi-autonomous government has launched an ambitious initiative to control the violence.

In Jonglei, the biggest and most violent state in the south, teams of officials have been touring remote areas for the past three months, telling cattle-herders to hand in their guns.

Those who refuse face five years in prison or a fine of 20 cows.

"We found people were already fed up with these arms, so they co-operated with the civil authorities," said Jonglei State Governor Kuol Manyang.

The ongoing disarmament campaign already appears to be showing impressive results.

At an army base, close to the state capital, Bor, soldiers proudly display the contents of two shipping containers: more than 6,000 assorted weapons collected from Jonglei's civilians.

They range from antique World War I era wooden rifles to modern mortars and rocket propelled grenades.

The weapons are a legacy of Africa's longest civil war.

It was a conflict fought over power and resources between the government in north, which is mostly Muslim and Arabic-speaking, and rebels in the south, where most follow Christian or traditional religions.

Five years ago after a peace deal was signed, there were hopes the oil-rich south would finally begin to rebuild.

A crucial time

But conflicts within the south have made the job of delivering peace dividends harder.

Yar Chan Thuc and her children
We are not safe here. We don't have guns
Yar Chan Thuc

And the rising violence comes at a crucial time. Next month, Sudan holds national elections.

Next year, the south is expected to vote for independence in a referendum on its future.

That is why South Sudan's government believes it is now crucial that disarmament translates into improved security not just in Jonglei but in the other states of the south too.

"We have police but they are not well armed. So we are going to use the arms we've collected from people to arm the police," said Mr Manyang.

But previous disarmament campaigns have failed, partly because the government has not provided protection to communities that have handed in their weapons.

Back in Weyr Nol, Yar Chan Thuc and her neighbours are afraid: "Those people who attacked us have so many weapons, if they hand in one weapon, they have others, and they will use them again. So we are not safe here. We don't have guns."


Part of the problem is that guns are only the symptom and not the cause of the rising violence in the south.


But there are starkly different explanations for what is really behind the violence.

One view is that it is a struggle for power within South Sudan: The Dinka are the largest ethnic group in the south. Some from other groups say the Dinka dominate the region's government.

I was taken to meet one of the Lou Nuer men who joined the attack on Weyr Nol. He did not want to give his name.

He is unapologetic about the attack, or the killing of women and children.

He says he participated because thousands of Lou Nuer cattle were taken by Dinka herders. He says some of those cattle ended up in Weyr Nol:

"The government told us they would get the cattle back for us. But the Dinka refused to return them. And the government is on the side of the Dinka. So we said OK, if it's like that, we will go with our own force to collect back the cattle."

'It doesn't reach us'

He also claims that the Lou Nuer do not get a fair share of resources from the government:

"All the things the government has, the food, the services, is at the centre of Jonglei State. It doesn't reach us. The government doesn't give us anything."

weapons that have been handed in
Guns, mortars and rocket propelled grenades are a legacy of the civil war

These claims are strongly rejected by South Sudan's government.

They believe there is a very different cause for the violence - the government in the north.

During the civil war, Khartoum operated a divide and rule policy, trying to foster ethnic splits within the southern rebels, and then arming breakaway militias to fight against them.

Mr Manyang believes the north is once again supporting proxy militias in the run-up to next year's referendum.

"There are some elements which are opposed to the comprehensive peace agreement. They want to destabilise the south and tell the world the south can't govern itself, and that even if the south becomes independent it will create a situation like Somalia."

Hunger fears

Khartoum has denied providing any weapons to militia groups in the south.

Critics of South Sudan's government say it is blaming the north to try to divert attention from its own failings in delivering security and development in the five years since the peace agreement was signed.

People are still not getting enough access to food and medicine because of the conflicts
Anthony Lodiong
Save the Children

Some politicians in the south have also been accused of fuelling the conflicts themselves; exploiting ethnic tensions to try to bolster their own positions ahead of the coming elections.

All this means that disarmament alone is unlikely to stop the violence, unless these complex underlying issues are dealt with.

In the meantime, aid agencies are warning about a worsening humanitarian situation caused by a combination of conflict and drought.

The number of people needing food assistance in the south is estimated to have quadrupled to more than four million this year.

"People are still not getting enough access to food and medicine because of the conflicts. And development activities have stopped in some areas," said Save the Children South Sudan spokesman Anthony Lodiong.

Up to now, the common goal of self-determination has kept a lid on many of the tensions within South Sudan.

The fear is that after next year's referendum, and a likely vote for secession, the ties holding the south together could weaken.

And ethnic conflicts could spiral further.

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