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TR Article: Rival South Sudanese Cattle Culture Clashes as Threat to the “New State”

Mike Lee

Mike Lee, a native of Chicago, graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Creative Writing. At LMU, Mike developed international and domestic volunteer trips and served as the Volunteer Coordinator for the Student Veterans Organization. Mike’s professional background is in advertising and marketing, and has experience in executing large print and digital campaigns for non-profit and tourism clients. He lives in Los Angeles where he thinks a lot about dogs, bourbon, and the Chicago Bears.

By Glenn Geelhoed

For many observers at a distance, it would seem that the new not-yet-declared “nation-state” of the Republic of South Sudan’s problems are now behind it and a bright new future is already underway. In only a very superficial sense, this is partly true. After twenty eight years of Civil War of the Arabic-speaking, Islamic Sharia-law industrialized North, the GOS (Government of Sudan) under President Bashir in Khartoum had signed a US-brokered CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) in Arusha Tanzania with the pastoralist Christian or animist cattle culture tribes of the South and the long war of the SPLA (Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army) had transformed into the political party of the SPLM to now form the fledgling state the GOSS (a hypothetical state called the Government of South Sudan) with the signature of the Dinka leader John Garang calling off the North/South conflict. By the strict terms of the CPA, monitored carefully by the USA and international brokers, a referendum would be held in five years in January 2011 in which the Southern provinces that comprised the potentially breakaway piece of Africa’s largest nation and that vote would be self-determination of secession for independence. The referendum vote was held as mandated by the CPA and not postponed as querulous details such as a strict definition of the borders had not yet been resolved; it was carefully monitored by international observers and declared to be free and fair, and largely unmarred by violence.

The results were not close. The peoples of all the tribes of South Sudan whether they were the members of the largest tribe, the Dinka, or the second most numerous split from the Dinka, the Nuer, or the Murle or the other Nilotic and Bantu peoples, from the Nuba Mountains to nomadic herders following their cattle in the shift from dry to rainy season– voted 98.83% for secession. They elected independence to be free of the North and its GOS, and to establish their own “Republic of South Sudan” which is due to be declared in July 2011, only a month away. This new nation-state which will be recognized by the UN and other international bodies which can now organize aid through their designated capital of Juba will have a birthday quite close to the 4th of July of its principle benefactor.

All should be well, and world attention might now shift to some other impending crisis regions such as the Arab Spring nations.

This would be a very quick overview missing most of the backstory which constitutes most of the Sudanese dynamic, like the submarine majority of an iceberg—a metaphor no one in “either Sudan” would understand.

For far longer than the period of the just concluded North/South Civil War, there have been continuous hostilities between the tribal and clan kinships of the cattle cultures in the South, such that, as atrocious as the genocides perpetrated by the GOS against the South and Darfur which have earned the ICC (International Criminal Court) indictment of the sitting President Bashir in Khartoum, the body count is much higher from South-on-South continuous tribal warfare. The lethality of these rivalries has intensified with two other factors. First, there is the Wild West mentality of settling old scores from time immemorial conflicts and seizing any advantage in the vacuum of lawlessness. That has also been the reason for recent flaring or open warfare in the Nuba Mountains where I had volunteered among the mixed ethnic and religious groupings of people heavily plundered since there are resources nearby with high international demand, principally the oil fields of Abeyi, literally no-man’s land fought over bitterly by a number of claimants. Without the formal structures of courts and police and laws, it is a free for all opportunists to seize whatever they might hold on to in a “not-yet-declared” let alone “failed-state.”

The second factor in the escalated lethality of the intertribal competition for scarce resources is everywhere apparent. I have been in many villages in South Sudan where there was no wheel, no bicycle, wristwatch, radio, but the fundamental piece of indestructible modernity toted around by every pre-teen is the ubiquitous AK-47. The flood of arms injected into the conflict by the civil war residues of heavy weaponry means that cattle rustling is repelled with RPG’s and assaults over nubile females are met with automatic enfilades by relatives from either side. As an anthropologist I have observed the rite of passage of every boy through “cattle camp”, as each packs the readily available surplus automatic arms ostensibly to protect cattle from predation. But, in the mark of manhood, returning to cattle camp with more cattle than were entrusted to the amateur pastoralist is a bonus in the even bigger stakes of securing a wife. As it takes about fifty cows to purchase a reproducible age female in dowry, the no-longer-innocent game of cattle rustling from the nearby competing cattle cultures who must crowd in on the limited water sources or grazing rights during half the year dry season, has escalated into kidnapping young girls directly as well as poaching cattle—herds from whatever source are the totemic measure of wealth. Child stealing and cattle rustling might be daring acts between spear-wielding competitors, but are now the crystal that precipitates a firefight in which a few, then scores, then hundreds of casualties result as raids and vengeful vigilantes try to recover or avenge.

There is very little hope for any victim in “casualty care” which, quite simply, does not exist. In fact, one of the underlying pressures leading to the direct conflict is that very absence of health care. In a promiscuous society over-run regularly by warring bands, untreated pelvic inflammatory disease is endemic. One’s own female kin may be precious and to be protected (if for no other reason that a choice bride commands a very high dowry in cattle—which can support the purchase of still more fertile brides) but any female that can be seized from another tribe or clan is fair game in the spoils of the summom bonum sought by all the cattle cultures: fertility. The cattle are worshipped as fertility fetishes and can be directly translated into human female fertility through the economic and dowry power in which cattle are the only recognized currency.

For far longer than the Civil War with the industrialized North, the tribes of the pastoralist South have been at lower intensity warfare among their rivals. Now, however, the leftover weaponry of the just-concluded “War of Northern Aggression” (to borrow the Southern definition of the US Civil War which for us is 156 years ago, and for the Sudanese 156 days ago) means that the continued business as usual of fertility fights will mean that the not-yet-born “Republic of South Sudan” will implode. This will mark the genocidal victory of the GOS without their firing one more shot or strafing one more village from their Antonovs.

Surely some wise leaders of the GOSS must also have recognized this. John Garang did not survive long after his signature on the CPA as he died in a plane crash, not from some clever conspiracy, but from old fashioned incompetence. That does not mean he was not the target of multiple assassination attempts by his rival Nuer counterparts even when the rival southern tribes were united only as a necessity against the GOS. Few politicians achieve office by pointing out the long term gains that can be achieved by swallowing the bitter pill of collaborating with arch rivals to suffer through shorter term sacrifice. Often it is an outsider who might be able to broker such wisdom that is inherent in the indigenous peoples but cannot be expressed since they are so obviously Dinka, or Nuer, or Murle, or any of a larger number of subdivisions too subtle for most outsiders to appreciate—such as the rivalries between Eastern Jonglei Dinka clans and Dinka/Bor. Within the same language, cuisine, costume, religion, and cattle obsession, the closer these similarities, often the more bitter the conflict—ask Irish/Ulstermen, or Arabs, or Hutu/Tutsi Rwandans.

Into this heavily nuanced culture clash drops an ET—an extraterrestrial. He might come from another planet, such as I do, or he might have at least visited other worlds. He might be able to appreciate that these other worlds may have evolved some laws and procedures and consensus cultural practices as a way of civilizing rivalries into some competitive striving for excellence. These principles of restraint or courtesy may have been blunting or refining the basic instincts of biologic imperative in peoples facing extinction—personally and as progeny. Such an Inside Outsider might be a Lost Boy, missing and swept right off the continent by the enormous war of which he might have been unaware of such a huge outside world from the perspective of cattle camp in the Sudd—and he may have then been adopted to go to school in, say, Cuba, Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Alberta Canada.

With several impending disasters facing the tribal leaders, such as the two paramount chiefs and 78 sub-prefecture chiefs in an isolated enclave of, say, the Murle tribe, in, for example, PiBor near the Ethiopian border of Jonglei Province in what they realize is getting to be a new state to be called the Republic of South Sudan—they meet to discuss survival, not just of themselves, but their tribal future. There are worries reflected by one of the elder chiefs who has been in consultation with his pastor Rev. Oruzu, and they agree that things cannot keep going as they are, but they are outnumbered. A number of the firebrands suggest arming with better seized weaponry, training and improved tactics and making a wholesale raid on the much more numerous and cattle-rich Dinka that are surrounding them on all sides. That immediate gratification yields a prize booty of a large cattle herd and inflicted several Dinka casualties including ten deaths on young men; they had also seized two Dinka women, but each were less than cooperative even when prodded with spears, so one was killed immediately and the other left for dead; but a young Dinka girl was abducted and she is still being held and should make either a good Murle bride or fetch us enough cattle to dowry several others.

The other Murle paramount chief pointed out that the Murle raid was a success, but it was followed by reprisals from the Dinka, who were able to recover several of the cattle, and although they failed to find or return the Dinka girl who had been sent away to another Murle settlement, they killed more Murle men than had been the Dinka toll in the January 2009 raid. He reiterated what Rev Oruzu had said, that they could not keep doing this with increasing causality rates and still no health care or development in their area that Rev. Oruzu had tried to start under the title SALT (Serving and Learning Together.)

I was a direct witness of and the treating physician for the casualties of Murle on Dinka at Werkok. There was nothing to be done for those who were declared dead on arrival but I had seen those who were carried to Bor where the local Lost Boy health care worker tried to operate and salvage two of the victims, one shot in the abdomen, who survived only twenty four hours more and the other shot in the eye who was failing when I went back to Werkok. After the woman who had been speared multiple times had been treated for her bilateral pneumothorax, but with not chest tubes which we have subsequently stocked along with lessons in water seal for chest tubes after her case, she deteriorated when we had been absent at Bor Hospital making rounds on those causalities. When breathed with an AMBU bag she arrested, proving the tension pneumothorax which we treated on return by a Foley catheter substitute in the tube thoracostomy we improvised, but she failed to return after extensive resuscitation.

It was then I called our MCH (Memorial Christian Hospital) team together for the usual evening tutorial, and asked “What is the purpose for learning all about the management of tuberculosis and malaria, when your leading health hazard here is hostility?” For the evening tutorials we discussed chest tube drainage of air, blood and other fluids and management of penetrating trauma. But, then we extended the discussion beyond medical care to philosophy as I asked “”What is it that keeps these constant intertribal raids going on despite these grievous losses I have seen; why do we not go over to the Murle and try to find out, since they have problems as severe as yours and worse, they face extinction based in their 78% infertility rate.” My comments were met by a somewhat jingoistic response by several young Dinka, “Yes, they are going extinct soon and I will try anything I can to help them along in that direction.” I asked quietly, “Is there anyone here who can get above that?” Two stepped forward: Dr. Ajak, a Lost Boy who was rescued as a boy soldier drilling in the Ethiopian refugee camp by John Garang who had him sent to Cuba to learn literacy as part of the contingent to be post-war leaders of South Sudan. Ajak describes himself, therefore, as Dinka by birth, Cuban by adoption, Canadian by citizenship, and back in S Sudan by choice.” The other is Jacob Gai, a Lost Boy who was brought to my own home town of Grand Rapids Michigan where he eventually went to high school and graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree I management and IT and an interest in public health, now acting as business manager of MCH. These Inside Outsiders joined me in the one hour Cessna 208 chartered flight to the center of Murle-land at PiBor. This shows a lot more courage on the part of the Dinka incursion into “enemy occupied territory” than it does on the part of this non-Texan who in the cattle cultures’ own terms might be described as “All hat and no cattle.”

Through the assembly of all the Murle leadership, Rev Oruzu convened the two paramount chiefs, 78 sub-prefecture chiefs and the District Commissioner, and as we promised to help them restore health care facilities, they swore they would not raise up arms against their Dinka brothers, even in retaliation, I toured the ruins of the LaKungya Clinic and met the caretaker Elizabeth, a woman who had ha childhood polio and has had hip contractures so that she could get around only by moving with her hands. We delivered a promised wheelchair to her on the return visit a month later when we also brought Francis from Old Fangak Upper Nile Province, the Nuer health care aid whom we had taught to do eye procedures and he then taught the teams at Werkok among Dinka and PiBor among the Murle. Elizabeth is one of the rare Murle women never to have contracted pelvic inflammatory disease, despite the overrunning of PiBor by opposing armies in which the former LaKungya Clinic became the headquarters of first the GOS occupation and then of the SPLA. Her deformity protected her from exploitation and she has subsequently married and had seven children now caring for four grandchildren and is a Murle matriarch.

The LaKungya Clinic is a ruin which occupies a beautiful site on a bluff under giant neme trees over the PiBor River. It was founded by a missionary physician Dr. Albert Graham Roode, sponsored by PCUSA (the Presbyterian Church of the USA) who had teamed with a pastor Robert Swat an RCA (Reformed Church of America) missionary in PiBor from 1952—1964. The indigenous Christian church grew as they were here, and continued strong even after the “Missionary Edict” of the new Sharia-law GOS expelled all expatriate missionaries in 1964. The Murle population so revered Dr. Roode that they assigned him a special Murle name, an honor equivalent to a “lifetime achievement award.” Showing their highest acclaim for their totemic animal, they declared Dr. Roode to be “LaKungya”, which means the large grey bull—hence the name of his clinic. As substantially built as the LaKungya Clinic was, it remains as a burned out hulk of solid walls decorated with chalked on regimental colors of the SPLA and fire-blackened store rooms where cooking fires have darkened walls from which all equipment and fixtures have been stripped long ago as successive armies have camped here, and fifty caliber shell casings litter the porches and veranda. An outbuilding which had housed X-Ray and OR is gutted and now is the church, where mud-brick “seats” are for the parishioners and a row of cattle skin drums as the church organ as well as the church bell to summon to worship.

Dr. Roode’s daughter Sandie was born here and grew up in the LaKungya Clinic After the Missionary Edict of 1964 expelled all missionaries from Sudan, she moved to Grand Rapids Michigan and is married to a retired engineer named David Bixel, and both of them are on the Board of Directors of PCCSudan (Partners in Compassionate Care) which is responsible for MCH at Werkok. The substantial Roode house on the bluff is well designed though ruined and the whole of the compound could be rehabilitated using the solid structure that remains with all necessary equipment and instrumentation brought in after the buildings are restored.

With the promise of assistance in restoring health care to the Murle, the PiBor community has been hopeful for our return for training and equipping them, promising all labor and basic supplies would be community responsibilities if we might be able to help in training and equipment. A return was promised, and equipment designated from my Mission Control Room at home which I specified would be forthcoming under the direction of their Dinka brothers as caregivers, while Murle trainees would be coming to MCH to likewise be treating patients across the prior barriers of ethnic diversity.

The Peace Initiative held up during our absence but with communications via email and Skype about the progress we were able to achieve here; all supplies were loaded in Penske rental trucks and driven from Maryland to Toledo Ohio where the inventory was organized and packed into a forty foot container. The inventory was designated for each tribal group to be dispensed by the cross-ethnic caregivers. Through Team Rubicon sponsorship, the container was shipped by rail, sea and eighteen wheeler truck across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Suez Canal to Mombasa, and arrived after more than a dozen interceptions along the way when the official tax exemption letters kept “going missing” at each transition and border. With abundant color copies of each original authorization letter, Jacob Gai went by road from Werkok to Juba to clear the final hurdles to get the container released for delivery when the truck broke down not far outside Juba. A mechanic was flown in from Mombasa to land in the Cessna 206 in the dry season floodplain in the middle of gunfire from opposing raiders all around the truck. Through some magical replacement of a missing part, the truck rolled off unimpeded by the distracted combatants. While we were operating on Monday February 16, 2011, the sound of ululating dancing women let us know something special was happening outside the hospital gates as a large Volvo diesel eighteen wheeler pulled in to the hospital compound to wing open the sealed gates of the container to reveal an unmolest complete shipment of all the supplies that had been selected for the Bor Hospital (a “sutureless referral center!”) MCH (which had had no needles for injections) the Leprosy Clinic (a totally abandoned community on the banks of the Nile now supplied with dressings, splints and protective boots) Duk Payuel Lost Boys Clinic (which has no facility in which a C-Section can be done with packs now useful for the midwife) and for the future equipping of a restored LaKungya Clinic and even the operating equipment for a mobile surgical clinic that can be housed in the container and which might be floated onto a barge for access during the long inundations of the Sudd during the rainy season in the Nile floodplain.

As we have fulfilled our promises, the large population within Jonglei Province who had pledged in the Peace Initiative have held up their end of the promise. There have been NO casualties within the jurisdiction of all the Murle chiefs and Dinka governor’s during the eighteen months following the pledges and promises made on each side. This is nearly miraculous considering the intervening events all around South Sudan. It is NOT the case that subsequent to the Referendum vote, that peace has returned to South Sudan. In fact, the loss of life is far worse than it has been before on all sides of every province EXCEPT where the Murle/Dinka Bor pledges have remained inviolable.

You have read about the outbreak of war in the Nuba Mountains that has actually canceled my planned mission to Kardugli in the last week of June, the Nuba Mountain epicenter now of major military maneuvers in company-level clashes. You have seen the nightly news about the clashes over the Obeyi oil regions in which each side of every claimant is rushing to occupy a source of potential wealth. But, most sadly, you have seen an explosion ahead of any legal authority of a not-as-yet-constituted fledgling state; tribal animosities are settling old scores and trying to get their innings in advance of any constituted police or legal force. There have been severe skirmishes between Nuer and Dinka along the area of old Fangak and Upper Nile Province where I have worked every year except this past January since the hostilities erupted as we were scheduled to arrive. There have been intensified child stealings and raids between Murle and Eastern Jonglei Dinka which caused us to skip Duk Payuel this year and have instead the health care personnel come from Duk County to Werkok for training as I had done three times before.

And now, worst of all, comes the 22 June 2011 message from Ajak telling of raids, killing and abduction in Jonglei Province between Murle and Nuer:

Dr. Glenn,

It¹s sad to tell you that the tribal clashing in Jonglei State has been
continued since last week. (Between Nuer and Murle) Nuer attacked 4 Payam of
Pibor County, there have been a lot of killing in those areas and Nuer
occupied those Payams. According to Pibor Commissioner said that there are
more than one thousand people been displaced from their homes.

He has been calling for the government to intervene and assist those already
displaced with food, tents, mosquitoes nets, etc. I wish to be there to help
them with medical services but you no I am a Dinka for this moment I can not
help while the situation is catastrophic. They took all cattle of Murle, it
to sad and very unfortunate. When I arrived to Bor this afternoon everybody
was looking very gloomy mostly my friends of Murle. May God Be With All of
the parties whom on that non sense struggle. Have great day just briefing
you about the situation in our area.



At any and all times there are calls to the ethnic clan mates to come rally to avenge their relatives in the savagery going on in which they need re-enforcement. Adamantly refusing to participate, the Dinka/Bor and Murle who were parties to the Peace Initiative pledge have sent back messages that they will not do anything that might put in jeopardy their one best hope to escape extinction and the hope they have for development and improvement in their lot, and rather than return fire and slip back into the hopelessness of revenge raids that will severely injure and retard Dinka progress, but spell the end for Murle, the chiefs have restrained even their young warriors and told them if they stole cattle or kidnapped a young girl to secure their fertility, it would be their own chief who would bring that fertile future to an abrupt halt.

Now is the time to secure the continuation and propagation of the Peace Initiative. The rest of Jonglei Province is very envious of this advantage in which they cannot share while hostilities are increasing. There is active “de-development” of those regions in conflict with each other and they are now backward regions of the not yet declared new nation-state of the Republic of South Sudan and will have little role in its future independent determination. The Model around the PiBor Murle has been shown to others in the open inventory of the supplies being packed into the NEXT container that will be a 2012 bargaining chip for distribution among those who have maintained a zero tolerance peace initiative, and the trainees from the areas in which this agreement remains intact will have a continuing education agreement with advanced expertise being offered. There will even be a model “developing country initiative” in which the Ecuadorian world-supremacy experienced mobile surgical team will instruct them and use the pre-positioned equipment at MCH to outfit a container-based mobile mission that an fit a truck platform for dry season mobility and use a Nile barge platform for the rainy season of inaccessibility due to the inundation of the Nile floodplain. These are not strange circumstances to another equatorial nation which has floated a clinic on the second longest flooding river on earth, the Amazon, and has taken the mobile platform by truck to all other provinces in Ecuador and having performed over 6,510 operations in the mobile mission, has done so WITHOUT A SINGLE DEATH, with an acceptable wound infection rate of 1% for clean operations, and highly satisfactory outcomes for a completely agenda-free donation of their volunteer services. Unlike the UN, or US or EEU or a heavy handed NGO the similarly developing nation-state of Ecuador has no ambition or capability to colonize or own any part of the project nor dictate terms. A low-cost, zero-drag rapid-demonstrable-progress volunteer group such as TR can bring in the kind of development that would be sustainable using this expertise in matching skills, and take no ownership away from the indigenous trainees who will keep it going. We will effectively work our way out of this job by enhancing the skills of indigenous health care workers who will be empowered to carry on. And the leverage they have for working hard on their own improvement is simple; you establish the peace, and we can help you in development in this context of mutual respect and learn together for the health of all of our people.