WERNYOL, Sudan (Reuters) - Daruka Lueth knew it was no ordinary cattle-rustling raid the moment more than 800 armed tribesmen circled her south Sudanese village of Wernyol at dawn and opened fire on its thatch huts.
Sudan’s oil-producing south has been plagued by ethnic clashes for as long as anyone can remember, mostly fought over livestock with relatively few casualties.
This year larger and more dangerous forces have been at work, forces that have already killed more than 1,200 people in a wave of violence that has targeted villagers as often as cattle herders and women and children as often as men.
The blood-letting has raised fears for the cohesion of the region’s fragile tribal patchwork, just as it is preparing for a referendum on whether to split away from Sudan to become Africa’s newest independent state.
The bullets ripped through the huts’ walls in Wernyol as the attackers from the Lou Nuer tribe closed in on August 28. They shot through doors and cut down villagers as they fled, killing 38 and injuring 64 by the end of the half-hour raid.
There is a jagged line of graves on the outskirts of the rain-soaked settlement, where Wernyol’s residents from the Bor Dinka tribe were buried where they fell.
The ground inside Lueth’s hut is still marked with patches of blood, and outside another small mound of earth shows the last resting place of her 17-year-old son, Chol Mabior.
“We were in here hiding. They came and shot my son,” she said, talking to Reuters inside her home.
“The violence began like this in 1991,” she added, referring to the last time she had to flee Wernyol, during a particularly bloody episode in Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war.
That conflict — which ended in a 2005 peace deal that promised elections, scheduled for April 2010, and the secession referendum in 2011 — was fundamentally a clash between the country’s Muslim north and the mainly Christian south.
But it also set southern tribe against southern tribe, as the northern government armed and infiltrated rival groups to divide its enemy and rule.
Tribal militias were formed with shifting loyalties. In 1991, the entire southern insurgency split along tribal lines leading to a vicious round of Dinka-Nuer massacres that have not been forgotten or forgiven. Again, Khartoum was blamed for encouraging the division.
For many, the parallels with today’s violence are disturbing.
“This is the re-birth of old militia,” the spokesman for south Sudan’s army, Kuol Diem Kuol, told Reuters.
Senior officials from the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) have openly accused northern politicians of once again arming tribes and militias to destabilize the south ahead of the referendum. Khartoum denies the accusations.
Khartoum may get a lot of the blame, but it is not the only potential culprit, says John Ashworth, in a recent study for campaign group Pax Christi.
“Not all the culprits can be traced to Khartoum, and some may have links to SPLM,” he wrote.
“Southern politicians and former militia leaders are perceived as being involved, using local ethnic tensions for their own ends. When asked who is behind the trouble, local people often answer, ‘The politicians. The intellectuals. People from the town’.”
There have already been signs of splits within the SPLM, as leading figures try to strengthen their fiefdoms ahead of national elections, scheduled for April 2010.
Lam Akol, one of the leading figures in the 1991 split, formed a new breakaway faction in June — the SPLM for Democratic Change. Soon after, south Sudan’s army accused Akol of arming fighters from his Shilluk tribe involved in another attack — an accusation he also denied.
Cattle rustling is still playing a large part in the violence. Some of this year’s attacks have been launched in revenge for earlier cattle thefts.
Those traditional flashpoints have become more dangerous with the ready supply of weapons, left over from the civil war and other conflicts, and bored jobless youth, disaffected by the lack of development in the south since the peace deal.
If the attackers’ main aim is to disrupt the 2010 elections then their tactic could be working, says Ding Akol, the commissioner of Wernyol’s Twic East County.
“In this environment can we do registration of voters? I don’t think so. I think it will be a partial election.”
The intense fighting, which has been focused on the surrounding Jonglei State, is also bad news for development.
Moldova’s Ascom oil company is exploring close to Wernyol and much of the rest of the state is included in a huge largely unexplored concession run by French major Total.
In Wernyol itself, the thousands of residents who fled after the attack have started to return, many to find their relatives killed and their harvests destroyed. Few believe the August attack will be the end of the matter.
“They killed old people and babies. They came purposively to kill and destroy the peace,” said villager Makuol Bul Kiir, barely able to contain his anger.
“They may come again and crush us others.”
A few jumpy southern soldiers have also returned, taking up defensive positions at the edges of the village facing out into the south’s huge and highly fertile pasturelands.
Editing by Andrew Heavens