Sudanese raiders kill over seventy and displace thousands in Gambella Region, as Government sits mum.
By Banek Wal Mut*
June 17, 2006 — Since the end of March, gunmen from Southern Sudan have mounted a series of raids in several Nuer villages in Akobo and Jikawo Woredas (Districts) of Gambella Regional State killing over 70 people and wounding more than 100, some of them seriously. Among the victims are children, women and elderly. The assailants have also looted thousands of cattle and forced more than half the Ethiopian Nuer population to flee their homes. Most of the displaced have crossed into Southern Sudan; while those who remained within the Ethiopian borders have moved away from the banks of Baro River, towards the North.
Two of the deadliest raids took place around Telut, about 90 Km from the Regional Capital Gambella. A midnight raid at Palbuol Village on Saturday April 15 left 18 people dead and wounded nine others. A week later (on Saturday April 22), another raid took place at dawn in Nguor village, just across the Baro River from Pal-buol, leaving 23 civilians dead and wounding more than 38 people. Nine attackers were also killed and their bodies left behind by their comrades. Later on in the day, the National army and local police attempted botched re-enforcements in two directions. But both ended prematurely in shootouts with wounded raiders who were left behind, resulting in the death of one soldier and a policeman. Two soldiers were also wounded. With these minor skirmishes the military lost appetite to pursue the attackers and returned to Barracks in Gambella Town, while the huge military stationed around the oil exploration fields sat aloof as the assailants passed under its nose with their booty, at least three thousands heads of cattle.
One of the latest attacks (on April 29) which killed four people, including a woman, took place just outside one of the biggest military camp guarding the oil exploration at Pool-deang. The military did not intervene to support the villagers, who even appeal to the army to supply them with ammunition in order to mount an effective counter-offensive, but flatly refused. As a result, the assailant managed to get away with thousands of cattle.
It’s not clear why the Army is watching the carnage with indifference. Some say they have not been given clear orders to stop it. Others say they have been ordered to stop it, but the local commanders stalled it. Many Nuers, however, believe the Army which is entirely made up of brown-skin highlanders (unlike the jet-black skin Nuers), simply doesn’t think it’s worth dying for them.
For some time, it was not clear who the raiders were. But later raids have provided solid evidences regarding their identity as bodies were left behind and some attackers captured alive by the villagers. It has now been well established that majority of the raiders are Murle ethnic group from Jonglei province of Southern Sudan. But in some instances Lou Nuer Tribesmen, who have illegally occupied parts of Akobo Woreda for the last five years are found responsible. Both groups are known to be armed up to teeth with weapons acquired from the protagonists of the Southern Sudanese war and are no match to the Ethiopian Nuers, who are poorly armed and partially disarmed recently by The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA).
The reaction of the Federal Government to these attacks is disappointing and absurd. Despite numerous reports and request for intervention from the Regional Government, it has failed to respond effectively to stop the attacks. It tells the world everything is being done to stop the attacks, while its army stands aloof as citizens are being killed and forced to flee their homes. Similar attacks in its border have prompted the Kenyan Government to order its military and police to blockade the whole border with Ethiopia. But the Ethiopian government, which claims to be the champion of the underdog is not only sitting mum, but also blacking-out the news of the attacks, saying the opposition might use it for political gains. Due to this, the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) failed to carry the news, although its reporters visited and witnessed the aftermath of one of the deadliest attacks around Telut. For those officials, scoring political points is more important than the lives of Nuer pastoralists.
Some peoples including media outlet wrongly attributed the current waves of attacks on drought which is raging in the Horn of Africa. They think the clashes are due to competition for meager resources during a drought year. Prime Minister Meles in his recent response to a question posed by a foreign journalist had also tried to belittle the attacks by attributing them to usual cross border activities. He said “cattle’s rustling is not necessarily unheard of in that part of the continent.” An army spokesman had outrageously put the causalities to two dead and few cattle looted. But the fury and the extent, with which the attacks have been carried out, can neither be explained by resource competition in a drought year nor by the usual cross border cattle rustling. The raiders are targeting children, women and old people, which are uncommon in the area. Moreover cross border cattle rustling is not common in Jikawo Woreda and parts of Akobo where the attacks are taking place. While it is true that sub-tribal cross border clashes are common in the area, they don’t usually involve cattle rustling or targeting children, women and the old.
Those who are well familiar with the area believe two factors have contributed to the current raids. The first has something to do with illegal occupation of half of Akobo Woreda by Lou Nuer gunmen from South Sudan, since April 2001. The gunmen attacked the area with overwhelming force, killing many people and burning down 17 villages including the Woreda Council. They also looted the entire herds of Cattle, rendering more than 20,000 peoples destitute. The invaders occupied the villages and later extended their holdings over two other villages. Help neither came from the regional government nor the federal government. Consequently, most of the displaced people have been dispersed and now live in neighboring villages and Woredas, including Jikawo, Itang and Gambella. A considerable number have also crossed the border and settled in Nasir area of Southern Sudan. Their repeated appeals to the government to evict the occupiers and return them to their villages went unheeded. Instead the occupiers appear to have developed amicable relations with some units of the National Army guarding the Oil Exploration Concession, which extend to the illegally occupied areas. There were even rumors that the occupiers were lobbying the army in order to enable them acquire Ethiopian citizenship. These were recently confirmed by a deputy Commander of the Western Command, who reportedly told a regional Security Council meeting in Gambella that, considering their long stay in the area, Lou Nuer had asked for recognition from the government. The commander also reiterated that the military had no intention of striking at what it considered “civilian target.” Lou leaders on their part have made it clear they would not leave unless forced out. In a recent reconciliation conference held in Matar, the new Akobo Woreda seat after the occupation of Tergol, Lou leaders arrogantly said “We acquire the area by power of the bullet; any body who wish to dislodge us must use the same method.” The local Nuers believe Lou leaders took the stand with full knowledge that the military would not strike at them. So it appears there is collusion between these illegal occupiers and at least some elements of the army to keep each other’s interest.
On the other hand, the Lou Nuer Tribesmen have never been contented with the land they occupied, and ever since have been trying to extend their holding by conquering more areas. In June 2005 they raided Adura village in Jikawo Woreda killing more than 30 people and burning down the whole village. However, the attackers were dealt a heavy blow by re-enforcements from neighboring villages and forced to withdraw. This illegally occupied area of Akobo Woreda has become a staging point for all sorts of gunmen who kill and terrorize people with impunity in the last five years. Almost all the latest attackers came from or passed through these illegally occupied areas.
Secondly, The SPLA had recently embarked upon botched disarmament in Nasir and Jikawo areas of Southern Sudan which they illegally extended to the Ethiopian side. In this manner many bordering villages in Akobo and Jikawo Woredas had been illegally disarmed, making them vulnerable to attacks. During the current raids some villagers had to confront machineguns with spears, resulting in high casualties and rendering their re-enforcement ineffective. Also fearing the SPLA disarmament, large numbers of raiders, both Murle and Lou Nuer, have crossed into Ethiopia border and are up to now still loitering with their booties.
The people of Gambella, particularly the Nuers are angry and frustrated about the federal government’s indifference to their predicaments. There is general perception that the government doesn’t care about their existence. What it wants is to exploit the natural resources, particularly oil, and if the occupiers don’t hinder the exploration, whatever happens to the Ethiopian Nuers is not their concern. After all, they (Nuers) have never rebelled against the government and pose no immediate threat to the oil exploration, leave alone the “National Security.” These are the real reasons why the federal government has been reluctant to evict the Akobo occupiers in the last five years and now refuse to stop the current wave of attacks, not because of fear of harming the relationship between Ethiopia and Sudan as some officials would want us to believe.
The Nuer people of Gambella also feel betrayed by a government they have always supported. During the Eritrean invasion, many Nuer men responded to the government’s mobilization call and volunteered to fight. Some of them have paid the ultimate sacrifice; they died defending their country. But the families of those fallen heroes today are left to the mercy of the Sudanese gunmen by the same government. If those heroes were alive today, I wonder whether they would want to fight again for a government (country) that has abandoned their people. Also, Federal Police Servicemen from Gambella were in the forefront in thwarting the recent attempt by the opposition to dismantle the constitution. But their parents are being killed and displaced from their villages today by Sudanese gunmen, while the government army watches with indifference. Though more than half the population of the two Woredas has been displaced, the government still insists on discussing the mater with the Sudanese government, which has little or no control over the raiders, instead of blockading the border, like what Kenya is currently doing to stop similar raids on its people.
It’s not clear when, how and in what form the displaced Ethiopian Nuers will return to their villages. Perhaps, the government may relent to pressure and discharge its responsibility to protect its citizens. Or the people may find other means to arm themselves and mount a counter-offensive to flush out the enemy from their villages. Which way the suffering of Ethiopian Nuer will end, only time will tell. But one thing is quiet certain: the partnership between the people of Gambella, particularly The Nuers, and the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) will never be the same again.
* Banek Wal Mut is a concerned Ethiopian Nuer living in the United States and can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org