For the rural people of South Sudan, cattle are at the center of their culture. They use them as currency, treat them as objects of beauty, and fight tribal battles over them.
In recent years, traditional cattle raids have turned deadly. Tribesmen aren’t just stealing cattle; they are slaughtering rivals, burning villages and abducting women and children.
South Sudan, a country that gained independence just a year ago, faces daunting challenges as it attempts to build a stable nation. And one of the more pressing issues is maintaining a shaky peace between the cattle rustlers.
The rustlers include Toonya, a 38-year-old with cloudy eyes and decorative scars on his forehead. He’s seen terrible things, done terrible things.
Last December, he helped lead a vigilante force of an estimated 7,000 Loh Nuer tribesmen who attacked the Murle tribe.
A U.N. investigation reported that over 12 days the Nuer White Army, as they called themselves, killed more than 600 people with machetes and AK-47s, including many innocents. It was in retaliation for a Murle raid on the Nuer a year ago.
“The distance from our lands to Murle lands is a five-day walk,” Toonya says. “From there, when the battle starts, you might be running constantly for six hours, stealing cows and taking children and women.”
“If someone does something bad to you,” he continues, “you need to do the same to them, so that he also feels pain.”
Lasting Peace Elusive
In May, Toonya was one of the signatories of a peace treaty between warring tribes in the country’s eastern Jonglei state. Nearly the size of North Carolina, Jonglei is the biggest, least developed, and most violent state in South Sudan. Its young men are unemployed, heavily armed, and deeply suspicious of other tribes.
“If Murle stop raiding our cattle, we’ll stop raiding theirs,” Toonya says. “But if they start again, we’ll get the young men in my village and we will fight them again.”
This peace accord is the 10th attempt in six years to stop intertribal cattle violence. So far, they’ve all failed.
South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar says this time is different because the six tribal chiefs traveled together throughout Jonglei to deliver the message: the atrocities must stop.
“For the last four months, there has been no cattle raiding. There have been no abductions of children and women,” Machar says. “I think the message has been heard.”
A Growing Problem
Small-scale cattle raiding has gone on for generations in South Sudan and other parts of East Africa. But in recent times, it has gotten out of hand.
Once unheard of, abductions are now commonplace. Raiders seize women as wives and snatch children to sell as shepherd boys. And they kill noncombatants indiscriminately, says the Rev. Tut Kony, a Presbyterian pastor who is part of the peace process.
“They are killing elderly people, disabled people, women, kids, even infants. We have never seen that in Jonglei state,” Kony says.
The South Sudan army has deployed 15,000 soldiers to Jonglei to confiscate weapons. It’s the third disarmament campaign in seven years. Locals say raiders give the army one rifle — and keep two.
And in the Dinka village of Anyida, Mayor Bona Majok regrets to inform peacemakers that Murle raiders stole 13 cattle grazing near the village on July 17. That no one was seriously harmed or abducted counts for progress during this tenuous truce.
The purloined livestock belonged to Garang Mading, who sits dejectedly under a thorn tree, next to the tin-roof city hall.
What does it mean for a Dinka man to lose his cattle?
“You find yourself weak and less of a man because everything you own has been taken,” he says, adding that he planned to use his cows as a dowry to get a wife.
The Rising Price Of Dowries
Increasingly, critics say that bride payments are the root of tribal violence.
In Jonglei, cattle are the only path to marriage. A typical dowry is 30 cattle. That’s a big reason young men steal them.
An old Dinka woman named Aya Guy — bald and chewing tobacco — stands next to her small cattle herd, which is staked to the ground in front of a round barn made of grass. Does she think the peace accord has been successful?
Peace has been made, but issues of stealing remain, she says.
“We are still afraid. Cows, they are very important to us, to Dinka. We are keeping them close here; we don’t allow them to go far like before,” she says.
On a happier note, she looks at her 16-year-old granddaughter, Amer, who is tall and pretty and shy.
“I want 80 cows to be brought for her as a dowry,” the grandmother says.
A recent editorial in The Citizen newspaper in South Sudan asks, “Why should cattle be the cause of death and destruction?” and suggests that marriage prices should be reduced.
But that may be a hard sell to Dinka grandmothers like Guy.
She spits a long stream of tobacco juice. “80,” she says, “not one cow less.”