After 3 a.m., my cellphone rang with the voices of relatives shouting that South Sudan’s spasms of violence had struck our family. In the night, armed youths of a rival community had ambushed a cattle camp of my clan, killing my cousins and other young cowherds as they slept, and stealing more than 400 cattle. Men from of my clan were gathering guns to race into the darkness to counterattack. If my country is ever to have peace, we must break such cycles of vengeance. So, I pleaded with my elder aunts and uncles to prevent that battle. I still do not know if we have truly succeeded.
That massacre of 10 boys and men from my clan on April 25 was another daily dose of numbing brutality in South Sudan, where decades of civil war have left guns more common than schoolbooks and democratic governance still a dream. As a young man with the privilege of a university education and a chance to build our children’s future, I know that we can build it only by ensuring justice and accountability—even for the killing of our loved ones—without inflicting new violence.
Three months later, my people—of the Jur ethnic group of South Sudan’s Mvolo county—are struggling to achieve that peaceful justice. So far, we have restrained the rightfully angry men who say they can win justice with guns. Our elders have submitted petitions to South Sudan’s barely functioning government. The newly appointed governors of our state and the neighboring state of our attackers say they will soon discuss a solution for this crime. But the delays in South Sudan’s peace process—such as the 17 months that armed faction leaders needed to achieve even the basic compromise on how to form a national cabinet—complicate the efforts of grassroots peacebuilders. When peaceful justice is delayed, violent revenge is encouraged—and so the anger of the armed, mostly young, men in my own community remains a ticking time bomb.
Two Lands: Mvolo and Yirol
I grew up in Bhargrindi, an ethnic Jur farming village near Mvolo’s border with Yirol West, a county peopled with ethnic Dinka herding families. Each year, during our dry season, the Dinka herders would bring their cattle to graze near our farms, for the bush was greener in Mvolo, close to the meandering Naam River and its tributary streams. Our peoples had a long tradition of living together; Jur villagers would buy milk and meat from the herders and we sold them sorghum, pumpkin or potatoes or other crops from our farms. Jur and Dinka men and women often married. In lean years when hunger shadowed us more closely, Dinka families would leave young children in Jur villages to have a better chance of survival than in hazardous nomadism.
Of course, as in all human life, we had conflicts. A farmer might complain that cattle trampled his crop. Or a poor person might steal food from someone of the other group. At times, hotheaded young Dinka and Jur men had fought over claims to land or livestock. A group that intended an attack, would announce it, as our traditions held to be the manly way. “Be ready, we are coming in the morning,” a message would say. The battles, with sticks, began on schedule about six a.m., and ended by dusk. But our communities’ survival depended on containing such conflicts. Our elders would meet and agree on a solution, which was never violent.
In the two decades since my childhood, years of warfare and the spread of guns have shredded our old methods of managing conflicts through tradition. Mvolo was spared the worst violence in the civil war of what then was Sudan—the helicopter gunship attacks and bombardments in more front-line areas. Still, the war changed our lives and inflated the value of guns and violence. Rebel soldiers—men from southern Sudan, like ourselves—would walk in from the bush, sometimes in a group of thousands. They might occupy our villages to rest for a few days, traumatized and angry and wounded from their battles against the government. The soldiers would transmit their sufferings to us, beating elders or raping women. And when they moved on, they would force us—younger people and children—to go with them, carrying their heavy loads. Men from our community, including my father, joined the rebel cause if only to better protect their own villages and families from these fighters.
I left Mvolo at age 12. My father had migrated to Kenya and summoned me to join him. I walked most of the way there, like thousands of South Sudanese who became refugees during the civil wars. In a refugee camp, I would find opportunities for education—and I was lucky to return to South Sudan with a university degree and a mission to develop what is now the world’s youngest country.
Halting South Sudan’s Violence
The story of Mvolo and Yirol is the story of South Sudan. Violence has become not a rarity contained by tradition, but a way of life. In our communities, guns are in every home, and some men may own three or five of them. Guns are used as currency for trading. Amid the insecurities of war, guns are used both to protect cattle and to steal them. Cattle theft has become rampant as young men seek cows with which to purchase brides, often at a young age. In many communities, political or faction leaders are pushing young men to protect their cattle or seek power for their groups through routine gun violence. In Mvolo, communal battles have left villages burned and people homeless; nationwide, fully 39 percent of our people are uprooted by violence.
In January, I went with a USIP colleague back to Mvolo to help train a group of 30 residents in nonviolent ways to advance the needs of our communities, whether with the government or against armed incursions by other groups. I was able to visit with my mother, grandmother, and many aunts, uncles and young cousins. In the predawn dark of April 25, some of these same relatives were crying on the phone. At the sound of gunfire, residents had run to the cattle camp to find that several of my young cousins had just been killed. We knew that young men of our clan would be moving immediately to kill in response. I called our elders and mothers and those who had taken our nonviolence training—and we immediately sent people to persuade our youth against seeking revenge.
The next day, our campaign continued. We gathered meetings of residents to prevent a counterattack by our young men and to plan an alternative. Our elders would petition the authorities for an investigation and arrests of the killers. Because of the long delays by our national leaders in establishing a government under the 2018 South Sudan peace accord, we did not even have state or local officials whom we could address. So, the petition was sent to the national parliament, the cabinet and the national security agencies. We published articles in the Juba Monitor newspaper demanding justice for the attackers and the return of the stolen cattle.
While South Sudan’s young civic activists courageously promote such nonviolent ways, it is rare for whole communities to adopt it. Even many in my own clan oppose it, saying that we advocates of nonviolence are cowards for not attacking our enemies. I am certain that we have chosen the correct path. But we cannot yet be certain that it will succeed. Three months after the attack, no action has been taken by any government body. Both for Mvolo and across South Sudan, the delays in establishing accountable governance and nonviolent administration of justice are dangerous. All South Sudanese, and friends abroad who support our peace process must work to consolidate this peace process quickly.
My message to the youth and families of Mvolo is that you are courageously carrying the pain of injustice. With patience and persistence, you can convert this suffering into justice for your people, as did other patient heroes of nonviolence, such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Your grandchildren will tell your story. To our neighbors across South Sudan I say, join us in halting the destructive cycle of violence. Vengeance achieves nothing but the guarantee of more bloodshed, death, and the destruction of our country.
Yeng Lambo is a program coordinator in South Sudan for the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has provided training to civil society organizations on how to use collective, nonviolent action to resist violence and advocate for the social justice required for a sustainable peace.