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A New Normal

A few days ago two people came to the clinic with gunshot wounds. There had been a cattle raid in a village about an hour away and these men had organized to go and retrieve the cattle. Once they started their journey they were ambushed by cattle raiders who were waiting for anyone trying to follow them. Seven of them were killed and these two young men were injured, one in the hip and one in the arm. One of these wounded men was a brother to an employee here at the clinic. There were many faces of concern and anguish around the compound as the clinical officers worked to stabilize the young men. This initial anguish on the face of the brother slowly bloomed into silent seething anger.

I have learned a lot about cattle raids since arriving in Jonglei State. They usually occur in the evening to give raiders the chance to get away using the cover of nightfall. The raiders are usually armed and usually take only cows and let people be, unless they resist or pursue. The loss of multiple heads of cattle is extremely important as most of the wealth in the community lies within the cows. As few as 20 or as many as 3000 heads can be stolen at one time, depending on the amount of raiders. There are many different reasons they take place, including a poorly executed disarmament campaign that largely disarmed only one side of the incidents, people that are now being targeted because they are defenceless. There are many different euphemisms for cattle raiding including, skirmishes, insecurity, incidents, communal clashes, ethnic tensions, and, my personal favorite, aggressive actions taken by non-state actors.

In Jonglei many claim that the Murle people, one of the ethnic groups in Jonglei, are responsible for most of the cattle raiding. We recently held an eye campaign at the clinic three weeks ago and invited some people from this community. Part of the campaign included bringing together people from different communities to promote peace. As space in our compound became tight the Murle translator that came along had no place to sleep, so we put an extra bed in my tent and we shared the space for about a week. After talking to him for some time about the raids I asked him why they happened. He said it was quite simple; those who stole cows are thieves and should be punished. He realized that it was mostly people from the area where he lived, but he said that the army should be involved and should protect the people. Although this answer seems logical in theory, in practice it would prove very challenging to implement without one community feeling they were being targeted and ensuring that the armed forces were disciplined enough to ensure innocent civilians were not targeted.

This afternoon two more people were killed about an hour away. Although the details are unclear, the effects are the same. One of the men was the brother to someone that we have worked closely with here. When people mention it amongst one another, they shake their heads and say it is terrible. Then we go on with the things we have to do here. This complex situation has become the norm in certain parts of Jonglei state in the past few years. Cattle are stolen, people are killed, some retaliate, and the rest keep living their lives. Unfortunately, as it continues, the groups losing their cattle are also losing their patience. The communities will only take so much before they find a way to retaliate or retrieve cattle in an organized manner. Stopping the cattle raiding all together would be the goal of many. This is an even more complex endeavor as the importance of cattle in the communities in Jonglei is indisputable. Any attempts to limit the means some communities have used to gain more cows will be met with great resistance from many. The proliferation of small arms in the country and the suspicion that Khartoum continues to supply arms to communities looking to destabilize Jonglei also aids to the instability. One certainty remains though, without peace within these communities there will be no sustainable development. People will not invest their time or interest in building a future in a community that is constantly at risk.


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