Tens of thousands of villagers in South Sudan are hiding in the bush, waiting for United Nations and government troops to stop a tribal conflict, which officials fear may have left scores of people dead over the weekend.
Armed youths from the Lou Nuer tribe marched on the remote town of Pibor in Jonglei state, home to the rival Murle people, who they blame for cattle raiding.
On Tuesday morning, the government claimed that the South Sudanese army was in “full control” of Pibor, and that Lou Nuer tribesmen were vacating it.
“Pibor is under the full control of the government, and the Lou Nuer have been ordered to return to their homes, and they are starting to do so,” Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the country’s information minister, said.
Thatched huts have been burned and, according to Parthesarathy Rajendran, the head of Doctors without Borders (known by its French name Medicines sans Frontieres, or MSF) in South Sudan, thousands have been displaced, including his own staff.
“Many of our staff are in the bush and we also heard an MSF clinic has been damaged and looted,” he told Al Jazeera.
“MSF is the only medical health care in the whole region, and the population is very vulnerable for all kinds of medical issues. So we are very concerned about those fleeing into the bush. They don’t have access to water, medical care or food.”
The government and the UN, which has said the violence could lead to a “major tragedy”, were strengthening their forces in the area.
“We are worried about their conditions. They are without water, shelter and food. They are hiding in the bush. I think it
is between 20,000 and 50,000. This is an estimate only,” Lise Gande, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for South Sudan, told the Reuters news agency.
Grande said on Sunday that the number of government forces heading to Pibor was estimated at 3,000 troops and 800 police.
Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from a village belonging to the Murle tribe, said the situation was tense, with deserted streets.
“All you see is soldiers and guns, lots and lots of guns,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a normal place. The UN here is trying by all means to reassure the few that are left that it’s safe to return.”
She reported there was particular concern for those who had fled the violence and were currently in the bush. “They have no food and no water, and the longer they stay out there the concern is that they could start dying,” she said.
|Haru Mutasa reports from Pibor town|
Reverend Mark Akec Cien, head of the Sudan Council of Churches, an umbrella organisation with members across the area, said they had reports of many killed and wounded in the clashes.