NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Increased inter-ethnic tension and hate speech in South Sudan’s troubled Jonglei State could lead to systematic atrocities, according to the United Nations and church leaders.
Fighting has left 120,000 people in the country in need of emergency food aid after the Lou Nuer and Murle cattle-herding communities have become involved in a cycle of fatal raids and revenge attacks, initially over water and grazing land. Cattle have been raided and women and children abducted during the conflict.
Tensions are worsening and violence may escalate, observers said.
South Sudan, born in July after a referendum agreed under a 2005 peace deal with Sudan ended decades of civil war, is a poor country awash with weapons and where security is fragile.
“Threats were made to wipe out an entire ethnic group from the face of the earth,” the special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General to South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, said at a press briefing in Juba on Thursday.
“Repetitive hate language continues to be used, calling for ethnic violence and inciting communities to take aggressive actions.
“The statements could incite systematic ethnic violence,” she said.
Hate speech, which encourages hatred of and attacks on ethnic groups, has played a role in many inter-ethnic conflicts, most notably in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
It was also a factor in Kenya’s 2007-8 post-election violence, in which 1,200 people were killed.
A Jan. 18 report by the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC), which has spearheaded grassroots peace efforts in South Sudan, voiced similar warnings.
“Ethnic hatred was expressed verbally, in graffiti left by the attackers, and on the internet, and this could be the precursor to larger-scale atrocities,” the SCC said in a statement.
“This dynamic has been growing for some time and is very worrying.”
INITIATED INTO HATRED
The church leaders said that the conflict has moved far beyond traditional cattle raids, carried out by pastoralists across Africa, with some people expressing “a deep-rooted hatred” of other communities.
“Extremely young children are being “initiated” into the hatred and killing, ensuring that it will continue into the next generation,” it warned.
The SCC statement also noted that the conflict is worsening because the two communities are now equipped with modern weapons and sophisticated communications, intelligence, training and organisation.
Both the U.N. and the church called for renewed peace efforts.
SCC said it is essential to involve armed youth in the peace process as they are “a force in their own right”, influenced neither by traditional nor modern leaders.
“There is a clear disconnect between the youth and both the traditional and political leaders. The tradition of youth respecting and listening to their elders has been lost,” it said.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)