RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For the rural people of South Sudan, cattle are at the center of the culture. They use the animals as currency, treat them as objects of beauty, and fight tribal wars over them. That long tradition of cattle raids has turned deadly in recent years. Tribesmen don't just steal cattle, they slaughter rivals, burn villages, and abduct women and children. As NPR's John Burnett reports, South Sudan is attempting to broker a shaky peace between the tribal cattle raiders.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The 38-year-old man sitting in front of me named Toonya, with cloudy eyes and scarified forehead, has seen terrible things. He has done terrible things. Last December he helped lead a vigilante force of Loh Nuer tribesmen, estimated at 7,000, 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.
TOONYA: (Through translator) The distance from our lands to Murle lands is a five-day walk. 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, you need to do the same to them, so that he also feels pain.
BURNETT: In May, Toonya was one of the signatories of a peace treaty between warring tribes in 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.
TOONYA: (Through translator) If Murle stop raiding our cattle, we'll stop raiding theirs. But if they start again, we'll get the young men in my village and we will fight them again.
BURNETT: This peace accord is the tenth 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 the state to deliver the message: the atrocities must stop.
VICE PRESIDENT RIEK MACHAR: For the last four months there have been no cattle raiding. There have been no abduction of children and women. I think the message has been heard.
BURNETT: Small-scale cattle raiding has gone on for generations in South Sudan and other parts of East Africa, always tolerated by the authorities. But in recent times it's gotten out of hand. Abductions, once unheard of, are now commonplace. Raiders seize women as wives and snatch children to sell as shepherd boys. And they kill noncombatants indiscriminately, says Reverend Tut Kony, a Presbyterian pastor who is part of the peace process.
TUT KONY: They are killing elderly people, disabled people, women, kids, even the infants. We have never seen that in Jonglei state.
BURNETT: 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. Bona Majok, mayor of the Dinka village of Anyida, regrets to inform the peacemakers...
MAYOR BONA MAJOK: (Speaking foreign language)
BURNETT: On July 17, he says, Murle raiders stole 13 cattle grazing near the village. The fact that no one was seriously harmed or abducted counts for progress during this tenuous truce. The purloined livestock belonged to Garang Mading, who was found sitting dejectedly under a thorn tree next to the tin-roof city hall. I asked him, what does it mean for a Dinka man to lose his cattle?
GARANG MADING: (Speaking foreign language)
BURNETT: You find yourself weak and less of a man, he says, because everything you own has been taken. He adds that he planned to use his cows as a dowry to get a wife. Increasingly, critics are saying that bride payments are the root of tribal violence in this bovine-obsessed culture.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
BURNETT: A stockman in Anyida sings a paean he composed to his favorite black-and-white bull. In Jonglei, cattle are status, cattle are capital, cattle are the only path to love. A typical dowry is 30 cattle. That's a big reason why young men steal them.
An old Dinka woman named Aya Guy, bald and chewing a plug of tobacco, stands next to her small cattle herd staked to the ground in front of a round barn made of grass. She's asked if the peace accord has been successful.
AYA GUY: (Through translator) She's saying yeah, the peace was made, but there are still issues over stealing. We are still afraid. Cows, they are very important to us, to Dinka. We are keeping them close here. We don't allow them now to go farther(ph) there like before.
BURNETT: On a happier note, she looks over at her 16-year-old granddaughter, Amer, who is tall and pretty and shy.
GUY: (Through translator) I want 80 cows to be brought for her as a dowry.
BURNETT: Eighty cows. 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.
GUY: (Speaking foreign language)
BURNETT: The Dinka grandmother spits a long stream of tobacco juice. Eighty, she says, not one cow less.
MONTAGNE: And that's NPR's John Burnett, who as you just heard has been reporting from South Sudan. We've got him on the line. John, you talked about South Sudan wrestling with this inter-tribal violence, but it also went to the brink of war last spring with Sudan, the country to the north that it broke away from after a years-long civil war. Where is that relationship now?
BURNETT: Well, there's a little bit of good news. Less than two weeks ago, South and North Sudan, they had an eight-month impasse over oil revenues, and they made a deal on how the two countries will share the oil reserves that are in South Sudan but have to be transported through a pipeline to the Red Sea through North Sudan. And so it's great they made a deal, if they go through with it, because both countries desperately need the oil revenue, but there's a lot that remains on the table that's unresolved.
The main question is where will with the border be, this brand-new border that's just a little over a year old? There's still a number of disputed areas that both countries claim, and so negotiations on that are supposed to resume next week in Ethiopia.
MONTAGNE: And then to add to the burden for this young and poor country, South Sudan, it has refugees who flowed down from Sudan because there's fighting there.
BURNETT: Exactly. And it's really one of the world's worst humanitarian refugee crises. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees, as you said, that have fled that fighting in Sudan, taken refuge in the camps along the South Sudan border, and so these refugee camps, they're flooded. The infectious disease rate is just appalling. Doctors Without Borders reported that in the Yida refugee camp in Unity state, there's about 55,000 people there. An average of five children under five years old are dying every day from malnourishment, diarrhea, malaria - all preventable conditions.
MONTAGNE: John, thank you very much.
BURNETT: My pleasure, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's John Burnett, who has been reporting from South Sudan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.