The door of the small humanitarian plane dropped onto the gravel of the Pibor airstrip in eastern South Sudan. Clara (all victims’ names have been changed) hurried down the three steps that separated her from the arms of her father and husband, who had come to greet her on this warm March morning.
Kidnapped around July of 2022 during an attack by Nuer herders from the neighbouring Jonglei State, she had just been repatriated from the city of Bor by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
On the tarmac, the young woman’s relatives whispered prayers as they touched her hair, shoulders and arms. Her return was nothing short of a miracle. After walking 200 kilometres to reach her captors’ village in Jonglei State, Clara was separated from her four-month-old child.
Subjected to multiple forms of abuse before finally being driven away by her captors, she wandered for months, walking all the way to the Ethiopian border where a man took her in before handing her over to the authorities.
Clara’s story is not unique. Since the beginning of the year, 117 women and children from the Murle group abducted in the Greater Pibor region have been able to return home. Hundreds more are still being held against their will.
Authorities estimate that 1,810 people were taken from their families between December 24, 2022, and mid-January. Assaults carried out by heavily armed Nuer and Dinka herders claimed the lives of 661 Murle villagers on Christmas Day.
Despite the 2018 peace agreement that ended five years of civil war in South Sudan, inter-communal violence has not stopped. In the eastern part of the country, it has even worsened, with cattle raids now frequently accompanied by the abduction of women and children.
“It’s human trafficking, a form of slavery,” said a UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, emphasising the extent of the phenomenon. The captives are intended to be exchanged for animals or money, or forcefully integrated into their captors’ families.
According to the international official, approximately 9,000 people are currently affected by this form of servitude in Jonglei and Greater Pibor.
All communities are both actors in and victims of these abductions. “The youths steal cows in order to survive and also to get married,” said Juma Ngare Allan, a 35-year-old teacher in Pibor. “Because right now, it’s very hard to pay the bride price, which can reach 60 or 70 cows, without raiding another community.”
He added that “If someone wants to get married, he needs cows, and this person may go and steal someone’s child in order to sell this child and get cows. It’s well known around here!” He expressed regret at the failure of the peace process in Pieri.
In March 2021, a peace agreement was signed in this Jonglei village between the Nuer, Dinka and Murle communities. However, it did not stop the violence.
Bianca, 18, was hiding in the forest when her captors found her near the village of Gumuruk. “You will be my brother’s wife,” they explained to her in broken Arabic, since she did not speak Nuer and they did not speak Murle. After four days of walking “barefoot, carrying all kinds of heavy things,” the young woman, sick, could not go on. The men who had kidnapped her then took her to a health centre.
There, government soldiers, who arrived in large numbers after being alerted by local residents, managed to free her.
Following the December 2022 and January attacks, Jonglei authorities have focused their efforts on a system designed to locate abducted individuals. These efforts have been praised by several Murle officials, as well as by Nicholas Haysom, the head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, during a press conference in January.
However, doubts remain about the actual conditions of these releases presented as voluntary: According to several sources, many are in fact negotiated in exchange for money.
The UN is funding the returnees’ air transportation and medical care upon their arrival. Following this, the South Sudanese NGO Gredo, based in Pibor, handles accommodation and food arrangements. The organization also verifies that the families reunited with the recently liberated women and children are indeed their own.
This support continues until their return to their original villages, “if the security situation is stable,” said Peter Waran, a member of the organisation who specialises in child protection.
As for Helena, she returned to Pibor alone. Captured with her baby in late December 2022, near Gumuruk, she took advantage of an evening when her captors were getting drunk on local alcohol to escape.
“One of my abductors had planned to keep me as his sister in order to get cows by marrying me to someone else (…) I pretended I wanted to use the toilet and I passed through a hole in the bamboo fence.”
Separated from her child, the young woman walked for six nights “in order not to faint because of the heat.” On the seventh day, she finally reached a Murle village from where she managed to get back to Pibor and find her husband.
More than a week after this ordeal, her thinness, cough and barely audible voice still betrayed her exhaustion. The five other women who were held captive with her have not returned.
In Gumuruk, the sight of the devastated settlement tells the story of these forced disappearances. Several plots that were once occupied are now nothing more than blackened areas with charred soil.
“These are the villagers who are still missing,” explained Atoti Kaku Korok, a traditional leader. “We’re still trying to assess who has died, who has been taken and who is still displaced.”
Those who have decided to return and resettle in Gumuruk are trying to rebuild their homes with the little they can find, mainly plastic sheets distributed by humanitarian organizations.
“Now that I came back, I think about those who are still there,” said Julia, who was also kidnapped during the December attack along with four of her children. Freed by the Jonglei authorities, she returned with only two of them: the others, three and fou-year-old girls, were “sold.”
- Le Monde report / By Florence Miettaux, South Sudan correspondent