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The Battle for Cattle: Civilians Starve as Soldiers Loot Livestock in South Sudan

It appears that South Sudan’s government is using hunger as a weapon of war against civilians in rebel-held parts of the country.
Photo by Jason Patinkin

When government soldiers riding tanks and Land Cruisers attacked Jim Jiek Buony's small village in South Sudan's Unity state in mid-May, he fled to the forest. A day later he returned to find the village burned. There were seven bodies on the ground, including three women and a child. Grain stocks were destroyed. His 53 cattle had been looted.

Buony and the other survivors set out for a "protection of civilians" (POC) camp in a United Nations base a few days walk away in Unity's capital Bentiu. They were not seeking protection from violence. "We have nothing to eat, no food," Buony told VICE News from the base, where food is distributed. "I have no way to live, so that is why I come to POC."


South Sudan's government appears to be using hunger as a weapon of war against civilians in rebel-held parts of the country. For the last three months, the government's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and allied militias have waged a scorched-earth campaign that has made survival virtually impossible for tens of thousands of civilians in parts of southern Unity.

"It's really just to make people vulnerable," said Joyce Luma, the World Food Programme's (WFP) representative in South Sudan said, speaking to VICE News about the government's tactics. "I'm not sure what else [it's doing] other than just pushing people into destitution."

The government's campaign began on April 27, when the SPLA's Division 4 moved from Mayom county in northwest Unity state, home of the Nuer tribe's Bul clan. The Bul headed east and south toward Rubkona, Guit, and Koch counties down to Leer, the heartland of the insurgency and the birthplace of rebel leader Riek Machar. At the same time, SPLA's Division 6 pushed from the south, entering Mayiandit and Panyijiar Counties, trapping civilians in between and forcing them to either flee into swamps or cross frontlines to reach the UN in Bentiu.

A cow ceremonially slaughtered before a food drop in Dablual, southern Unity state. Cattle have become a key driver of conflict in Unity. (Photo by Jason Patinkin)

South Sudan's war, which began in December 2013, has largely been a fight between the Dinka followers of President Salva Kiir and Machar's Nuer brethren, but in Unity fighting is mostly between Nuer. The Bul, who suffered attacks from rebels earlier in the war, have remained loyal to Kiir in exchange for one of their men, Nguen Monytuil, being granted the governorship.


The offensive has displaced well over 100,000 people. As the campaign has unfolded, reports have trickled out of horrific human rights violations: Boys castrated and left to bleed to death, people burned alive in their homes. One woman in the UN base told VICE News she was gang-raped by 10 men, and watched five other women shot for trying to resist. Human Rights Watch has said the campaign amounts to war crimes, and may constitute crimes against humanity.

Related: Armed Groups Reportedly Raped, Castrated, and Slit the Throats of Children in South Sudan

The violence appears to be only one part of a larger campaign apparently aimed at starving civilians in rebel-held areas into submission. By driving out civilians, the government undermines the rebels' support. In a pattern documented by VICE News and Human Rights Watch, homes have been burned, food stocks looted or destroyed, and, above all, cattle stolen. Cows are the primary source of livelihood for nearly all Unity's citizens, used for milk and meat as well as an asset to sell in hard times for food, medicine, or clothing.

"Our life in the community is only cattle," said one survivor in the Bentiu camp, named Chany, whose cattle was taken. "We feed on them. We marry with them [as bride price]. We settle every problem with cattle [by paying cows as compensation]. So if we lose them it means there is no life."

SPLA spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer has rejected any suggestion that hunger is being used as a weapon of war, and referred VICE news to speak with officials in Unity state on the matter. VICE News then visited Mayom, but SPLA and civilian government authorities declined to answer questions.


The looting of cattle has been staggering in its scale, and the associated violence has perhaps been unprecedented. At one point in June, up to 100,000 cattle had been gathered in the Bentiu, representing about 10 percent of the state's entire herd, though some of these were brought by civilians to the town for protection from raiders. At $200 per head — a low estimate given recent inflation of cattle prices in Unity— are worth some $20 million. There have been reports of tens of thousands of cattle concentrated in Abiemnom, Mayom, and Koch counties as well.

A child at the UN base in Bentiu, Unity state. (Photo by Jason Patinkin)

While violent cattle rustling has been a feature of South Sudanese life for years, what has taken place during the latest offensive appears to be at another level. Survivors describe soldiers using tanks, pickup-mounted machine guns, and newly acquired amphibious armored vehicles. They've burned homes as well as luacs, a type of tall, domed cattle shelter. Chickens and goats are being taken too, indicating an attempt to remove all life-sustaining property.

Related: South Sudanese Troops Burned Civilians Alive and Crushed Them With Tanks, Say New Reports

The offensive has also coincided with the beginning of the planting season, meaning there will be no harvest in much of southern Unity this year. The planting season is also the time of the yearly "hunger gap" between when the last year's harvest runs out and the new one comes in. In other words, people's cows were taken just when they were needed most.


"In the current situation in South Sudan with very high rates of malnutrition, and particularly Unity state, any community that has lost its livestock is likely to starve to death in the coming months," Carol Berger, an anthropologist who has lived in South Sudan for extended periods, told VICE News.

'Any community that has lost its livestock is likely to starve to death in the coming months.'

For those still retaining cows, there is little food available to purchase. The government has cut off nearly all routes for external food to enter southern Unity. In mid-May, forces moving by river from the south attacked and burned the Nile port of Taiyar which had been a transit point for a discrete but vital trade in food items between Unity and friendly Dinka communities across the river.

Meanwhile, cattle in government-held Abiemnom county in the northwest of Unity were concentrated in the county's center or moved into neighboring Warrap state, according to two sources who visited the area. Emptying the county's rural areas of cows makes it impossible for rebels, who can blend in with civilian cattle guards, to bring supplies south from their rear bases in Sudan to the north.

The fighting has also blocked shipments of humanitarian assistance. Some parts of southern Unity have not received any food aid in three months. Humanitarians say authorities in the capital Juba give them the go-ahead to fly into southern Unity, but aid workers can't get safety assurances from authorities on the ground.


Cows are the basis of life in Unity state. Up to 10 percent of the state's herd could die of disease this year because they have been unnaturally concentrated in some areas. (Photo by Jason Patinkin)

Barack Kinaga, the economic recovery and development coordinator in South Sudan for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which evacuated staff from southern Unity in May, told VICE News the efforts to block aid shipments have been "very calculated."

"They've cleared you from here [in Juba] but the other side [in Unity] is the military from the same government who is on the ground and they say, 'Okay, go at your own risk,'" he said. "'Go at your own risk' is not a clear assurance."

Related: Already Facing Famine, South Sudan Expels UN Humanitarian Coordinator

Indeed, the little aid arriving on the edges of the conflict zone appears to be putting civilians at greater risk of attack from hungry and marauding government troops. On June 25, WFP dropped 270 tons of food into Dablual village in Mayiandit county where 35,000 civilians were staying. Two days later, and just hours after the last food packages were distributed, government forces and their allies attacked the town from the northeast, burning it to the ground and stealing the food. Seven civilians were killed in the attack, and the population fled to the bush.

In some cases, civilians on the ground are telling aid groups not to drop food, choosing to risk starvation rather than attract an attack from marauding troops.

Humanitarians appear stuck in a holding pattern trying to get food in safely. For the first year of South Sudan's war, aid chiefs said they were able to negotiate access without making strong public statements. Now that the conflict dynamic has changed, orders to restrict relief are allegedly coming from the highest levels of government. Aid officials in Juba say their community has yet to adjust its strategy in response.


It is impossible to say definitively if southern Unity is experiencing a famine right now because no aid workers have been able to access to make an assessment. Before the offensive, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which is comprised mostly of South Sudanese government officials, said humanitarian aid had kept southern Unity from the brink of famine. In June, the more independent USAID-funded Famine Early Warnings Systems Network warned that famine was "likely" for parts of southern Unity during July and August.

On the ground, the effects of the SPLA's southern Unity offensive are plain. In the UN base in Bentiu, the new arrivals are destitute. VICE News witnessed an older couple, barefoot and wearing torn sheets, staggering through the gates. The wife collapsed upon entry. "They took everything, even my shoes and my money in my pocket," her husband, Chuol Gang Bul, said. "I don't know if I'll live."

Related: Devastation in South Sudan Approaches Razor's Edge of Hunger Crisis

Doctors Without Borders said they admitted more than 100 severely malnourished children last month to their hospital, and hungry families continue to pour in. The mortality rate for these kids was 23 percent. Outside the base, at a clinic run by CARE International, 32 children were admitted for malnutrition in a single day when VICE News visited. In Dablual, during the food drop two days before it was attacked, residents told VICE News they had been eating leaves to survive.


Displaced people in Dablual, Unity state on July 25. Two days later the town emptied when it was attacked following a food drop. (Photo by Jason Patinkin)

The campaign is not yet over. There are daily attacks going unreported, according to one source in Juba. Men are being armed in Koch and Leer counties to continue the marauding into Mayiandit and Panyijiar, according to two male escapees from Koch and another source in Juba speaking to VICE News.

The escapees said that in the town of Rier at the defunct Thar Jath oil fields which are now a Division 4 garrison, men have been prevented from leaving unless they agree to continue cattle raiding campaign.

Human Rights Watch has said the campaign has included war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. The group recommended that Division 4 commanders Matthew Puljang and Thiab Gatluak Taitai, be investigated for their potential criminal liability, along with Paul Malong, Kiir's top military official and the SPLA Chief of General Staff. It's unclear what role Malong had in the planning or execution of the campaign, but sources told VICE News that he met with Puljang and Unity Governor Nguen Monytuil in mid-June in Bentiu as the offensive was underway.

'They kill civilians. They take property of civilians. What kind of government is that?'

The international community is currently piling pressure on Kiir and Machar to sign a peace deal in Addis Ababa by August 17 or face sanctions. All previous deadlines imposed on the two leaders to sign peace since the war began have been missed without consequence, and multiple other ceasefires have been broken.


Related: South Sudan Leaders Start Up Talks to End Bloody Civil War — Again

Even if the two men sign and honor an agreement by the deadline, Unity's communities could be too torn apart for a piece of paper in Ethiopia to affect the level of violence. Some non-Bul Nuer refuse to even refer to the Bul as part of their tribe, saying they are now members of the hated Dinka.

"They kill civilians. They take property of civilians. What kind of government is that?" asked Chany from the UN base. "If I had power I could fight them. I could revenge."

Then there are the stolen cattle. Concentrated in such high numbers in Bentiu, Mayom, Abiemnom, and elsewhere, cows are dying from disease at alarming rates. A representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Bentiu said 10 percent of the state's entire herd could perish. One cattle keeper in Bentiu said he lost 150 cows out of 800 in just one week. When people eventually feel safe enough to leave the UN base, they will want back cows that may no longer exist.

"If a man's family had 200 heads of livestock, and they have been looted, so after the war what next?" asked Kinaga from IRC. "That man will also go and loot livestock, and it will not just be in Unity. It will go beyond."

Ultimately, the August 17 peace may simply come too late for some civilians who have been without food for months.

"What we have seen, we Nuer in the countryside, all of us are going to be finished this year," the woman who was gang-raped by 10 men told VICE News at the UN base. "The world will know what they have done to us."

Follow Jason Patinkin on Twitter: @JasonPatinkin

Watch the VICE News documentary, Ambushed in South Sudan