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Cattle Rustling A Deadly Business In Sudan

Cattle herders lead cows and bulls down an unpaved road in Southern Sudan's main city Juba — soon to be the capital of the new country.
Cattle herders lead cows and bulls down an unpaved road in Southern Sudan's main city Juba — soon to be the capital of the new country.

Cattle rustling sounds like a quaint notion from the 19th century American West, but in South Sudan — soon be the world's newest nation — it's a very modern and very real problem. Sudanese cattle raiding isn't like the Old West with Winchester rifles. It's the African Bush with automatic weapons — and high body counts.

Panyang used to be a cattle camp in the scrub of Southern Sudan. In early January, 500 tribesmen came with AK-47s and just shot the place up. Between this camp and another one, they took about 5,000 head of cattle, killed a dozen people and wounded another 24. Skeletons still lie in a dry riverbed nearby, bits of clothing still clinging to the bones.

Thondok Dhieu lost 25 cows in the raid. He's come back to show what happened — and identify the skeletons. The remains of his brother-in-law, Magai, are still there.

Magai was shot in the chest as he tried to free his 160 cattle that morning. Thondok says his brother-in-law played an important role in his family, which has scattered since the attack.

"Magai was a peacemaker in the family," Thondok says. "Whenever there was a family dispute or quarrel, he would preside over a decision and solve the problem, so that the family would remain peaceful."

Cattle herding is a way of life here. Amid clouds of gray smoke from dung fires, herders release their cows each morning to graze. They fiercely protect the animals; in South Sudan, cattle are currency.

Want to marry a woman? Better have a dowry of 25 to more than 100 head of cattle.

People used to steal cattle with spears, but now they use AK-47s left over from the war. The result is carnage.

Cracking Down On Raiders

In 2009, the United Nations estimated that 2,500 people died in tribal violence in Sudan's southern region, much of it from cattle raids. Local governments are beginning to crack down.

Leg irons scrape across the floor of a jail in South Sudan's Lakes State. Their captive is a man who was arrested for stealing 86 cattle in January. Maj. Madol Samuel Rin is one of the local police chiefs there and says when neighboring counties tip him to cattle raids, he sets up ambushes to catch the returning thieves. Earlier this year, he cornered one group that fought back.

"When they see us, they started also shooting us," Rin recalls. "Two among them were wounded and one killed."

A southern Sudanese family from Nuer tribe prepares for the night in front of their traditional hut in Bentiu.
Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP/Getty Images
A southern Sudanese family from Nuer tribe prepares for the night in front of their traditional hut in Bentiu.

More than 200 miles to the east in the neighboring state of Jonglei is Akobo County. Like most places in South Sudan, it's most easily accessed by air charter. The roads are made of earth and impassable in the rainy season. Goi Jooyul Yol is the commissioner of Akobo. Yol fled the area as a child during the civil war and eventually went to college in Kentucky. Now, he's back, trying to bring peace to his ancestral home.

In 2009, 700 people were killed here, many in cattle raids. "But the cattle raiding went bad," Yol says. "Some communities started abducting children."

"After the war, there was this bitterness between people and this vacuum of rule of law," he says. "There was no policing, no roads. I think that was accompanied with frustration, on people trying to earn livelihoods."

Since then, the government has disarmed many cattle raiders and tried to create jobs. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, young people have earned good wages making bricks to build a new government headquarters.

"The cattle rustling youth came and said, 'Look we gave up our guns and we want to get money,'" Yol says. In the last year, killings have dropped dramatically.

Creating Better Opportunities

Gatreh Lul Deng wonders whether peace is sustainable. He has helped raid thousands of cattle since he was 12 — and killed 15 men along the way. At age 30, he sees cattle raiding as his job.

"How can we live? It's the only way to get married, the only way to survive." Deng says he stopped raiding cattle after the army took his guns. Then, his income plunged. He couldn't get a job making bricks. And, he says, the government won't let him grow as much corn as he needs because of an ongoing land survey.

"If you don't want me to raid cows or to plant, then give me a job. I need a job," he says.

With huge support from foreign governments, South Sudan is building roads and schools to create new jobs in agriculture and commerce. In the last fiscal year alone, USAID spent more than a billion dollars here.

John Marks, who advises the agency, says small programs, like brick-making, aren't enough.

"If nothing else were ever to happen, it could go could backwards, but other things are happening," he says.

The United Nations is building a 120-mile paved road to Akobo. Yol, the commissioner, hopes to use that road to export tilapia and Nile perch from the river nearby. He says Akobo has to provide more opportunities for its people — or risk more violence.

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