An upsurge of violence in South Sudan’s Jonglei State has slowed the repatriation of displaced civilians and affected the delivery of aid, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said.
Nearly 700 people have been killed in clashes between the Murle and Lou Nuer communities in Pibor County, according to state governor Lt. Gen. Kuol Manyang Juuk.
"This is a cattle issue, raiding and counter-raiding… Nearly 700 people have lost their lives in one month," the governor told UN Radio Miraya on 24 March.
"These are not [communal] sentiments; these are actions driven by economic need. People need the cattle for their own survival, to pay the dowry for their marriages, and so many have acquired guns that they raid the cattle from others."
Geoff Wordley, UNHCR assistant representative in South Sudan, said organised convoys of returnees had been delayed and refugees were becoming increasingly fearful of returning.
"We have seen reports of up to 750 dead, [apparently] caused by cattle rustling," Wordley said. The situation had now calmed, but the area remained tense.
"During the disturbance at least one World Food Programme [WFP] convoy carrying food aid was attacked and looted near Pibor," he added. "Therefore, the situation in terms of delivery of humanitarian aid in that area is also of concern."
Government officials from Jonglei met UN agencies last week to work out how to support those affected.
According to sources, insecurity elsewhere in the semi-autonomous South was preventing the return of other refugees who fled Sudan during its 22-year civil war.
Violent protests by former members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) recently paralysed some towns in the Central and Eastern Equatoria region as veterans demanded payment that was overdue by five months.
Some areas, such as Yei, calmed down after Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir visited the region, but areas in the east, such as Kapoeta, remain tense.
In the Upper Nile State capital, Malakal, fighting between rival Northern and Southern army sections of a joint unit broke out in the past month, leaving more than 50 people dead. The area remains tense.
"Over to the east towards to the Kenyan border, we still have staff who are unable to move, and we are increasingly concerned about their welfare," Wordley added.
The UNHCR has been forced to postpone five repatriation convoys carrying nearly 1,000 returnees from Uganda.
Four million people were displaced from or within South Sudan during the civil war, according to assessments made after the 2005 peace deal.
Some 1.7 million people have since returned, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
"The net result of all these issues, particularly Malakal, Jonglei, and now the SPLA demonstrations, is that we believe negative messages have been sent out to the refugees … we are trying to repatriate," Wordley said.
"We have noticed a dramatic fall in the number of refugees signing up to return, particularly from the Ethiopian camps, to Upper Nile and Jonglei."
Clashes between different ethnic groups within Southern Sudan are a common problem – escalating in the dry seasons as different pastoralist groups come into conflict over water sources.
Between January and November 2008, some 187,000 people were displaced by ethnic and armed conflict in South Sudan – compared with 310,000 in the war-torn western region of Darfur.
Attacks by rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters in West and Central Equatoria since December have also affected some 100,000 people, according to UN estimates.