NAIROBI, Kenya — A deadly battle between warring ethnic groups in South Sudan saw thousands of men march to battle. After the fighting ceased, more than 200 wounded men from the attacking side surfaced. But days later a mystery remains: Where are the wounded from the other side?
The fighting began this month when the Lou Nuer community in Jonglei state mounted an attack against the Murle. The two ethnic groups are bitter enemies with a long and deadly history. A U.N. report commissioned after 2011-12 violence between the communities found 612 Murle and 276 Bor Dinka/Lou Nuer died in battles.
After the latest violence, the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service said it flew out 159 casualties from the Lou Nuer side to a hospital, and Doctors Without Borders said it and the International Red Cross have treated nearly 250 patients, including about 120 with gunshot wounds.
But they were all Lou Nuer. No one seems to know where the wounded Murle fighters are, the groups said. Some guess they are scared to emerge from the bush.
"We have no idea. We don't know where they are located," Mery Dongiovanni, the head of Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan, said by phone Monday.
Brian Kelly, spokesman for the U.N. mission in South Sudan, also said his mission did not have figures beyond the 159 wounded. Though it's nearly certain that men – possibly dozens or even hundreds – on both sides of the clash were killed, no one knows how many.
"We are frustrated as everyone else over the scarcity of verified casualty figures caused by the recent fighting in Pibor County," Kelly said by email over the weekend.
Dongiovanni said Doctors Without Borders is expecting an influx of Murle patients in coming days. More than 120,000 people have fled their homes because of the violence, many of them Murle women and children. They also have not yet emerged.
"We are expecting to see Murle patients," she said. "The people stayed in the bush and we think they are afraid to come out. We are not so surprised. They fear to move from the bush to the places where there are services."
South Sudan, the world's newest country, has few roads. The rainy season turns dirt airstrips into mush. The military is accused of backing the Lou Nuer over the Murle, though the military spokesman denies the accusation. Perhaps most challenging for security forces – whether South Sudan's or U.N. peacekeepers – South Sudan is vast. There are U.N. peacekeepers in the country, but not enough to prevent the tribal warfare.
"Jonglei state is the size of Bangladesh. With less than 1,000 peacekeepers throughout Jonglei, there is no way we can provide blanket coverage on the ground even were road and weather conditions perfect," Kelly said.
"Add to that the fact that Pibor County, scene of most of the reported clashes, is three times the size of Kosovo. There are some 5,000 NATO-supported troops in Kosovo (where once there were 50,000). In contrast, UNMISS has fewer than 500 peacekeepers in Pibor," he said.
Despite the limited resources and logistical constraints, Kelly said, the U.N. mission will continue to ascertain movements of warring parties and to support the humanitarian push "to bring assistance impartially to the affected communities."
The top official for the U.S. government's aid arm said Friday that USAID has heard "disturbing reports" of South Sudanese soldiers harming and intimidating civilians in Jonglei. He called on the government to ensure that the military protects all civilians "regardless of their background or ethnicity."
"These vulnerable populations are living outside of protected communities and without consistent access to food, safe drinking water, shelter, and health care," Rajiv Shah said.
Col. Philip Aguer, spokesman for South Sudan's military, said last week that the military does not have the capacity to stop such tribal clashes, especially in remote regions. He said the SPLA can protect civilians if they go to larger towns where troops are stationed. He denied that the military favors the Lou Nuer over the Murle.