Displacement of civilians
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As mentioned in the ethnic profiles section, as far back as five hundred years ago many of the migrations by peoples into South Sudan were due to famines, drought, and slave raids in their places of origin. When facing famine or continual slave raids many ethnic groups migrated to new lands south along the Nile. It is not known if other groups were pushed out by these initial migrations, but later expansions, such as the Nuer in the 19th century, saw the assimilation of many outsiders while others moved further away (Hutchinson 2012). The British attempted to reduce ethnic tensions over land by defining clear borders and creating annual meetings between chiefs to solve any disputes . This largely reduced the mass migrations of peoples to seasonal movement, with a few exceptions. In the past few decades the primary causes of mass migration have remained the same: war and famine. During the second civil war, Ethiopia was initially the primary destination of many South Sudanese seeking refuge, due to the Mengistu regime’s support of the SPLA. After the fall of his regime in 1991 hundreds of thousands of refugees had to flee across the border back to South Sudan where they remained highly vulnerable. A drought at this time combined with the high number of returnees exacerbated food insecurity and led to violence over limited food resources. Many South Sudanese also fled to the borders with Northern Uganda and Northern Kenya and settled in refugee camps where they could access education and receive aid.
While many South Sudanese fled to other countries, a large amount never left the country when relocating. Very little research has been carried out on where populations within South Sudan flee internally and what coping mechanisms they employ, but it varies from family to family, not by ethnic group. An in-depth study is needed throughout the country, but destinations continually change with political dynamics and alliances and a comprehensive mapping that accurately predicts future movement is likely impossible. In general, depending on the risks and dangers, most people move either to “the bush,” to extended family in safer locations, and occasionally to other ethnic groups. Due to the challenge of accessibility in much of South Sudan, fighting tends to focus around key towns, cities or resources. During the dry season from January to May, much of the country is accessible by vehicle, but the rest of the year, due to the rains, walking is the only means of transportation in much of the country. Much of the Greater Upper Nile region floods and is under water with small areas of elevated land that remains above the flooding. The rainy season is both a blessing and a curse to vulnerable people. By fleeing to homesteads in difficult accessible areas that are largely flooded, many people can reduce the chances of being targeted. This has been a coping mechanism since slave raids hundreds of years ago. However, it conversely increases their risk of disease, food insecurity, lack of access to clean water, and inability to receive humanitarian support. If a town or area nearby has received humanitarian aid and is deemed safe to reach and access then women will often be sent to receive goods and bring them back to the homestead. While women are sent as they are less likely to be killed, they are putting themselves at huge risk of SGBV and protection becomes a key concern. Defining where people go in these situations is difficult as frequently they are very spread out to reduce the chance of being targeted. This makes it extremely challenging for aid agencies to find and reach out to them and to map out locations of beneficiaries, as was the case with the Murle in 2013.
If those at risk have extended family, either through blood or marriage, in a safe location they will often flee there. This is more common among the largest groups, such as the Dinka and Nuer, who have wider family networks due to their larger population sizes and territories than minorities. Often the vulnerable, the women and children in particular, as well as the elderly, who have greater challenges in moving far distances by foot, will be sent to stay with extended family. The men will stay to protect their homestead and livestock. Following a Murle raid on Dengjok in Akobo County in 2012, thousands of Lou Nuer families were being accommodated with Jikany Nuer relatives in Nasir, further north and away from the risk of Murle raids. People can also move to stay with other ethnic groups they have close relations with, such as Nuer from Unity staying in Warrap with Dinka or the Dinka Nyarweng staying with Lou Nuer, if they can negotiate peaceful relations outside of the wider conflict. However, the greater political context continually changes the dynamics and it is impossible to say where exactly people will move to in times of shock and violence.
People move dependent upon current alliances, conflict dynamics, and threats. These factors are, however, constantly changing. For example, the Lou Nuer and Murle conflict in the past few years has led to thousands of deaths. However, in the 1990s internal Lou Nuer feuds in Akobo were at such a level that one of the families decided to migrate elsewhere. As the Jikany Nuer and Lou Nuer were having major skirmishes throughout the 1990s and early 2000s the Jikany Nuer areas were not deemed a safe destination. According to Murle chiefs from the area the Lou Nuer family instead migrated and lived in Lekuongole, in Pibor County with the Murle, for a few years. These dynamics were reversed a couple of decades later as Lou Nuer fled to stay with the Jikany Nuer in Nasir due to Murle threats. Between 2009 and 2013 significant clashes between the Lou Nuer and Murle led to thousands of deaths. However, a peace agreement between the two groups suddenly arose in 2014 once the Nuer, who generally support SPLA-IO, had the greater threat of the government to contend against. Communities in South Sudan consistently adapt their relationships depending on the current political and economic dynamics. The constantly shifting alliances found in South Sudan at the national and local levels must be understood and considered when trying to predict movement due to threats of violence or food insecurity.
Importantly, military groups have abused the displacement and vulnerability of civilians in their areas of control to buttress their own movements. For example, Riek Machar’s SPLA-Nasir faction was accused of doing this in the early 1990s. With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing back across the border from Ethiopia after the fall of the Mengistu regime, the region was extremely vulnerable. Access was extremely challenging as the Sudanese regime restricted the access of humanitarian agencies (HRW 1994). Drought in the early 1990s only exacerbated the situation and was an important cause of conflicts within the Nuer themselves (Jikany and Lou). The SPLA-Nasir faction focused on the needs of 2,000 children in Nasir as a means of increasing humanitarian support to the community, but much of it was redirected to the movement itself. The children stayed in a state of malnutrition, which facilitated the continuation of assistance. A nutritional survey at the time of the split, in August 1991, found that 60% of the boys in Nasir were moderately malnourished while a later study at the end of the year found that 30% of the children were suffering from severe malnutrition (HRW 1994:18). Months of assistance for the children had been redirected to the movement. The SPLA-Nasir faction was not the only group to do this, and the redirection of humanitarian assistance is a huge risk in the current conflict. Beneficiaries are likely targets for the ‘sharing’ of supplies, especially when out of sight of humanitarian monitors. There are no easy solutions to this problem, but it must be recognized as a significant risk by humanitarian and protection workers. The worst case scenario is that, much like in the early 1990s, support is abused to prolong the conflict while the neediest stay in a state of permanent vulnerability.
Human Rights Watch. 1994. “Sudan: The Lost Boys- Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied
Boys in Southern Sudan.” Vol 6, No. 10. (https://db.tt/OjZU0ZRf)
Hutchinson, Sharon. 2012. “A Guide to the Nuer of Jonglei State Part One: Nuer and Dinka patterns of migration and settlement” presented at AECOM Jonglei conference, Nairobi March 2012. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/tv1q0sfuaac1c1j/Doc%202%20-%20Composite%20Nuer%20NoPics.pdf?dl=0)