Lafon communities recovering from recent farmer-herder tensions; UNDP, UNMISS partner to raise confidence, strengthen recovery
EASTERN EQUATORIA – Given recent disturbances in Lafon, Eastern Equatoria, due to tensions between settled farming communities, nomadic herders, and cattle raiders, an integrated patrol from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) visited the area to engage with communities and authorities.
“We were particularly concerned about the overall welfare of residents here, given that a certain amount of displacement took place when cattle herders arrived in the midst of the settled communities in Lafon,” stated Mark Omina Luka, an UNMISS representative.
“We also wanted to explore the possibility of actioning Quick Impact Projects that will help encourage voluntary returns and stabilize communities,” he added.
Green and serene Lafon and the peaceful existence of its residents was disrupted in early April when local authorities registered a large influx of armed cattle keepers.
This automatically created friction between farmers and the new arrivals, not least because herds of bovines cannot distinguish between grazing lands and food crops
The situation was exacerbated with the arrival of cattle raiders in May who set up camp at the local school.
“These people came like a conquering army almost, slipping stealthily into the town. It was overwhelming. We tried to ensure their quick exit, but it was difficult,” admitted Colonel Ben Opuoth Mario Lichina, the police inspector in the area.
Colonel Lichina’s words are borne out by the testimony of Lafon County Commissioner, Okach Mangisto Waro. “When we heard about the arrival of cattle raiders in the evening, we were thrown off guard. We waited till the next morning, before sending representatives to greet them and enquire as to why they were in our community . They revealed it was to recover cattle that was allegedly stolen from them in Magwi, where issues were already simmering between pastoralists and farmers,” stated Commissioner Waro.
Upon assurances from local authorities that the cattle herders currently in Lafon weren’t guilty of such theft, the raiders left town. But the respite was brief, since they returned a mere four days later after confronting their alleged aggressors, laden with livestock of their own, striking fear into the hearts of townspeople about possible clashes.
Their misgivings, unfortunately, came true as violent fighting occurred among the raiders themselves. People, including children, fled to seek sanctuary with neighbouring communities.
Women were disproportionately affected. “Pregnant mothers found it impossible to run,” informed Christine Athom, a youth representative working with Health Link South Sudan, a not-for-profit organization focused on harnessing development opportunities in this young nation.
A number of raiders were wounded by gunfire, and panic prevailed.
“We were not interested in becoming a part of their feud,” said Augustine Lejok Chawaga, the paramount chief of Lafon. “All we wanted was to be left in peace to live our lives and farm our lands,” he added.
Today though, weeks after this outbreak of conflict, relative stability has returned to Lafon. But much more needs to be done to help alleviate the ongoing suffering of settled communities.
A key issue: low food supplies. The ongoing rainy season has made efforts to bring in stocks from the state capital Torit, difficult. Lafon residents are also deeply disturbed by the recent news of funding cuts for the World Food Programme’s operations in South Sudan.
“Now, more than ever, we are dependent on WFP’s food assistance,” says Christine. “I hope the international community takes note of my words—WFP helps save our lives.”
Other humanitarian partners, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, have been continuously supporting Lafon communities with seeds and farming implements.
Importantly, UNMISS and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are working with communities and authorities alike to enable people to start rebuilding their lives through reconciliation and peacebuilding.
A peace dialogue jointly organized by UNMISS and UNDP involved local youth from five counties in Eastern Equatoria—Budi, Ikotos, Torit, Lafon and Kapoeta north. The focus was on areas that have traditionally been plagued by livestock-related conflict.
“Women and girls are tired of the bloodshed,” says Agnes Naremo Arwamute, a women’s representative from Budi. “We have lost sons, fathers, brothers, and relatives. We need to end these cycles of conflict and move forward towards a time when we stop killing human beings in the name of protecting animals,” she added passionately.
Youth representatives and community leaders alike recommitted to shaping a more peaceful, prosperous future.
“As youth, we have decided to start mobile advocacy where we will reach other young people to spread the message of peaceful coexistence far and wide,” stated Peter Ohure, a youth leader from Lafon. The forum also focused on strengthening the 2018 Chorokol Resolution that advocated for the peaceful coexistence of pastoralist communities in the five counties which are located along the Kidepo valley in Eastern Equatoria and known for their grazing fields and water points for cattle herders.
The forum provided an opportunity for all consenting participants to take action to implement resolutions aimed at achieving sustained peace and progress.
“For us as UNDP, we believe the youth are indispensable peace influencers and have the power to lead a society from war to development. We, therefore, prioritize such reconciliatory dialogues,” said Margaret Lado, UNDP Peace and Community Cohesion Analyst in the state.
Peace initiatives must be owned by communities themselves. Therefore, the conference also sought to leverage the influence of local leaders in actioning peace initiatives by providing technical guidance to feuding communities.
“We want to encourage community leaders to help people embrace the spirit of compromise and build durable peace collectively,” averred Abdul Rahman Kamara, a Civil Affairs Officer from the UN Peacekeeping mission’s Field Office in Eastern Equatoria.
Cattle-related conflict has been on the upswing this year across the larger Equatorian region in South Sudan.