AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Back in July of last year, news from the brand new country of South Sudan was optimistic.
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CORNISH: People came together to sing their national anthem as the country gained its independence. Now, stories from South Sudan tell of massacres and burned villages. Tribes that appeared to transcend their differences over the summer have seen peace talks falter and a return to the raids and violence that crippled the country for years. Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times and he travelled recently to South Sudan. He joins us now from just outside Nairobi, Kenya. Hello there, Jeffrey.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Hi there.
CORNISH: So Jeffrey, to begin, tell us about this most recent cycle of violence. It's between two tribes, the Nuer and the Murle.
GETTLEMAN: That's right. I just got back from a very interesting, but disturbing trip to South Sudan where I was covering a large massacre that had just happened. Thousands of fighters from one ethnic group, the Lou Nuer, stormed a town in South Sudan and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people from another ethnic group, the Murle. This connects to a longstanding tradition that has been going on for generations, where different groups in South Sudan steal each other's cattle; sometimes abduct children, sometimes burn villages.
However, recently we've seen the introduction of high-powered assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and instead of just having a few casualties connected to these cattle raids, we're now seeing body counts in the hundreds if not the thousands.
CORNISH: Jeffrey, can you describe to us what you saw in Pibor after this violence?
GETTLEMAN: Sure. I arrived about a week and a half after the violence had ended. And there were many, many people coming out of the bush with gunshot wounds and other injuries. There was many children who had been shot, some just six-month-old babies with bullet wounds through their legs and their arms. I saw people that had trudged through the savanna and through swamps and waded through rivers for days to get medical help.
I also saw a number of bodies spread out in the bush. And this is what happened is these raiders came to the town, civilians fled into the bush, and then these raiders methodically hunted them down.
CORNISH: One chilling part of your story was that they U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan, they never fired a shot - even though there were roughly 400 peacekeepers nearby. What happened there?
GETTLEMAN: Well, this is a serious problem. No one seems to be able to stop this violence. In this case, for the past couple weeks, the United Nations was carefully watching this one group, the Nuer, mass several thousand fighters. And it was pretty clear what they were going to do. They started up in a little town by burning it to the ground, and then the stream of fighters began walking for dozens of miles down to another town.
And this took about a week and the U.N. rushed in a few hundred peacekeepers to defend this town, but they didn't fire a shot. They said they were outnumbered. And later, some U.N. officials told me that they were really worried that these peacekeepers might get massacred themselves.
CORNISH: Where is the South Sudan government in this dispute? Are they likely to step in?
GETTLEMAN: The government of South Sudan is a very fragile entity right now; it's only six months old. And it has been very reluctant to wade into these communal fights, even though they're now involving thousands of fighters on each side. Because they're worried that if they take a side they might alienate one ethnic group or start to provoke enemies within the government and there could be a split in the security forces. And that could lead, some fear, to a civil war in the south.
CORNISH: So, Jeffrey, give us a sense of context here. There was a lot of optimism when South Sudan declared independence. Where things bound to turn violent?
GETTLEMAN: I was in South Sudan in July when it finally achieved independence, after decades of guerrilla struggle. And people were ecstatic. So it's sad to see what's happening. These ethnic tensions being expressed violently are not new. And that's what scares people in the south, is they are seeing a cycle of violence again that they thought they had overcome by independence. And it looks like they haven't.
CORNISH: Jeffrey Gettleman, he's the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. He spoke to us about his reporting in South Sudan.
Jeffrey, thank you so much for talking with us.
GETTLEMAN: Glad to help. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.