We flew for an hour over a vast bush land with not one trace of human life, and then, finally, landed in Gumuruk. As we got off a young crowd was growing around the helicopter. I immediately noticed young boys in military fatigues confidently carrying weapons. Some of them looked as young as 10 or even younger. But they seemed disciplined.
We were led towards the shade of huge tree where a group of men and women were sitting and waiting.
Finally, David Yau Yau emerged surrounded by his cobra fighters. He sat next Akuot Luot, a young presidential envoy. Luckily, we found someone to translate the gist of the speeches. A woman, a young man and an elder spoke one after the other. All had the same message: we are happy the fighting has stopped but don’t deceive us, tell the government we want food and our own state.
It was a heated meeting to say the least.
The Murle are a minority ethnic group and, along with three others, they want to carve their own state out of Jonglei state. David Yau Yau says that their problem is not with the central government but with the local authorities in Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, who they say have systematically marginalized the Murle.
While they were talking I looked around. People did have the right to be angry. There was nothing in Gumuruk and in Pibor County in general. A woman who lost one of her sons in the fighting said she was hungry. She, like others, relied on Lapom, a wild fruit that has a bitter sweet taste. I asked her how she felt about the young boys carrying weapons. “It should not be, but we need them to protect us from the Dinka Bor. They come here kill us and rape the women,” she said.
The last round of fighting was after the SPLA, government forces, carried out a forced disarmament campaign. It was brutal and scores of Murle were killed.
This is when 16 year old Juzee lost his mother and brother. He then decided to join the ranks of the cobras under Yau Yau’s command. Dressed in oversized green fatigues he calmly said “you are asking why I have a gun? It is because there is no school for me to go and I need it to stay alive. I will only leave it when we have freedom and our own state. Then I can go back to school.”
Another boy, who said he did not know his age, told me that his best friend was killed and he was not afraid of shooting.
When I finally sat down with David Yau Yau, I asked him about these child soldiers. He said “this might be your first time in South Sudan military zone, but this is what happens here. It was the same in 1983.”
True, I thought, and it will probably continue for a while, or at least until Juzee and the other boys feel safe enough to go to school.
But the dreams of a state will not come true yet. When we landed in Juba Akuot told me he understood David Yau Yau’s demands but their grievances need to be addressed in a different way, for the time being development should be the priority.