The fledgling country is unable to keep the peace between the warring Murle and Lou Nuer tribes that live side by side.
A hospital captures one of the myriad challenges facing South Sudan
JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN // A hospital in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, provides a glimpse of the ethnic tension that is tearing at the seams of the world's newest nation.
In a ward on one side of the Juba Teaching Hospital are members of the ethnic Murle people, who eke out their existence mainly by herding cattle.
The overpowering smell of dirty bandages and festering wounds is punctuated by the screams of a child who, owing to the swipe of machete, is missing a large section of his upper back. A few metres away in the corridor, an elderly woman grimaces in agony while the nurse swabs a gaping exit wound from a bullet that went through her arm, exposing the bone.
In a building on another side of the hospital compound are the current enemies of the Murle - members of the Lou Nuer tribe, who are also pastoralists. Some are innocents, while some surely are not. Some are as young as 14 and despite their wounds, they are confident, even cocky, sure of their upper hand over their foes.
The proximity of these warring groups, seeking help from the same doctors and nurses, captures one of the myriad challenges facing South Sudan: desperately poor people living acrimoniously on each other's doorsteps, while their newborn government is unable to make peace between them, provide adequate medical care or prevent violence from recurring.
Despite clear and early warnings that Lou Nuer youth were planning a campaign against Murle communities, neither the government nor the United Nations were able to deploy enough soldiers to stave off attacks that began late last month.
In the weeks leading up to the first attack on December 23, aerial reconnaissance carried by the UN reported that at least 6,000 armed Lou Nuer youth were massing and marching towards Murle communities. Self-appointed Lou Nuer spokesmen issued rallying cries for what they called the "White Army" - a reference to ash smeared on the bodies of fighters going into battle.
One statement pointed to the genocidal aims of at least some of the Lou Nuer. It urged their fellow tribesmen to "wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth".
South Sudanese and UN officials have defended their failure to head off the conflict, saying roads turned into mire by the rainy season made the deployment of troops impossible.
Roads are not the only unpredictable fact of life in remote areas of Jonglei, an eastern state where clashes killed at least 1,000 members of both tribes during the first half of last year, according to the UN. Leaders from both communities complain that they lack basic services and security. And they said the absence of a government presence has led them to take matters into their own hands to solve disputes.
Meting out justice in South Sudan is often done at the end of a barrel of a gun. This tendency - combined with a culture of cattle raiding, which often accompanies the abduction of women and children - has escalated the conflict. The government has been either unable or, according to the two sides, unwilling to intervene.
Both groups have complained that the government has failed to provide security or help them gain compensation for their losses, the return of their stolen cattle, or abducted women and children.
The Murle, in particular, feel that the national and state governments favour the Lou Nuer and other larger tribal and ethnic groups, according to Judith McCallum, a Nairobi-based expert on Jonglei.
"They do not feel part of Jonglei state at all," said Ms McCallum, who is writing her dissertation on the Murle for her doctoral programme at Toronto's York University.
The government has vowed to investigate and hold accountable anyone found responsible for inciting violence, regardless of ethnicity or political office.
Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the government spokesman, said the investigation is part of a stabilisation plan for Jonglei. The plan also includes forming a committee to bring tribal representatives together to discuss their grievances, as well as sending thousands of troops to form a buffer zone between warring tribes.
In the long term, Mr Benjamin said, the government will build roads that will spur economic growth and provide mobility to security forces. More immediately, and controversially, the government plans to carry out a disarmament campaign.
"The civilians in those areas are saying, 'Come and protect us.' Fine, that's what we are going to do," said Mr Benjamin. "But not only that - we are going to tell them now, 'Bring in your arms. It is illegal for anyone to carry arms, especially submachine guns, without registration'."
Some warn that disarmament, if done too quickly and too forcefully, could result in more bloodshed. They point to past campaigns that were not only ineffective - with confiscated guns filtering back into communities - but exceptionally violent.
Ms McCallum said a 2006 attempt at disarmament in the state resulted in approximately one death for every two of the 1,600 weapons seized. In the current state of heightened tension, a forceful disarmament programme could have similar consequences.
"Emotions are high, people will fight back, they wont give up their weapons easily," she said. "They have no incentive to give up their weapons easily. Their concerns haven't been heard."
Ms McCallum added that the Murle were worried that disarmament may start with them, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
The government has yet to form its investigating committee, or to announce the date disarmament will begin. Nor has it given an estimate of how many people have been killed.
The UN says its human-rights teams are counting bodies. But the true toll may never be known, as wild animals have eaten the corpses and scattered the bones of the dead.