Deep in Warrap State’s wetlands, land that is used for grazing even in the driest season, the thickly wooded higher land, surrounded by rich marshes, once supported the homes of many families. Just twenty years ago, there had been homesteads here overflowing with milking cows, lush sorghum and large fish. A thin, aging woman described it to me in this way: “When we lived there, we were fat” . Yet, the bush has now consumed any remnant of human habitation. Even the crumbling mud walls of the tukals (mud huts) can hardly be seen. Now, the land appears to belong to no one. Yet, those who once lived in these invisible villages still claim the land as their own. With their ancestors buried in its soil, annual sacrifices are held where the village once was. They promise themselves that they will return to their land one day.
It was in the mid 1990s, to the sounds of gunfire, that families left this land . While raids using spears were the norm, this time the attackers were armed with guns. With these new weapons, the raiders were able to penetrate deep into these settlements. Confounding expectations, women and children were slaughtered alongside their spear-wielding sons and brothers. Against the force of the gun, the people of Warrap State could not defend their people or their villages.
Most women and children have not returned to their homes. Fearing a repeat of slaughter, they settled in drier lands to wait until the richer soils aresafe again. At this water-less time of year, feeding their children is a struggle.
On behalf of their families, the men responded to this displacement by seeking guns. “Without their guns, our community would not have survived”, a married woman told me. They feared attacks which penetrated further into their land, forming a barrier against access to the grazing ground for their cattle. Many joined the SPLA to gain access to these weapons. It was only when armed that the men felt safe to return to this fertile land. Annually, with an armed escort, the cattle are still herded to the area surrounding these abandoned villages. The high risk of armed raids and death mean that only the fittest men travel, and only when armed with guns.
The armed escorts for the cattle are called the Titweng. Working for the community and their property, they fight and defend on behalf of their families at home. Obedient to their local elders, and enjoying the pride of their mothers, their work is on behalf of the community. “Although they are armed,” one woman described, “they are not more part of the conflict than me. The only difference with the Titweng is that they die more than us ”. The community has come to depend on them for security. For their cattle to graze and for there to be hope that they will return to their land, they need their sons to carry guns.
When the harvest is finished and the swampy stretches have dried to dust, the football matches resume. At the start of this village football season, at the end of 2011, SPLA soldiers provided the opposing team. Sent to gather the guns of the civilians of Warrap State, they were part of the next round of rural disarmament in South Sudan. The Titweng were often cited as the principle target for disarmament. In contrast to previous disarmament attempts, the campaign at the end of 2011 relied heavily on local leaders and the Executive Chiefs. On this occasion, threats of imprisonment and collective job loss forced general compliance from the leaders. Their presumed knowledge of the local community meant that they were in a strong position to identify those with arms, and to demand their surrender. Guns were collected from across the region. Previous attempts at disarmament in certain parts of Warrap State had been littered with accusations of soldier brutality and abuses of power. Reports claimed that chiefs had been arrested en masse, guns taken during disarmament were sold by soldiers in neighbouring markets, and women raped in the frenzied action of the campaigns. In contrast, 2011 saw little antagonism.
Yet the public rearmament of the Titweng in Warrap State followed immediately. Named as “community police” and trained by the local government, upwards of 2,000 previous Titweng are now reported as having rearmed . Excuses of skirmishes over the Warrap-Unity border provided the necessary justification to demand security and to force the return of their guns. Their brief training allowed them to be distinguished from illegitimate, civilian gun owners. The returning of guns is unanimously popular, emphasizing the legitimacy of gun ownership by this group. The main public complaint is that not all Titweng have yet been rearmed.
The legitimacy of the armed Titweng amongst their home communities, and their apparent necessity for security, dictate the political significance of these young men. Previously coordinated by the chiefs and elders, the Executive Chiefs were again involved in the rearmament process. They nominate Titweng for rearmament and were included in the celebrations after completion of their training. Yet, named as “community police”, the remaining authority of the Executive Chiefs over the rearmed Titweng is not explicit. This is in a season of a visibly shifting landscape of authority for the Executive Chiefs. In the last six months, the number of Executive Chiefs in Warrap State has more than doubled. These new Executive Chiefs have not necessarily been selected from previous families of chiefs, but were often appointed by the government and have been told explicitly that their retention of power is dependent on local government approval. Yet their close and sustained relationship with the Titweng ensures that the Executive Chiefs remain of significant import and have a visibly central role in the coordination of the Titweng.
In the new state of South Sudan, there is competition to establish local power dynamics. The signifigance and popularity of the Titweng saw other figures initiate involvement to ensure their adequate and continued rearmament. Much of the momentum for the rapid rearming originated in Juba. A few dozen influential individuals from Warrap State are still concerned with the security of their homelands and are active in dictating relevant policy.
The county-level government also made a visible contribution to this rearmament process. With military experience and a more tangible relationship with the Titweng, county government leaders spearheaded this new defense force. The main difference after the disarmament and rearmament process is the growth in authority of the county level government over this armed group. Increasingly, these armed young men are now also answerable to the local government.
Increasingly, the gun has become a normal part of everyday life. With a duty to protect their community, land and cattle, the Titweng’s rearmament was seen as essential. In the local political market, the achievement of this coordinated rearming was used to heighten the authority of certain leaders and levels of government.