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Cattle rustling sounds like a quaint notion from the 19th century American West, but in South Sudan, soon to be the world's newest nation, it's a very modern and very real problem. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, Sudanese cattle raiding isn't like the Old West with Winchester rifles; it's the African bush with automatic weapons and high body counts.

FRANK LANGFITT: This is Panyang. It's a cattle camp in the scrub of Southern Sudan - or at least it used to be. In early January, about 500 tribesmen came in here with AK-47s and just shot the place up. Between this camp and another one, they took about 5,000 head of cattle, killed a dozen people and wounded another 24.

Now, right now I'm walking in a dry riverbed and I can see a couple of the skeletons of those people who were killed. And I'm looking in the grass and you can see bits and pieces of their clothing.

(Soundbite of crunchy footsteps)

LANGFITT: Thondok Dhieu lost 25 cows in the raid. He's come back to show me what happened and identify the skeletons.

Mr. THONDOK DHIEU: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: We're standing over the remains of his brother-in-law, Magai. Magai was shot in the chest as he tried to free his 160 cattle that morning. Thondok says Magai played an important role in his family, which has scattered since the attack.

Mr. DHIEU: (Through Translator) Magai was a peacemaker in the family. Whenever there was a family dispute or a quarrel in the family, he would preside over a decision and solve the problems so that family would remain peaceful.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

LANGFITT: Cattle herding is a way of life here. Amid clouds of gray smoke from dung fires, herders release their cows each morning to graze. And they fiercely protect them, because in South Sudan, cattle are currency. Want to marry a woman? Better have a dowry of 25 to more than 100 head of cattle. People used to steal cattle with spears but now they used AK-47s left over from the war. The result is carnage.

In 2009, the United Nations estimated that 2,500 people died in tribal violence here, much of it from cattle raids. Local governments are beginning to crack down.

This man - you can hear his leg iron scraping against the floor - was arrested in South Sudan's Lakes State for stealing 86 cattle in January. Major Madol Samuel Rin is a police chief here. He says when neighboring counties tip him to cattle raids, he sets up ambushes to catch the returning thieves. Earlier this year, he cornered one group that fought back.

Major MADOL SAMUEL RIN (Police Chief): When they see us, they started also shooting hard. Two among them were wounded and one killed.

LANGFITT: More than 200 miles to the east in neighboring Jonglei State is Akobo County. Like most places in South Sudan, it's most easily accessed by air charter. The roads are made of earth and impassable in rainy season.

Mr. GOI JOOYUL YOL (Commissioner, Akobo): My name is Goi Jooyul Yol. I'm commissioner of Akobo.

LANGFITT: Yol fled the area as a child during the civil war and eventually went to college in Kentucky. Now, he's back trying to bring peace to his ancestral home. In 2009, 700 people were killed here, many in cattle raids.

Mr. YOL: But the cattle raid, it went bad. You know, when some communities started abducting children.

LANGFITT: What sparked it? I always kind of wonder what ignites these things.

Mr. YOL: You know, after the war, there was this bitterness between people and there was this vacuum of lack of rule of law. There was no policing; there were no roads. And I think that was also accompanied with frustration on people trying to earn livelihoods.

LANGFITT: Since then, the government has disarmed many cattle raiders and tried to create jobs. With funding from the United States Agency for International Development, young people have earned good wages making bricks to build a new government headquarters.

Mr. YOL: The cattle rustling youth came and said, look, we gave up our guns and we want to get money.

LANGFITT: In the last year, killings have dropped dramatically, but Gatreh Lul Deng wonders whether peace is sustainable. Deng has helped raid thousands of cattle since he was 12 and killed 15 men along the way. At age 30, he sees cattle raiding as his job.

Mr. GATREH LUL DENG: (Through Translator) How can we live? It's the only way to get married, the only way to survive.

LANGFITT: Deng says he stopped raiding cattle after the army took his guns, then his income plunged. He couldn't get a job making bricks and he says the government won't let him grow as much corn as he needs because of an ongoing plan survey.

Mr. DENG: (Through Translator) If you don't want me to raid cows or to plant then give me a job. I need a job.

LANGFITT: With huge support from foreign governments, South Sudan is building roads and schools to create new jobs in agriculture and commerce. In the last fiscal year alone, USAID spent more than a billion dollars here. John Marks, who advises the agency, says small programs, like brick making, aren't enough.

Mr. JOHN MARKS (Director of USAID Sudan): If nothing else were ever to happen, it could go backwards. But other things are happening.

LANGFITT: The United Nations is building 120-mile paved road to Akobo. And Yol, the commissioner, hopes to use that road to export tilapia and Nile perch from the river nearby. He says Akobo has to provide more opportunities for its people or risk more violence.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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