Thousands of South Sudanese seeking refuge on U.N. base remain too afraid to return home

The corpses of soldiers, dressed in camouflage fatigues, lay in the streets and ditches. Shop after shop had been plundered, leaving the poor and hungry to scavenge through the remains. Houses burned to the ground still smoldered, the scars of the four days of chaos that tore through this town.

Not even the U.N. peacekeepers’ base was entirely safe. A bullet passed through the stomach of Nyauny Otham, who had sought refuge there with her family and thousands of other terrified civilians. On Saturday, the 6-year-old rested in a hospital bed, a white sheet covering her tiny body.

Fighting among rival soldiers in South Sudan’s army engulfed Malakal on Christmas Eve, uprooting thousands of civilians and trapping scores of foreigners, including Americans. A visit on Saturday, a day after government forces drove out the renegade troops, opened a window into how swiftly the world’s newest nation disintegrated into anarchy and its immense humanitarian and political challenges. The city was mostly calm, but residents remained fearful.

“The fighting can start anytime,” said William Deng, 21, who fled to the U.N. base with only the clothes on his back. “The tensions are still high between the rebels and the government.”

Violent clashes have spread across this oil-producing country and key U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa since Dec. 16, when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, of trying to stage a coup. That set off simmering tensions in the ruling party and the army, as troops loyal to Kiir and those allied to Machar battled each other in half of the nation’s 10 states. Hundreds, if not several thousand, have died, and more than 100,000 have fled their homes. The violence has often unfolded along ethnic fault lines, pitting Kiir’s tribal group, the Dinka, against Machar’s, the Nuer.

The struggle for Malakal, a sprawling town of thatched huts and dusty red earth, was particularly significant because of its proximity to some of South Sudan’s most lucrative oil fields and food-rich regions. It also has the best airport after the capital, Juba, and is nestled on a major road to Sudan, from which this country won independence in 2011. Analysts have expressed concern that the Khartoum government could seize advantage of the instability here and interfere.

“It’s a key town,” Toby Lanzer, the deputy special representative to the U.N. mission in South Sudan, said of Malakal. “For all the right reasons this is a very important place to hold onto or to take control of if you are engaged in these hostilities.”

Machar’s loyalists stormed Malakal on Christmas Eve, triggering fierce street battles and pillaging. Civilians trapped by hails of bullets huddled in their homes, waiting for an opportunity to flee.

“We were so scared,” said Otham Bol, Nyauny’s father.

During a respite in the fighting, he and his wife ran with their three children to the U.N. base. But the bullets followed them inside. On Christmas, Nyauny was shot, apparently by a bullet fired in a fight outside the base. Another bullet hit her father’s thumb.

Aid workers said many of the rebels appeared to be drunken youths dressed in military uniforms and looting shops. And after the initial surprise assault, government forces brought in heavy weapons to attack the rebels.

“The bodies we saw were of kids with beers and biscuits,” said Caroline Opok, a U.N. employee in Malakal. “And the government was fighting them with tanks.”

Stranded amid the violence

Unlike the violence in South Sudan’s capital, or in Jonglei state, the fighting did not appear to be ethnically based in Malakal, with its diverse mix of tribal groups, including Dinkas, Nuer and Shilluk. On the U.N. base Saturday, members of all three groups were living side by side .

“I am a Nuer, they are Dinkas, and he is a Shilluk,” said Zakaria Youal, 26, pointing at his friends. “We were all targeted by the soldiers in the same way.”

One group of South Sudanese was returning home to the western region of Bahr al Ghazal after spending years working in Sudan. But as they arrived in Malakal, the fighting erupted, and they were forced to seek refuge in a government compound. On Saturday, they were still there because the security guard had locked the gates and left with the key.

“We are here in the middle, in between the militaries from both sides,” lamented Juma Lamiri, one of the members of the group, as Lanzer assured him that they would soon be continuing their journey home.

Scores of Kenyans, Somalis and other Africans from the region who had come to trade and work in Malakal were among the displaced. Many were waiting for their governments to evacuate them. On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy is expected to send a plane to evacuate 60 Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, U.N. officials said.

“We came to South Sudan to look for a better future,” Nancy Wairimu, 24, a Kenyan trader who imports clothes, said as she sat on a tarpaulin donated by an aid agency. “Now, we are looking for help to get back to Kenya. We can never come back here.”

‘Delicate’ situation at base

For the vast majority, who have little chance of being evacuated, conditions on the base are growing increasingly dire.

The suffering generated by four days of mayhem surprised even the most seasoned U.N. humanitarian officials. By some estimates, there are at least 12,000 on the base, but U.N. officials think the number could be as high as 22,000.

“This is a lot worse than what I was expecting the base to be, and it’s a lot bigger,” said Lanzer, who is also the top U.N. humanitarian official in South Sudan. “The situation is delicate, and if there was a spark, there could be tension that actually turns into violence between people inside the base.”

Many live in tents made from blankets or sleep out in the open on dry grass or tarpaulins. Water and food are in short supply.

Sanitation is a problem, making the risks of diseases such as malaria and cholera high. Dennis Abraham, an Indian Army officer working with the United Nations, said there were shortages of injectable antibiotics.

But despite the problems, many on the base had mixed feelings about returning to their homes. Some said they wanted to wait a few more days to see whether the fighting returned. Others planned to head home on Sunday to prevent their home from being looted by criminals.

Many said they would remain on the base, protected by the peacekeepers, knowing that their country’s most powerful leaders remained at war.

“The people are still afraid inside,” Deng said. “Many fear to go back home.”