Even in garrison town, no sanctuary for South Sudan's civilians

The town of Bor has changed hands since a civil conflict flared in December. Government forces now occupy it, but civilians face agonizing choices.

Ben Curtis/AP/File
Displaced people who fled the recent fighting between government and rebel forces in Bor by boat across the White Nile bathe and gather water from the Nile in the town of Awerial, South Sudan, Jan. 1, 2014.

Adhieu Makuach waits with her three children atop a pile of suitcases and mattresses on the banks of the White Nile that traverses this strategic town.

Bor has been the epicenter of bitter fighting between the Army and rebels in a civil conflict that appears increasingly intractable. The Army finally won, but not before Bor was flattened.

Ms. Makuach is hoping to board a boat to a refugee camp. For days, loudspeaker messages from a government truck driving up and down the bank have urged people like her to stay. But Makuach wants out, in case the bullets start flying again.

“We’re afraid of the rebels,” she says. “We don’t know if [they] will come or go.”

That civilians such as Makuach are still fleeing for their lives 10 weeks into South Sudan's brutal conflict, even now that Bor has become a heavily armed garrison for the Army, shows that military gains are fragile and not trusted by ordinary people, analysts say. A few returnees are trying to rebuild. But many coming out of the bush and seeing the destruction of their homes, leave directly for camps.

Bor’s strategic location, some 100 miles north of the capital, Juba, combined with its oil resources and its ethnic diversity, makes it a bellwether for South Sudan's future. 

Makuach’s family is among 1,200 people crossing the Nile every day, en route to a UN camp of some 80,000 displaced persons, says Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian chief for South Sudan.

During fighting in late December and January, Makuach hid in the bush for weeks with her family, surviving, she says, on wild fruits, leaves, and antelope.

Calm returned to Bor after the Army, backed by Ugandan troops, took control. But in recent weeks rebels started an assault in Gatdiang, 45 miles north of here, fanning new fears among war-weary civilians. 

For the moment, soldiers are the main human presence here. In and out of uniform, men wander the streets with rifles slung over their shoulders. At one of Bor’s few functioning bars, soldiers carry grenades and cans of beer in the same hand, as they sway from the counter to plastic chairs.

Ethnic fault lines

Like South Sudan itself, Bor, or what is left of it, is divided along tribal lines. Here, the forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) who are loyal to President Salva Kiir – most of them ethnic Dinka – have faced off against the White Army, an ethnic Nuer militia aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar. 

The war itself started on Dec. 15 as an eruption of a power struggle between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar. But the violence took a brutal ethnic turn when both sides began targeting civilians based on tribe, a development that shocked many citizens here.

During the fighting, this hot and dusty town changed hands numerous times.

Today the Nuer are rarely found in Bor. Some 5,000 people, most of them Nuer, are instead sheltering in a camp in the nearby UN compound, hiding behind razor wire and earthen bunkers.

According to the camp chairman, Rev. William Tut, ethnic divisions need not last forever. But he says the Nuer don't feel safe enough to leave the compound until the Ugandan Army, which had been sent by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni to prop up Kiir's Army, is gone.

“In South Sudan, deaths are caused by Uganda,” Mr. Tut said. “People fear in their heart they will be killed [if they go home now].”

Nhial Majak Nhial, the mayor of Bor, says of the ethnic divide that “a long road [lies] ahead to dispel the fear and distrust. Even if today Machar and Kiir came to the same table and dined together, people would still continue to suffer backlashes.”

The fighting here saw rampant human rights violations by both sides though details remain quite fuzzy. There were gang rapes and hospital patients were reportedly shot in their beds, before the SPLA and Ugandan forces pushed the rebels out. More than 500 uncollected bodies of soldiers and civilians have been buried in four mass graves. 

The long path to reconciliation

Mayor Nhial says his priority now is simply to make Bor “livable” again. Hundreds of houses are now little more than charred frames. The town’s once bustling market, which took up multiple city blocks, is a wasteland of blackened and twisted metal. UN cranes are clearing the burnt shells of cars from roads.

The hospital is running again, treating up to four hundred patients a day as people return after hiding in the bush with no access to health care. Also in the wards are shrapnel-wounded soldiers evacuated from the front lines of Gatdiang.

“You can imagine this entire hospital run by one doctor,” says Dr. Ayool G. Ayool, who continues to work at the battered facility. He shakes his head and points to the empty medicine cabinets and operating rooms of a modern wing newly built by a Canadian NGO. “Everything’s been looted." 

As basic services begin to reappear, a couple hundred civilians – mostly Dinka traders – sit at Bor’s main commercial intersection helping to restart Bor’s economy by selling basic goods such as fruit, tea, and soap. 

Some traders intend to stay. But most seem to be testing the waters. Parents venture back to see if it’s safe for their children, or residents return for a few days to salvage belongings.

In Bor, a reconciliation seems to hinge partly on the ethnic Dinka moving past wounds and anger that remains, for now, fresh. It will also depend on the Nuer deciding that they can return home. 

But it is the Dinka who bore the main brunt of rebel attacks here, and whose families count more missing persons.

"Most Dinka fell victim of tragedy when the rebels of Riek Machar came here,” Nihial, the mayor, says. “Most won’t differentiate the rebels from the normal Nuer citizens.”

But, he added, “We come from the same town.... We are brothers.  Our actions as leaders have made the two communities look like enemies.”

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