In recent days, the small, strategic cities of Bor and Malakal in South Sudan have been retaken by government forces amid heavy fighting. Their seizure could weaken rebel leader Riek Machar's bid to control the world's newest nation as peace negotiations inch forward in neighboring Ethiopia between government and rebel representatives.
Malakal is the capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile state. Bor lies in South Sudan’s largest state, Jonglei. It is the last major town on the road to Juba and is considered a key staging area for any rebel attack on Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The two places have changed hands several times since Dec. 15, when fighting broke out in South Sudan. The conflict has been unsparing toward civilians and families caught in the crossfire and has opened up a dangerous rift between the largest ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka.
In Malakal, gunfire could still be heard on Tuesday amid burned-out houses and looted shops. A convoy of Sudan Liberation People's Army (SPLA) troops moved through mostly empty streets toward a government headquarters near the White Nile River. Jeeps passed a dusty market where five women struggled to move a body lying on a makeshift stretcher.
Yet conditions here, severe as they are, do not compare to the devastation in Bor, where the SPLA took reporters after its recapture. The city once housed 30,000 inhabitants. In the past month it has been turned into a shattered zone of twisted metal, and blackened and bombed-out structures. Power is intermittent. Banks and shops lie looted and razed.
In Juba, President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, told reporters Tuesday that he would pardon Machar, his former vice-president and an ethnic Nuer, provided the rebel leader agreed to a ceasefire. Negotiations have been deadlocked over a rebel precondition for the release of 11 political prisoners.
In Malakal, few people yet dare to return home. Thousands have sought refuge at a UN base a few miles outside town. Others are hiding in mosques and churches. At the local Catholic church, men, women, and children are living in the middle of the compound. People move in a constant stream inside the walls, but few dare to venture outside onto the street. At night they sleep in an open courtyard.
"During the first attack we had 150 people staying," says one sister. "Over the last two weeks, thousands of people have arrived," she says.
One of them, Regina James, came seven days ago, toting nine children: "I saw the rebels killing and looting as they passed on their way to Malakal," Ms. James says. "They wanted mobile phones and money. Two men who didn’t have any money to spare were shot. The bodies are still there."
In the presence of Army media officials, locals have either little to say or are avowedly anti-rebel. But down a narrow side street, one young man who gives his name only as Michael offers a dissenting view. "The rebels looted, raped, and killed, but so did the [government] soldiers," he says.
In Bor, one young SPLA soldier who gives his name as Daniel Bior said he was just a boy when he lost his father in the war for independence from Sudan. He claims to be from Bor.
Separated from his mother, Mr. Bior, an ethnic Dinka, walked hundreds of miles across the East African plains to refugee camps in next door Kenya. With thousands of others, he became one of Sudan's so- called ”lost boys” who were eventually resettled and educated abroad, in his case, in the United States.
Only last month, he says, he had returned home to an independent South Sudan. "I was at home with my family to celebrate Christmas when the rebels attacked the capital. Two days later I joined [the SPLA] to help defend my country," he says.
In early January his platoon was given the orders to march towards his hometown after rebels loyal to Machar captured it.
The governor of Jonglei, John Kong, accused the rebels of mindless destruction. Speaking to reporters on the SPLA-organized visit, he questioned how Machar could sell himself as a potential president after the mayhem he has caused.
"It pains me to see how shops have been looted and houses destroyed...part of [Bor's] history has been destroyed," said Mr. Kong. "Nothing is left intact...these are criminals who are not interested in political reform."
After Bor changed hands four times since Dec. 15, Army spokesperson Philip Aguer on Jan. 20 said that, "We have defeated the forces loyal to Riek Machar. As of 1 pm today our soldiers are in control of Malakal." The Associated Press reports that the SPLA retook Bor with Ugandan military assistance.
The SPLA commander who took Bor, Lt. Gen. Robert Mabor, says that Bor is his hometown. "I grew up on these streets. It makes me sad to see how the rebels have destroyed this place," he says to reporters. He says that SPLA forces defeated between 15,000–20,000 armed rebels, adding that "It was a shameful battle because we were fighting our countrymen. South Sudanese lives were lost, many of them civilians."
In Malakal, which has received less international attention, one local man, Richard Opout, says that, "calm has returned since the soldiers took control but we all know that the rebels are not far away. They can come back anytime."
At the Malakal teaching hospital, a bed-ridden young man who gives his name as Puot Niehl says he is originally from Ethiopia, but is in South Sudan to finish his studies. He was shot in the leg, endured an amputation, and says he has no idea why he got shot in the first place.
"My family doesn’t even know I’m here," Mr. Niehl says. "Now all I want is to go back."
Another patient suffering serious gunshot wounds, Bidit Ruech, says she never saw who shot her. She wants to go home but is afraid. "I'm not sure the government can guarantee our safety. Until I know it is safe I will stay in the church."