EXCLUSIVE: South Sudan’s displaced trapped on Nile frontlines
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A fresh wave of fighting near Malakal, capital of South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, has displaced and trapped tens of thousands of people, a FRANCE 24 team discovered this week.
Surrounded by her 12 grandchildren, Ayak Ajak Aleng dips a gnarled hand into a bowl of grain and shrugs. It’s going to be another exercise in minuscule divisions.
“I have to divide this small amount between all of them,” she explains as the children gather around her, staring at the camera. “None of us are getting our salaries over here, we have no money and there is no way for us to get food."
The settlement of Wau Shilluk lies just a few kilometers upstream on the River Nile from Malakal, capital of South Sudan's Upper Nile state and the gateway to major oilfields.
Wau Shilluk used to have a well-stocked market, but right now, with the village trapped on the frontlines of a heavily contested fight, the place has been cut off and is running out of food.
War is once again ravaging South Sudan and the people are once again paying a heavy price. Only this time, the war is being waged between rival South Sudanese power camps split largely along ethnic lines, spinning off splinter forces loyal to local commanders – all of which is driving the conflict to more complex heights and the people to more hapless depths.
Ever since civil war broke out between forces loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and rebels allied with his former deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, more than 2 million people have been displaced, according to the UN.
With most of the displaced abandoning their lands and fighting making it difficult for aid agencies to reach certain areas, the humanitarian situation is grim.
The UN this week warned that both sides have carried out horrific crimes against children, including castration, rape and leaving children to bleed, according to UNICEF chief Anthony Lake.
"Survivors report that boys have been castrated and left to bleed to death... girls as young as eight have been gang raped and murdered," said Lake in a statement released earlier this week.
"Children have been tied together before their attackers slit their throats... others have been thrown into burning buildings."
Tens of thousands are believed to have been killed in the 18-month war, although there is no clear toll. At least 129 children were killed in May in the northern state of Unity, scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the civil war, UNICEF added.
Shilluk abandoned on western Nile bank
Malakal, a strategic city, has changed hands eight times since the conflict erupted in December 2013. The most recent clashes, however, broke out within South Sudan's army – the SPLA – between Dinka factions and Shilluk forces loyal to Major Gen. Johnson Olony, a recent defector from the South Sudanese army.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, a commander for forces loyal to Olony denied that his forces were loyal to former First Vice President Machar.
"The reason why we moved to the Western bank of the [Nile] river is because the governor's forces attacked us. We are still part of the SPLA," said Jacob Bol, a commander of Olony's forces.
According to Bol, the Shilluk people trapped on this side of the Nile are being neglected by the international community.
"These people urgently need help. We know that the country is in crisis, but it is especially bad here on the Western side of the Nile," said Bol.
UN slams Kiir for impeding peace mission
The increasing complexity of the conflict is an added challenge to peace negotiations that have produced agreements in paper in various African capitals, but have not delivered peace on the ground.
A UN peacekeeping mission comprised of around 12,000 troops and police in South Sudan is also imperiled, with the world body slamming President Kiir for hindering UN efforts to protect civilians.
UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous has accused Kiir of blocking requests for attack helicopters, unmanned surveillance drones, declaring UN staff persona non-grata and declaring UN personnel caught taking photographs “spies”.
The UN Security Council has long threatened to blacklist anyone undermining security or interfering with the peace process in South Sudan, but has not sanctioned anyone yet.
Meanwhile on the ground in Wau Shilluk, villagers are getting by on meager supplies of fish from the Nile as the vegetable stalls in the market run low on produce. Over 30,000 displaced people live in this settlement. There are few NGOs on the ground providing assistance, but it’s not enough since local NGO staff can only access the village on boats, crossing the frontline, which runs along the Nile.
The local primary school in the village was forced to close last month and the children here spend their time playing war games with toy soldiers and battle tanks made of mud. The people of South Sudan have known war for decades and it looks like their leaders are bequeathing a similar fate to the next generation.