Oil-rich state capital Bentiu is left a ghost town as soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir try to recaptue it from forces loyar to the former Vice President, Dr. Riek Machar.
January 9, 2014[Juba] — Thousands of people fled from a city in South Sudan on Thursday as government forces launched an offensive against rebels, wreaking fresh havoc in the world’s newest country.
Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity state, was said to be a ghost town as soldiers loyal to the president, Salva Kiir, tried to recapture it from his rival, Riek Machar. Even the hospital was reportedly deserted.
The UN said clashes and continuing mobilisation were reported in several locations in Bentiu, where there were reports of looting and shops being destroyed. Eight thousand citizens fled to impromptu UN camps, while others were hiding in remote areas and swamps.
Bootjack Ke Dhuor, an oil field safety officer, said: “There are a lot of mosquitoes, the water is dirty, and there’s no assistance. But it’s better than the bullets that can come and kill people.”
Dhuor, a 32-year-old father of four, was desperately trying to contact relatives in Bentiu. He said the population was mostly Nuer – Machar’s ethnic group – and he feared they would be accused of colluding with the rebels. Kiir comes from South Sudan’s biggest ethnic group, the Dinka.
Although both leaders have significant support in the other’s community, the conflict is seen by many as having an ethnic dimension. “This all happened because of a political struggle in the ruling party,” Dhuor added. “The Dinka leadership doesn’t want to share power because they’re not interested in the interests of the people.”
As residents fled from the fighting there were reports of widespread looting in Bentiu’s city centre. Toby Lanzer, the UN assistant secretary general, tweeted on Wednesday night: “Moving around #Bentiu we came across armed men in uniform stealing a car from an international #NGO. Our efforts to stop it did not succeed.”
On Thursday he added: “In #Bentiu more looting of aid agency cars etc. by heavily armed (and increasingly unruly) men who told us they are part of the opposition … A main part of the heart of #Bentiu, ie its market, is no longer. The shops have been looted & largely destroyed.”
The hospital in Bentiu was standing empty, according to a doctor who worked there. “Even the wounded patients ran away,” Dr Hassan Mugne said on Twitter.
As peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia continue to falter, at least 201,000 people are now displaced across the country, 60,000 of whom are receiving UN support. An estimated 32,000 have fled to neighbouring Uganda, which has called for financial support.
There are 17,000 people at a UN base in the capital, Juba. Stalls selling iced drinks, traditionally brewed coffee, cigarettes and soap have sprung up along the camp’s thoroughfare. But sanitation is a major issue, according to Malek Nyuak Ruk, a computer engineer. He said the facilities were inadequate and diarrhoea, malaria, bad water and insufficient shelter were all present at the camp. The threat of cholera is said to be increasing.
Civilians have borne the brunt of this conflict with both sides accused of killing non-combatants. Gatcheck Lat Tol, 34, whose chest and left arm were bandaged after gunshot wounds, said he hid beneath corpses to survive a massacre.
Juba, where the violence started in mid-December, has been largely calm since the early clashes but large areas of the capital are still deserted and empty houses have been looted.
Gunfire has been heard in recent nights and a curfew is in place from 6pm to 6am. “It’s too early for them to go back,” said a UN policeman from Zimbabwe guarding the UN base.
Bentiu is one of two state capitals where the government is battling to regain control. The other, Bor in Jonglei state, has also seen heavy fighting in recent days.
At least 1,000 people have been killed in South Sudan since 15 December following the eruption of the power struggle between Kiir and Machar, who was sacked as vice-president in July last year. The negotiations in Ethiopia are deadlocked over a rebel demand to release 11 detainees who were arrested last year over an alleged coup plot.
Edmund Yakani, director of South Sudan’s Community Empowerment Progress Organisation, outlined three priorities for an end to the conflict: resolving the dispute over the detainees because currently “there is no compromise on both sides”; pressuring both sides to accept a ceasefire and end hostilities; and a shakeup of the ruling party because “their leadership needs to be held accountable”. Yakani called for the international community to take a strong stand.
Alier Jok, who manages an investment company, called for a wide-ranging national process. “We need compromise. Try to understand what went wrong. It cannot be done by politicians alone because they serve their own interests.”
The impasse has frustrated global powers including China, the biggest investor in South Sudan’s oil industry, and America, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the country after guiding it to independence from Sudan amid great fanfare in July 2011.
On Thursday the top US diplomat for Africa warned that the risk of an all-out civil war was growing with each additional day of violence. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said ethnic atrocities were being committed on both sides and called on the government and rebel leaders to solve their disputes through dialogue, not fighting.
John Prendergast, co-founder of the anti-genocide campaign the Enough Project, told a US Senate foreign relations committee hearing: “A quick and dirty power-sharing deal is not the answer to South Sudan’s problems. Simply redistributing power to combatant factions on the basis of the territory under their control would be a huge error.
“A cessation of hostilities is a first-order priority, but what follows must be much more inclusive, transparent, and multi-layered than any of the processes that have come before if sustainable peace is to have a chance in South Sudan.”
Meanwhile Sudan has distanced itself from reports that it would form a joint force to help South Sudan protect its oil-producing regions and restore output. The army spokesman Colonel Khaled Sawarmi, citing past failure to improve military co-operation with South Sudan, told Reuters: “There is no common ground between the two armies.”