Fear pulses through crowded South Sudan refugee camp

JUBA, South Sudan — The women and girls leave the main United Nations refugee camp here during the day. The men do not. To exit is to risk death, they say.

Whether true or not, such claims show the level of fear that pulses through the main U.N. camp for internally displaced people here two weeks after violence broke out in the capital and a spiraling series of ethnically-based attacks coursed through the nation, killing at least 1,000 people.

Some 25,000 people live in two hastily arranged camps in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, and nearly 40,000 are in camps elsewhere in the country. The government says those in the camps — who are mostly from the Nuer tribe — can leave and will be perfectly safe. The men here do not believe it.

“It is very hard to go outside because there are people watching,” said Wuor Khor, a 29-year-old graduate of Juba University, who was selling bottles of water sitting in a bucket of ice on the camp’s ad hoc main thoroughfare. “They follow you wherever you are going and then they kill you.”

They, in this case, are members of the Dinka, the majority tribe from which President Salva Kiir hails. In this camp the Nuer, South Sudan’s second largest tribe, feel part of a targeted minority after former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, was accused of a coup attempt on Dec. 15 and fighting — often ethnically motivated — broke out.

“It has happened several times,” Khor continued. “You will not go beyond the gate. If you don’t speak Dinka language you will be killed.”

Although the violence here in Juba has largely quieted down, rebels control the oil city of Bentiu, and Bor remains under threat of attack from Nuer youth, though the government on Sunday said most of a column of 25,000 men marching on Bor have disbanded and returned home.

The Juba camp numbers swell at night, the facility’s leaders say. Women and children may go out during the day to buy food. They return when the sun sets.

The camp is a U.N. military and logistics hub where man of the Nuer in Juba rushed for safety. As the numbers rapidly swelled to the thousands it became a mess. Trash lay everywhere. Open defecation took place. Things have improved: Trash is now collected. Latrines have been dug, but not quite enough yet, said Liny Suharlim, an official with the French aid group ACTED, which is now running the camp.

Makeshift tents are constructed out of towels, sheets and sticks. Wet clothes are draped on barbed wire fence. People sitting in plastic chairs sell pastries, water and a charge for a mobile phone. Dishes are rinsed in tubs of mud-brown sludge. Camouflaged military planes land at the airport runway only a football field distance away.

The government has visited here but the minister of information, Michael Makuei Lueth, holds some disdain for at least some inside the U.N. fence. “Those in the camps are actually those who decided to rebel here,” he said. He blamed false rumors for spreading fear here.

It is clear that some here are traumatized. A man named John sat and stared into the distance, a blank expression on his face. Stephen Nyak, a fellow Nuer who was seeking help for the man, approached an Associated Press journalist in hopes of getting assistance.

Nyak, relaying John’s story, said the man was caught in a group of Nuer early in the morning of Dec. 16, hours after the violence first erupted. Nearly all of the men in the group — said to number close to 300 — were shot and killed, though John survived. John says he survived the fusillade of bullets but was forced to drink the blood from a dead body near him, before the gunmen let him free, Nyak said. Whether the story was true, it was clear John was not well. Suharlim called for assistance from an aid worker from Nonviolent Peaceforce, a group working in the camp, who took John to somewhere private to talk.

Nyak said the men in the camp fear for their lives.

“They are still killing people on the street. Even the day before three people were killed,” said Nyak, a former worker with a state government in Unity state. “I will stay here until the U.N. finds a way to get me to my state.”

Another man approaches and tells of how he can no longer reach his friend, who left Juba by road but no longer answers his phone. He fears the worst.

At the medical aid tent run by Doctors Without Borders, medics treat diarrhea and severe dehydration. It’s a sign people don’t have access to safe water. The camp’s population density is much too high, says a doctor here, Christine Bimansha. The aid group is not providing psychological service but the camp needs them, she said.

“I think they all need some mental support. Almost all have lost someone somewhere,” said Bimansha, who said the U.N. death toll estimate of 1,000-plus appears to be on the low side.

Alongside the refugees are the U.N. military. White tanks manned by blue-helmeted Japanese drive through the camp’s main thoroughfare. Rwandan, Indian and Bangladeshi troops are also here. Outside the wire, a military term for the fence line, Bith Kondok, a 46-year-old Dinka, was walking the streets of Juba on Friday. He said he had just been drinking tea with Nuer friends.

“Nobody can kill them,” he said of those seeking safe haven inside the camp. “This is not a tribal thing. It’s political.”

Just down the road from the camp is the office for Dar Petroleum, one of the companies pumping oil out of the ground near the South Sudan-Sudan border. John Jock Dual, 32, said he works for Dar, which has evacuated its Chinese, Indian and Malyasian technical staff from the country. But Dual, an ethnic Nuer, said he dares not walk down to his company’s headquarters. “I can’t go outside,” he said. “I could be killed.”

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