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In South Sudan, dreams of freedom end in rape and murder

JUBA: A group of children at the UN protection of Civilians site in Juba, South Sudan, play with a makeshift gun. —AP
JUBA: A group of children at the UN protection of Civilians site in Juba, South Sudan, play with a makeshift gun. —AP

WAU: “We women, we dare not go out at night because we risk being raped by soldiers,” says Catherine Atanasyo. “For men, it’s no better: death awaits them.” Like 25,000 other South Sudanese people in and around the northwestern town of Wau, Atanasyo took refuge in a UN camp two months ago when violence tore through this part of the country, in yet another spasm of tribal violence driven by the desire for power and property. “My house is close by, but it’s safer here because of the UN soldiers,” she says. Around her are countless makeshift shelters made from bamboo canes and dust-reddened white tarpaulins. “You can go out in the day, it’s possible-that’s how I know my house was looted-but the night is out of the question, there is too much danger.”

Among the alleys of this squalid camp stories like Atanasyo’s are everywhere. There is the 13-year-old girl raped on her way to school, the brothers killed in the fighting, the child born without a father. South Sudan won its independence in 2011 after decades of war with Sudan, to the north. But two years later a new war started, pitting the president, who is from the Dinka ethnic group, against his former deputy, who is from the rival Nuer, and splitting the new nation along roughly tribal lines in a conflict characterized by massacres, rape, attacks on civilians and the use of child soldiers. Tens of thousands have been killed since December 2013 and 2.5 million have fled their homes. Twice that number rely on food handouts to survive, with the UN calling the levels of food insecurity “unprecedented”.

Toxic tribal politics
“Independence was a bad idea,” says Atanasyo, who blames South Sudan’s toxic tribal politics for the mess her country is in. “Only one tribe benefited, the Dinka.” The core conflict is between President Salva Kiir’s largely Dinka soldiers and Riek Machar’s mostly Nuer rebels, but the fight has stoked other ethnic tensions across the country. Around Wau, people from the Fertit tribe accuse the Dinka of marginalizing them. Tensions began in 2012, skirmishes followed last year then the town exploded into violence in late June.

As so often in South Sudan’s battles, no one knows the number killed, but at the UN camp, there are many who say they lost people close to them. “The soldiers came on June 24. They killed my brother who was a police officer and looted everything, my motorbike, our cooking pots, our beds,” says 32-year-old Adam Umong. He lives with his remaining brother, George, who was shot in the leg during the attack. He has not spoken since “because of the shock,” Umong says.

‘I want to kill them’
“This is not the independence we dreamt of,” he said. “The current leaders must go: they led the country to ruin. Salva Kiir is not our president and Machar is no better.” Some hope the proposed deployment of 4,000 additional UN peacekeepers might improve security for civilians, allowing them to return to their homes. “We do not choose to live here,” says another camp resident, 27-year-old Christine Elia. Sickly-looking dogs wander between the nearby tents, while clothes dry on the camp’s barbed wire fence. Barefoot children play in the dirt, shooting each other with homemade toy rifles fashioned from folded grass and rubber strips. “It is the Dinka have done this to us, who forced us to leave our homes,” says a soft-spoken 10-year-old called Martin, who fiddles with his faded and torn t-shirt. “I want to kill them.” – AFP

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