Fighting In South Sudan Eases As U.N. Finds Mass Graves

The South Sudanese government says its army has retaken the city of Bor, which has been in rebel hands for more than a week. Juba the capital is quiet. But even as the military stage of the conflict seems to be slowly drawing to a close, the United Nations reports finding mass graves around the country. And 45,000 South Sudanese have taken shelter in makeshift camps inside U.N. compounds for protection.

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The military conflict in South Sudan in Africa appears to be easing. The government says its army has retaken the city of Bor, which had been in rebel hands for more than a week. And a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the capital Juba has been lifted, allowing people to attend Christmas Eve services. But there is also more grim news to report.

The United Nations says it has found mass graves. The Security Council has voted to nearly double the number of peacekeepers in the region, and thousands of people have taken shelter in a U.N. compound in Juba. That's where NPR's Gregory Warner filed this report.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Women's laundry now hangs off the barbed wire circling the U.N. compound in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. I drive into the compound with Forbes Sharp. He's the country coordinator for Doctors Without Borders.

FORBES SHARP: We're just coming up now to our clinic. You can see some tents over there. They were erected very quickly.

WARNER: People flooded this compound after the fighting erupted in Juba on December 15th. And when Doctors Without Borders set up here on Sunday, they found more than 10,000 people who had been here a week without fresh water or basic sanitation.

SHARP: Like, diarrhea is such a big issue because in these conditions, looking out the window here, people literally living next to each other. And the rest of the camp is similar conditions, you can see just above, beyond this hedge.

WARNER: The desperate mood in this camp is in stark contrast to that outside the barbed wire. There in the capital, the stores are back open. There are Christmas decorations. People are doing last-minute shopping. And there's little sign of the massive gun battles of last week, except for the bullet holes. Christine Bimansha is one of the doctors with the Doctors Without Borders team. She says the people here are too scared to step outside.

CHRISTINE BIMANSHA: Everyone here has trauma. They are all scared. They almost all lost someone somewhere.

WARNER: The fighting broke out after an alleged attempted coup pitted the nation's two largest tribes against each other, the president's tribe of Dinka versus his former deputy's tribe of Nuer. Several men in this camp tell a single consistent story. On the day of the attacks, they were rounded up with other Nuer and arrested from their homes by Dinka soldiers. Deng Weng(ph) says that when soldiers knocked on his door, they greeted him in the Dinka language. It was a test.

DENG WENG: The problem is greeting. So they first greet you. If you don't know how to answer that in the way they want, it is very difficult for you.

WARNER: About 200 men were arrested with him. Each day, their numbers dwindled. Men were taken outside and shot. Six days later, only Deng and seven others were left. He thinks he was spared because he speaks a bit of Dinka language and because he doesn't have the Nuer tribal scars, long furrows across the forehead. His captors were never quite sure of his ethnicity. But when he was released, he saw the bodies of the other men dumped in shallow graves.

The United Nations confirmed today that it found a mass grave in that place, called Newsite, as well as one other in Juba and one in the north of the country, where the situation was reversed: a mass grave of Dinka men killed by Nuer troops. The head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, insists this is still not ethnic conflict.

HILDE JOHNSON: This is fundamentally a power struggle. It is very critical that we don't portray it as anything else.

WARNER: Even though this power struggle has played out along ethnic lines, the premise of the U.S. and international diplomacy over the past few days in South Sudan has been that there is a political solution to this crisis and that the 45,000 civilians currently hiding in U.N. compounds can learn again to trust the government with their security.

Under strong pressure from the United States, both President Salva Kiir and his ousted deputy, Riek Mashar, have made overtures toward dialogue with each other. President Kiir vowed today to hold all soldiers guilty of atrocities accountable. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba.

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