South Sudanese Look For Refuge From Fighting

For thousands of displaced South Sudanese caught in the crossfire of warring factions, the question of who rules their fledgling country is the least of their concerns. More immediately, they're looking for food, drinkable water and refuge from fighting that threatens to escalate into a civil war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

We have been following the harrowing news coming out of South Sudan in recent days.

MONTAGNE: It is the world's newest country and it came into being with high hopes after a two-decade-long civil war with Sudan. Now South Sudan has plunged into what's beginning to look its own civil war.

GREENE: That's right. What began as a political struggle has turned into a vicious cycle of tribal violence, violence that isn't letting up despite the efforts of U.N. forces and diplomats to bring peace. At least a thousand people have died and tens of thousands more are crowded into U.N. compounds for protection.

NPR's Gregory Warner traveled to one of those compounds in the northern town of Malakal, and found people hunkered down in fear of more attacks.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Brad and Kim Campbell, evangelical Christians from Omaha running an orphanage in South Sudan had planned to show a film for their neighbors on Christmas Eve. But no one showed up and then they heard gunfire and mortar explosions.

BRAD CAMPBELL: There were some that were very close. I could feel my clothes vibrating.

WARNER: On that night, the violence that began two weeks ago in the capital, Juba, with an alleged attempted coup had spread to Malakal, a usually placid city in the oil-rich Upper Nile. The Campbells and their two adult daughters spent that night trying to keep 10 orphans quiet. The next day, they set out on foot for the only known refuge - the compound used by U.N. peacekeepers from India and Nepal.

CAMPBELL: We had just arrived a few weeks ago from the U.S., so we still had our stash of snack foods. And so, we were literally feeding the kids not even a full handful. But just a small like a half dozen cashews and a few pieces of dried banana and that's lunch. I mean we were doing that to try to stretch this out. We didn't know how long we'd be here.

TOBY LANZER: I have to say I didn't think I was going to find as many people within this base as I have. And really the sanitation and the water is job one.

WARNER: Toby Lanzer is the humanitarian coordinator for the U.N. Mission in South Sudan. He flew in Saturday as soon as the airport was reopened, and what he discovered was not only the Campbells, but more than 10,000 people taking shelter inside the compound, sleeping in the shade of U.N. trucks or satellite dishes; having gone four day without food or clean water or latrines. By Sunday, Lanzer had organized water delivery and set up a rather clever clean-up program - paying residents to collect the human waste in bags.

LANZER: There will be sites outside the base where people will deliver a bag. The bag will be assessed and if the bag is assessed to be full enough, they will receive four South Sudan pounds - just under one U.S. dollar.

WARNER: He's also digging latrines to the dismay of some of the peacekeepers. They don't want to see their military base turned into a squatter's camp.

LANZER: We have to keep people safe. They are entitled to stay under our protection.

WARNER: How long that will be is the question. The U.N. is projecting its need through March. But this weekend, the gun battles had ceased in Malakal. Women in the camp felt safe enough to walk the mile and a half to the Nile River to collect water. On their way, they passed dead bodies in the streets and the smoke-filled stalls of the destroyed marketplace, looted banks and smashed cars.

But then having filled their jerrycans with water and collected sticks of firewood, they returned to the camp. Civilians from the Nuer tribe say they fear retaliatory ethnic attacks. Nuer is the tribe of Riek Machar, who the government accuses of leading the failed coup.

Human rights workers report not only stories of rapes and mass killings, but more baroque abuses, like being castrated and forced to drink blood. Gat Luak is an aid worker, also Nuer. He says these killings are the reason the fighting is spreading.

It's like a wildfire.

GAT LUAK: Exactly. What happened in Juba, if my brother or sister or wife has been killed based on her tribe or his tribe, means that me personally, I will do the revenge. That is why now we have fighting in every state and every country because of that.

WARNER: U.N. officials confirmed that immediately after the fighting in Juba there was a flurry of phone calls, and then fighting began in other states. As of yesterday, the cell phone service had been cut off to some places.

LUAK: If, if not stop it, sooner, later it will be too late. Because now those - their family has been killed. They are mobilizing now.

WARNER: He says diplomacy isn't enough unless the international community intervenes militarily, the cycle of violence will become the new normal in South Sudan.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba.

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