JUBA: – They came only for a night: thousands fleeing gunshots in the darkness for the safety of UN peacekeeping bases in South Sudan’s capital Juba.
In the following days, gunfire and explosions continued to shake the city, as troops loyal to President Salva Kiir fought with those allied to his ousted deputy, Riek Machar, and terrified residents cowered where they could find shelter.
One year later and with civil war still raging, some 100,000 civilians remain trapped inside the UN camps ringed with barbed wire, surviving off food aid handouts in miserable conditions, but still too terrified to venture out for fear of being killed.
“How can we go out when there is no peace?” asked Veronica Henry, a woman in her fifties living in a crowded UN-guarded camp in Juba, where thousands live crammed into streets of makeshift plastic tents.
Many are gloomy about the prospects of the violence ending any time soon. South Sudan is locked into conflict, with the bloodshed in Juba having set off a cycle of retaliatory killings across swathes of the country.
“We’ve been one year here, but we are alive,” said Thong Gai, sitting outside his plastic tent home under the blazing hot sun in the UN camp in Juba.
Half the country’s 12 million people need aid, the UN says, including nearly two million people who fled their homes from the fighting.
“It is tough living here but there is nothing we can do, nothing to do,” said Gai, who entered the camp as fighting broke out on December 15 last year. “We just have to be patient, and we shall have peace one day.”
– ‘Battle against famine’ –
Amid the continued threat of international sanctions, warring forces have signed repeated ceasefire deals, but all collapsed within days.
“I am begging the international community, please, you have to pressure the government and the opposition,” Henry said.
Her optimism at South Sudan’s independence in 2011 — after people voted overwhelmingly to split from north Sudan following decades of war — has long faded.
“We have struggled for so long in this country,” she said grimly.
Aid workers describe a desperate situation, with Oxfam country chief Zlatko Gegic warning that millions are going “hungry in a man-made disaster”.
International threats have had little impact in forcing rival leaders to strike a lasting deal, even as the humanitarian crisis remains dire.
Even if top leaders can agree on terms for peace, their forces have now fractured into over two dozen different armed groups, analysts say.
Hugely expensive UN food aid air lifts have staved off famine for now but the threat remains, said Toby Lanzer, the UN aid chief in South Sudan.
“We will be in a battle against time and a battle against famine once again in early 2015,” Lanzer said. “The situation remains grave today. It could very well get much, much worse.”
– ‘Fear makes me stay’ –
Thousands were killed in the first weeks alone, before fighting spread to other towns and regions across the poverty-stricken young country.
The International Crisis Group estimates that at least 50,000 people have been killed, while some diplomats suggest it could even be double that figure.
Kan Gueh Kan, 28, fled to the camp the day after fighting broke out, after his two uncles were hacked to death and shot in front of him.
“I ran for my life,” said Kan, married with a child. “Now fear makes me stay here. I will only go out when peace comes.”
At least in the capital and outside the UN camps, the scars of war can be hard to see. The roads are crowded with trucks and motorbikes, the markets busy.
But houses belonging to former top leaders — now with the rebel forces — remain empty, guarded by a handful of soldiers, their gates unrepaired from the fighting a year ago.
In Juba’s Mia Saba district, site of some of the worst killings, the bodies left rotting in the streets last year have long gone.
But many of the ransacked houses remain empty, their former residents now living in UN camps — or among the thousands who were killed in just the first few days of fighting.
Few are optimistic for peace soon.
“We have to fear for the worst,” said Skye Wheeler from Human Rights Watch. “We have to fear that we will continue to see a really dangerous and really frightening rift between the two largest ethnic groups.”