SIMONA FOLTYN: In Juba, the Capital of South Sudan, this United Nations camp was supposed to be temporary. But after more than three years of a brutal civil war, people continue to flock here for safety. Today, more than three million people, almost a-third of South Sudan’s population, have been forced from their homes. Half of them have have fled to neighboring countries, like Uganda.
The rest are internally displaced, like John Janoub. He arrived here with his wife and daughter last year, when fighting spread to their hometown called Yei, in the southern part of the country in a region called Equatoria.
JOHN JANOUB: When we heard the gunshots, people started running, people are running anyhow. So me, I escaped, I went to the riverside. We were very many in the river. Then, the bullet is passing from up. Even some of the bullets were falling near us.
SIMONA FOLTYN: The civil war originated in a power struggle over the country’s top post between South Sudan’s first president, Salva Kiir, and his former first vice president Riek Machar. As both men mobilized support along ethnic lines, the conflict pitted Kiir’s tribe, the Dinka, against, Machar’s, the Nuer, turning it into a broader struggle over land and resources, including oil.
The two leaders signed a peace deal in 2015, but it collapsed nine months ago when fighting resumed in Juba. Machar fled and is now living in exile in South Africa. When President Kiir’s government troops reached Yei, Janoub thought his family would be spared. Like most of his tribe they had remained neutral. But to his horror, Janoub saw government troops set fire to his home.
JOHN JANOUB: All my family were taken inside, they are seven people in the family, my mother, the father, the sister, and my brothers, and the wife of my brother was there. They close the door, then they started putting the fire. They started burning the house. Then the soldiers, some of them they were deployed at door, in case people inside someone will break the door will come out, they will shoot.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Janoub says seven members of his family and several neighbors died in the fire, and then the soldiers went after him.
JOHN JANOUB: When I started running, then he was following me, then they started shooting me – pah pah pah. This is the place where I was shot. The bullet came from here, they shoot me from here, then the bullet came out from here.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Janoub managed to escape with the help of friends. For three weeks, they walked through the wilderness until they reached this camp.
And the people who killed your family — were they soldiers?
JOHN JANOUB: They were soldiers.
SIMONA FOLTYN: They were wearing uniforms?
JOHN JANOUB: They were wearing the uniform, the government uniform.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Why would they do that?
JOHN JANOUB: They said that all people in Yei, these are the people who are supporters of Riek Machar — so all of them need to be killed. These Equatorial people.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Most of the government soldiers are Dinka, which has fueled perceptions of ethnic cleansing.
JOHN JANOUB: The government of Kiir is targeting all the communities who are non-Dinkas.
They are grabbing people’s land, when you talk, they will kill you, they will destroy your home, the whole family. This is what they are doing in the country. When I caught up with a spokesman for the government troops, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, he denied that abuses are happening in a systematic way.
Santo Dominic: Well, there have been a lot of allegations that the SPLA is attacking civilians, and that is ridiculous, in a sense, that how come that a national army like the SPLA attacks civilians who have no arms, who have nothing to do with rebellion. We are not angels. Within us there are some, you know criminals, but these criminals don’t represent our image as the SPLA, but there are very few elements that might have committed some crimes.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Despite the recent surge in violence, the government says that it’s committed to the peace deal, and it has been urging people to leave this camp. But attacks on civilians have been a hallmark of this conflict, and with ethnic strife on the rise, there’s simply no confidence that it’s safe to go outside.
The United Nations is warning the surge in violence and ethnic targeting of civilians could spiral into a genocide. David Shearer leads the UN peacekeeping mission here.
DAVID SHEARER: We certainly have seen communities that have had to either flee from where they are living, houses burned, women raped, people killed in large numbers.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Earlier this month, the UN Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan found most of the atrocities have been committed by government soldiers against civilians thought to be supporting rebel forces.
“Individuals have been targeted for killing, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, sexual slavery, and forced marriage.”
“Interviewees described seeing corpses with their hands tied behind their backs and their mouths taped closed.”
“The vast majority” of mass rapes “were committed by police or soldiers” and “a staggering” number of women “had been forced to watch someone else being sexually violated.”
The UN’s 12,000 peacekeepers are supposed to prevent such atrocities. But most of them protect the UN camps. And Shearer says government troops often block access elsewhere.
DAVID SHEARER: The government doesn’t want us to go into particular areas because there are military operations going on and they believe we will get in the way of their military objectives. It’s not a systematic denial of us going to opposition areas, it’s more of us getting in the way and seeing what’s happening on the ground with regard to military operations that are ongoing.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Flying two hours north of Juba to rebel-held areas, I passed over the town of Wau Shilluk, which government forces attacked in February. It looks like parts of the town were burned to the ground. I landed in the nearby town of Kodok on the West bank of the Nile River. As the cultural and political capital of the Shilluk tribe, this used to be a vibrant town. But much of the population has fled.
Government forces are stationed just on the other side of the river Nile, which is effectively the front line. Over the past weeks, there has been intense fighting just an hour south of here, and many fear that the town of Kodok could be hit next. The South Sudanese government blames the rebels for provoking the fighting in this region. Rebel commander Major General Peter Otar Laa sees the situation differently.
MAJOR GENERAL PETER OTAR LAA: It was the government army that came and attacked our positions as well as the civilians at Wau Shilluk.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Otar Laa says rebel forces will continue fighting until opposition leader Riek Machar is allowed back into the country.
MAJOR GENERAL PETER OTAR LAA: The international community has the ability to make peace either by force, through negotiations or any other means. But if they just sit back like in July when Riek Machar was pushed out, then we don’t expect peace to come.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Tens of thousands of people fled the most recent fighting in Wau Shilluk by walking for days to escape the front lines. They carried whatever they could grab when their villages came under attack. Most have taken refuge in this forest. This woman collapsed. Her mother said she hadn’t eaten for three days.
Everyone here is visibly exhausted, having slept for weeks out in the open. Alisa Padaw is also coping with the loss of her youngest son, killed when the government shelled Wau Shilluk last month. He was only 12-years-old. She also has two teenage sons who are missing.
ALISA PADAW: When the shelling hit, the hot soil fell on me and burned me here on my chest. Then immediately our house started burning.
SIMONA FOLTYN: Since leaving Wau Shilluk, Padaw and her family have survived mostly by eating leaves. They left all their harvest behind when they fled for their lives.
ALISA PADAW: We came with empty hands, we left all our things there. When we go to sleep, we just pray to God that he will assist. When the day comes, we look for the leaves and the fruits from the trees.
SIMONA FOLTYN: The UN says a-hundred-thousand people are at immediate risk of starving to death due to a man-made famine…the civil war having prevented farmers from planting and harvesting for three years. Aid from the UN’s World Food Program has started trickling in. But the UN says the government has prevented its delivery to civilians in rebel-controlled areas.
While they wait for aid, Padaw and her fellow villagers find ways to keep going. During the attack, her neighbor, Youssuf, ran and grabbed one thing he thought necessary to survive.
YOUSSUF JOHN: I’m making this fishing net, so when the rainy seasons comes, I can fish here. That way I can get something to eat for myself and even these children here.
SIMONA FOLTYN: But it will be weeks until the rains come. In an attempt to feed themselves, the displaced try to sell their other belongings. Even that would earn them enough to buy only a few days worth of food. The UN is now warning that five-and-half million people — half the population of South Sudan — are at risk of severe food insecurity this year.