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South Sudan's Refugees Have Seen Some Terrible Things

"One day my neighbours were behaving normally – the next they were like animals."

Nuer youths who made the dangerous journey from Juba to the border to get to the Kakuma refugee camp. Refugees who travelled the route reported that ethnic Nuers with traditional scarification on their faces are being executed by soldiers at government checkpoints.

Half a dozen teenage boys are sitting sprawled on mats in a UNHCR-branded hoop tent sweating in the afternoon heat. “South Sudan is dead,” says Jagei Peter, a 16-year-old former rebel fighter from Boaw village in Unity Estate. “It's over. The government is killing civilians. That's it.”


The tent we're sitting in is one of scores that have been put up to house new arrivals in the dusty “Reception Area” of Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp, a city of tens of thousands of refugees that lies 95 kilometres from South Sudan's border. The 35,000 South Sudanese that have arrived at the Kakuma camp since December are part of an exodus of over 293,000 people who have fled the vicious conflict sparked by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.

The fighting has been punctuated by regular mass killings of civilians by both sides – including an attack on the 17th of April when a UN base in Bor that was sheltering Nuer civilians was targeted by militants pretending to be peaceful protestors delivering a petition. 58 people were killed and 98 were wounded including two peacekeepers.

The entrance to Kakuma refugee camp.

Many of the young Nuers at the refugee camp were visiting relatives in Juba for the Christmas holidays when Kiir and Machar clashed. As fighting broke out in the streets they fled to the city's UN compound where they stayed until they found transport to the border.

“We had no idea there was any danger,” says Stephen Gatkuoth. He was staying with his older sister and her husband when Dinka soldiers started fanning out through Nuer areas of the city killing civilians on the 16th of December. They were preparing breakfast outside the house when they came under attack. “We didn't see them until my sister's husband was shot in the chest. My sister was next. As I turned and ran there were bullets all around me.”


Mary Ayor and a group of displaced Dinka children from Bor in Jongoli estate.

Jagei joined Machar's Nuer rebels with his father and brother on the 17th of December last year, the day after his mother was killed by Dinka soldiers in Juba. He was given a Kalashnikov and sent to fight in the forests near Bentiu. He says he was part of a force of 4,800 rebels and fought for 19 days before he quit and struck out for the border. “We hadn't eaten proper food for more than a week and the fighting was chaos. I lost contact with my father and my brother was shot dead while he fought next to me.”

Jagei and his friends say they pretend to be Dinkas to get through government checkpoints in the last leg of the journey towards the border. “I can speak some Dinka so I was ok,” says one teenager called Peter Nyuong. He caught a bus from the UN compound in Juba with 52 other Nuers but only 50 made it to the border. Two boys were pulled out at a government checkpoint and shot at the side of the street because they had traditional Nuer markings on their foreheads.

Chol Agwek

Next to Jagei's tent in a communal dining area with a corrugated iron roof a Dinka man is eating with his wife and young daughter. Chol Agwek says until just over a week ago he was a maize farmer living in a village in the disputed oil producing region of Abeyie next to the Sudanese border. His brother was visiting when the war came to his village. On the night of 22nd of April they were both woken up by gunfire at a nearby oil field. Later when the fighting came closer Chol's brother left the house to try and join his own family but was gunned down in the street.


Chol hid in the house with his wife and daughter until morning then they hitched a ride in a delivery truck to the south of the country. “My village is empty now but I think many people escaped,” he says.

Other Dinkas are less optimistic about the welfare of their neighbours who stayed behind. Mary Ayor was living in Bor, a town in Jongoli estate that lies 200 kilometres north of Juba. “Bor was a mixed town,” she says. “Dinka, Neur and Murle all lived there. That meant that whoever you were – when the violence came if you stayed you died.” After hearing rumours of a military operation in December Mary moved her children to her parent's village outside the city for safety, but during the attack rebel forces swept through the village. She says the rebels killed women and children then burned their bodies. “I saw a pregnant woman sliced wide open. Many of the rebels were just normal people from our community, people I knew and considered neighbours. One day they were behaving normally – then the next day they were behaving like animals.”

Mary managed to escape with six young children and two teenage girls from the village, but doesn't know what happened to her own family. Currently refugees are crossing South Sudan's Kenyan border at a rate of 150 per day, down from 300 per day in March as heavy rain in South Sudan makes many routes impassable. The UN says there are nearly a million displaced people still inside the country and those that have escaped also face potential crisis.


Officially Kakuma has a capacity of 150,000 but this number was exceeded in March. As of the 1st of May the camp is home to 165,800 refugees – including thousands who fled from Somalia, Congo and Rwanda over the last two decades. Overcrowding means there already isn't enough clean water to go round and a surge in border crossings is expected to put further pressure on the camp once the rains subside in South Sudan. Officials are also concerned that there will be outbreaks of malaria and cholera when the rains start in Kenya.

Some of South Sudan's other neighbours have been forced to absorb even more refugees. Aid agencies are scrambling to get a grip on an influx of nearly 100,000 South Sudanese in Ethiopia. 65,000 refugees have been taken in by Sudan and more than 80,000 are living in camps in Uganda.

Sitting under the corrugated iron roof of one of Kakuma's huts in the middle of the eight orphans she escaped with Mary Ayor is stoic about her country's situation. “We'll see what happens next,” she says. “The only thing we know now is that neither Riek Machar or Salva Kiir are fit to be leaders. We don't want them. Not the rebels and not the government.”


Previously from South Sudan:

Ambushed Four Times in South Sudan

Watch – Conflict in South Sudan – Dispatch 2

Watch – South Sudan Peace Talks Result in Show of Force