Sleeping in a swamp: South Sudan civilians struggle to survive

BENTIU, South Sudan – Inside the barbed wire, knee-deep mud sucks at the legs of the nearly 50,000 South Sudanese who live in the cramped, fetid camp, protected by United Nations peacekeepers.

Outside, in the war-zone state of Unity, citizens say they are too fearful to venture, frightened of revenge attacks in a civil war that entered its 11th month Wednesday, October 15.

"We are so tired here," said Mary Nyagah Mon, a 43-year old mother of six, standing deep in the grey water that covers the camp here, just outside the town of Bentiu, one of the hardest fought over areas in the grinding war.

"We are all living in this water. Our children are suffering, they may die," she said.

Thousands of people have been killed and almost two million have fled fighting that broke out on December 15 between government troops, mutinous soldiers and ragtag militia forces divided along tribal lines.

Almost 100,000 people are sheltering in squalid UN peacekeeping bases fearing they will be killed if they leave.

For those outside the swamp camp, aid agencies warn of the risk of famine in coming months if fighting does not stop.

"Look at our children," Mon told Agence France-Presse, waving at the exhausted youngsters.

A sign, surrounded by a lake of water that is home to swarms of mosquitos, warns of the dangers of cholera.

"We are going to search for something to eat," she said. "There is no food."

People take it in turn to lie on raised dry patches. Children spend hours standing, because there is no place to sit.

UN peacekeepers opened their gates to the thousands who fled fighting that began in December for what they had assumed was a short-term measure. Now they are building more permanent camps, as well as trying to pump out the sludge.

"We are suffering a lot, here is too much rain. Many people are living in water," said James Both Rom, another resident of the camp, who said most of his family were sick.

"We want help because we are suffering a lot. We are calling on the government to help us, because we are here suffering from diseases. We have malaria, typhoid, pneumonia."

Widespread rape

Those who do go outside to shop or to collect firewood risk rape.

Zainab Bangura, the UN special envoy on sexual violence, told Agence France-Presse on a visit to the camps earlier this month that the levels of rape in the young nation were the worst she had ever seen.

"These are not conditions and circumstances under which women can live," she said, recounting testimonies from those attacked.

"I heard a story of a woman who had just given birth who had been raped, I heard a story of an old woman who was raped, children as young as 10 or 11 years who are being raped on daily basis," she said.

Peace talks are stalled, while political and military leaders have repeatedly broken promises made under intense international pressure, including visits by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"We are pleading to our president, because we are tired and we want peace," said Mon. "We are crying every day to the Lord God. We want peace, so that we go home."

The dry season is coming, later next month. While that might bring some relief to the fly-infested camp, many fear the dry season – when vehicles can once again move easily – will bring with it an upsurge in fighting again.

Earlier this month, a group of 19 major aid agencies warned that while massive food drops had helped avert famine for now, the threat remained, and the risk grew greater the longer the war continues and the weaker the people suffering become.

"The agencies fear that efforts this year to prevent the crisis from deteriorating will falter as rival sides are regrouping, ready to resume violence once the rainy seasons ends this month," the groups said, which include Oxfam, CARE and the International Rescue Committee.

"The expected upsurge in fighting once the rains have ended in October will tip many over the edge." –