hrusting a hand to his brow in an impromptu military salute, 10-year-old Timon Kamis stands to attention at his family’s tent inside one of the sprawling camps where tens of thousands of South Sudanese have sought sanctuary from the three years of bloodletting that have poisoned the world’s youngest country.
It is just after 7am on the UN protection of civilians (PoC) site at Malakal, in the country’s north, and nearby Timon’s mother, Anya, is packing up. In a few hours the mother of seven will set off with him and some of her younger children to trek across the border into Sudan, from which South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, after Africa’s longest-running civil war.
“People still talk of peace but we just don’t think that it will come soon, and after three years of waiting here we have to leave,” says Anya, 35. She talks despairingly of life in the camp, where families survive on meagre rations and rates of mental illness – and even suicide among children – are rising.
Vicious fighting between different ethnic groups erupted in the camp last year. It was not the first time they had seen violence. Timon remembers vividly the killing that took place around them as they abandoned the family’s 10 prized cows and escaped the fierce conflict around Malakal, the capital of oil-producing Upper Nile region.
Inside the camp, however, violence erupted again. Timon told how the family huddled together as opposing ethnic groups fought in the narrow lanes using knives, guns and grenades. Among his mother’s worries is that he could be at risk of joining the estimated 16,000 children recruited by armed forces and militiassince the conflict began in 2013.
The family’s latest flight comes as even darker storm clouds gather. The UN Commission on Human Rights has warned that ethnic cleansing involving massacres, starvation and gang rape is taking place, threatening a repeat of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. On Wednesday, an emergency session of the UN human rights council was told swift action was needed to avert disaster.
“South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilise the entire region,” said the commission’s chair, Yasmin Sooka, who called for the immediate deployment of a planned 4,000-strong protection force as well as a new court to prosecute those behind the atrocities.
Diplomats on the ground in the capital, Juba, refrain from using the term genocide. But they point to a number of factors that have heightened alarm, not least signs of a mass build-up of regular troops and militias loyal to the president, Salva Kiir. Since December 2013, the former independence fighter has been at odds with his former vice-president, Riek Machar. Kiir, a Dinka, accused Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup, quickly dividing the country along sectarian lines.
The build-up has taken place in the southern states of Equatoria, according to the US, which also says that it has “credible information” that South Sudan’s government is targeting civilians and preparing for imminent “large-scale” attacks against the backdrop of the dry season.
“Given the way that warfare is conducted here and the way in which civilians are considered legitimate targets, we are concerned that the potential for mass atrocities if they resume offensives is very high,” said US ambassador Mary Catherine Phee.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, has also voiced concern. Calling on the UN security council to take punitive action, he said on Friday: “The country’s leaders have betrayed their people’s trust, and squandered a peace agreement. Tens of thousands lie dead.”
Machar’s forces and a fractured list of other armed groups also stand accused of rights abuses, but it is the government’s overwhelming military might that most concerns external observers, in particular its fleet of helicopter gunships. A US bid to implement an arms embargo and targeted sanctions has been opposed by the UN security council, but remains an option.
Ensconced in the presidential palace, which still bears deep bulletholes on its perimeter walls from July’s intensive fighting, Kiir has strongly denied allegations of ethnic cleansing. Government representatives have accused diplomats of making“baseless” claims of a military build-up.
“South Sudan as a sovereign nation has the right and the capacity to protect its citizens and in doing so it must deal with both internal and external aggressors in order to maintain law and order in the country,” the chief of staff of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), Gen Paul Malong Awan, said last week.
Aid and humanitarian organisations are sounding alarm bells over the mounting human cost of the crisis, which has led to more than 1 million of South Sudan’s estimated population of 12 million fleeing to neighbouring countries. Uganda alone is now host to more than 450,000 South Sudanese.
Mahimbo Mdoe, Unicef’s representative in South Sudan, believes the combination of conflict, rising levels of malnutrition and economic crisis –inflation is at 830% – has created a “perfect storm” for further deterioration.
“We’re concerned about huge levels of malnutrition, the protection of children and gender-based violence, but my particular priority is the northern region of Bahr el Ghazal, where the malnutrition levels are through the roof,” he said, adding that Unicef’s annual target for children across the country to be treated for severe malnutrition has increased this year from 166,222 to 360,000 of those aged under five.
While Bahr el Ghazal was largely untouched by the recent fighting, Mdoe said the food crisis there had deteriorated to the extent that refugees were now making their way to Darfur, itself the scene of warnings of famine in 2004. “At the moment, malnutrition is at catastrophic levels and if there is no intervention then the region will slip into a famine.”
Back in a sector of the Malakal camp populated by members of the Shilluk ethnic group, 45-year-old Dagaban is sweeping the dirt floor of her shack as her neighbour Anya and her family prepare to leave.
“Only God knows how this situation will change,” she says. Her six-year-old grandson, Kamis, watches her from the edge of his bed through bloodshot eyes. His father was killed in fighting between government and opposition forces in 2014, and his mother left her three children behind, remaining with troops as a cook.
“We are stuck here. Otherwise we would have gone to another camp in a neighbouring country,” his grandmother continues. Sometimes, she and other women risk their security outside of the camp to collect firewood, or venture into the market a few kilometres away in the town of Malakal, the scene of continued fighting but held for now by government forces.
Asked how the conflict compared to the more than two decades of fighting that preceded South Sudan’s independence, she pauses and shakes her head: “This war has gone beyond any expectation. When we were fighting with the Arabs they would spare women and children, but now everyone is killed, even blind people and those who are mad. They kill everyone. It’s worse than before.”