BUREBIEY — Six months ago, the brown water of the Baro River was flowing peacefully between South Sudan and Ethiopia, and the town of Burebiey was just another dot on the map in western Ethiopia.
But now, we are standing at a key crossing point for refugees of a spreading civil war. Throughout the day, boats move back and forth between the two sides of the river. On one side are South Sudan and its civil war. On the other side Ethiopia and the promise of peace, food and shelter.
“I brought my wife and my two kids here,” says Chuol, a big man with a hat. “As soon as they are admitted into a refugee camp, I will come back home and fight.”
A couple of hours away by foot, on the other side of the river, Chuol's South Sudanese hometown and rebel stronghold Nasir was recently taken by government forces. Since then, like many other young men, he has been waiting idly by the Baro River, dreaming of revenge and retaliation.
Chuol belongs to the Nuer tribe, and his enemies are the Dinka people — two ethnic groups in a country whose independence is less than three years old.
On Dec. 15, the smoldering feud between South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardi and his former Vice President Riek Machar deteriorated into open clashes in the capital, Juba. The prospect of presidential elections, scheduled for 2015, was the main reason behind the conflict. Very quickly, the front line was drawn along ethnic lines: President Kiir's Dinkas versus Machar's Nuers. Both sides have been responsible for countless atrocities, including the killings of civilians, rapes and pillaging.
Today, the UN warns of famine, as the war prevents the country's farmers from sowing. A cholera epidemic has even broken out in the capital. The international community — and the U.S. in particular — is at loss about what to do. In July 2011, South Sudan's independence was celebrated with great pomp, finally putting an end to two decades of war. And now, it looks like the country's back to square one.
No desire for peace
Malow, a 19-year-old former student turned soldier, is filled with rage. “Dinka people killed my brother,” he says, his eyes widening with anger. He has been living in the Kule 2 refugee camp for a week now, some 250 kilometers inside Ethiopia. His parents managed to pull him out of the fighting and brought him to the camp and its white UNHCR tents. In the middle of a damp forest, Malow bides his time and talks about going back to the front. “I’ve left my gun there. They killed my brother,” he keeps saying. “If our leaders tell us to stop, I will. But I don’t give a damn if I die.”
And sadly, death may be in store as both sides show no signs of wanting to make peace. A couple of days ago, IGAD — an Ethiopian-led regional organization that is striving to become a diplomatic heavyweight in the Somali Peninsula — called for Kiir and Machar to end the fighting and form a “transitional government of national unity” within 60 days, as the two men agreed by signed statement May 9. But the sounds of weapons firing still resonate all around.
“From what the rebels and Kiir himself said, they were forced to sign,” says James Copnall, former BBC correspondent in Sudan and author of a book on the separation of the two countries. “There was no real agreement or consensus, just considerable international pressure. On both sides, there is no willingness to work for peace. Signatures on a piece of paper don’t mean anything.”
The UN estimates that thousands of people have died, and that more than a million have been displaced. There are some 367,00 refugees in Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, mostly women. “When you look at the demographics in the refugee camps, the absence of young men and boys is striking,” notes Peter Salama, a UNICEF representative in Ethiopia. With the rainy season, relocating refugees becomes a nightmare — especially as the United Nations struggles to raise the $2 billion necessary for the operation.
Worse still, says Salama, “In South Sudan and across the border in refugee camps, children will be the first to succumb to the combined risk of malnutrition and infectious diseases such as measles, cholera and malaria. And the children there have also been deliberately targeted by armed forces of both sides, subjected to atrocious forms of violence, and recruited in the armed forces.”
In the refugee camp Kule 1, a blanket of clouds weighs heavily on everything. Nyakwon, her feet in the mud, is carrying her twins in her arms. On her shack made of branches and plastic sheets, the 25-year-old woman opens up a little. It took her five days, she says, pregnant as she was and walking with her two eldest children, to reach the Ethiopian border. She has been living here in the camp since early April, together with 51,500 other Nuer people. Her husband remained in the country to fight.
“All men are at war,” she says. “I'll stay here until there is peace. Anyway, back there, there is nothing left to eat.”